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It was already late on Nov. 9 when Eric Coomer, then the director of product technique and safety for Dominion Voting Systems, left his short-term workplace on Daley Plaza in Chicago and headed again to the lodge the place he’d been staying for the last few weeks. Both the plaza and the lodge had the eerie post-apocalyptic really feel of city life throughout the pandemic, compounding the sense of disorientation and apprehension he felt as he made his manner as much as his room.
Earlier that night, a colleague despatched him a hyperlink to a video of Coomer talking at a convention with a menacing remark beneath it. “Hi Eric! We know what you did,” the commenter wrote. That hyperlink finally led Coomer to a second video, which he watched in his lodge room. What he noticed, he rapidly realized, was one thing that was more likely to wreck his life, harm his employer and probably erode belief in the electoral course of.
Over the previous decade, Coomer, 51, has helped make Dominion one in every of the largest suppliers of voting machines and software program in the United States. He was a gifted programmer, identified to be critical about his work however casual about nearly every thing else — liable to profanities, with a humorousness that might have blunt drive. Coomer, who traveled round the world for aggressive endurance bike races, would have blended in on the campus of Google, only one in a crowd of nonconformist tech varieties. In the extra company enterprise of elections, he stood out for the full-sleeve tattoos on his arms (one in every of Francis Bacon’s “Screaming Popes,” some Picasso bulls) and the half-inch holes in his ears the place he as soon as wore what are often called plugs.
Coomer was accustomed to working lengthy days throughout the postelection certification course of, however the stress that November was constructing rapidly. Donald Trump was demanding recounts. The president’s allies in the Stop the Steal motion had spent months stoking fears of election fraud. And then on Sunday, Nov. eight, Sidney Powell, a lawyer representing the Trump marketing campaign, appeared on Fox News and claimed, with out proof, that Dominion had an algorithm that switched votes from Trump to Biden.
The video Coomer watched in his lodge room represented a brand new improvement in Dominion’s troubles. It was that day’s episode of “The Conservative Daily Podcast,” a program beforehand unknown to Coomer, which had been posted to YouTube. “We’re going to expose someone inside of Dominion Voting Systems, specifically related to antifa, and related to someone that is so far left, and is controlling elections and his fingerprints are in every state,” stated the present’s co-host, a person utilizing the pseudonym Joe Otto. Otto — who would finally reveal himself to be Joe Oltmann, a Colorado entrepreneur — claimed that he had discovered a smoking gun that proved fraud at Dominion: “We 100 percent know that the election was rigged.”
About 11 minutes in, Coomer heard Oltmann say his title. “The conversation will be about a man named Eric Coomer,” Oltmann stated, spelling it out: “C-O-O-M-E-R.” Next Coomer was looking at a photograph of himself up on the display screen in what Oltmann referred to as “his little outfit,” a motorcycle uniform Coomer wore in 2016 for a six-day endurance mountain-biking race. Coomer was taking a look at his personal half-smirk, half-smile, the face of a middle-aged man with a sparse goatee, staring into the glare in sun shades. What different photographs did Oltmann have? What different artifacts of his life, of his household — and the way onerous was this man wanting for all of it?
Oltmann claimed that, earlier that 12 months, he had infiltrated what he stated was an antifa telephone name and overheard somebody — somebody he claimed had been recognized as Eric at Dominion — guarantee his supposed fellow antifa members that Trump would lose. “He responds — and I’m paraphrasing this, right? — ‘Don’t worry about the election, Trump is not going to win. I made effing sure of that,’” Oltmann stated. He advised his listeners that he thought little of who this Eric at Dominion is likely to be till after the election, when a good friend despatched him a Facebook publish about election troubles that talked about Eric Coomer’s title. Suddenly, Oltmann stated, his curiosity was reawakened. He began wanting into Coomer, he stated, and “the more information I got, the scarier it got.”
Coomer had given conspiracy theorists a precious useful resource, a grain of sand they may remodel into one thing that had the really feel — the false promise — of proof.
Oltmann stated that in his analysis he discovered that Coomer had written “vile” anti-Trump Facebook posts. Oltmann proceeded to learn from a type of posts, from July 2016, which characterised Donald Trump as “autocratic,” “narcissistic” and a “fascist,” amongst different, extra vulgar insults. “I don’t give a damn if you’re friend, family or random acquaintance,” Oltmann learn. Anyone who determined to “pull the lever, mark an oval, touch the screen for that carnival barker … UNFRIEND ME NOW.” Oltmann displayed a screenshot of the publish, which stated that the writer’s opinions “are not necessarily the thoughts of my employer, though if not, I should probably find another job. Who wants to work for complete morons?” Oltmann’s co-host, Max McGuire, additionally learn from an nameless open letter that defined that, whereas there was no formal group often called “antifa,” the concepts the public associates with it are price supporting. “There’s no such thing as being antifascist; either you are a decent human being with a conscience, or you are a fascist,” McGuire learn. The letter, Oltmann stated, had appeared on Coomer’s Facebook.
Coomer watched the video in shock. He is adamant that he by no means participated in any antifa telephone name, and he felt disgusted by the accusation that he had finished something to alter the outcomes of the election. The Trump marketing campaign and its allies have launched greater than 60 lawsuits claiming election fraud on this nation, however no court docket has discovered persuasive proof to help the concept that Coomer, Dominion or anybody else concerned in vote-counting modified the election outcomes. Bipartisan audits of paper ballots in carefully contested states resembling Georgia and Arizona confirmed Biden’s victory; and outstanding Republicans, together with Attorney General Bill Barr and Trump’s official accountable for election cybersecurity, have reaffirmed the fundamental info of the election: Over all, the outcomes have been correct, the election course of was safe and no widespread fraud able to altering the end result has been uncovered.
Oltmann is now the topic of a defamation go well with introduced by Coomer. It at present names, as co-defendants, 14 events accountable for the dissemination of Oltmann’s claims about that alleged antifa telephone name, together with Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani and the Trump marketing campaign. (Dominion has filed separate defamation fits towards Giuliani, Powell, Fox News and others. Lawyers for Giuliani, Powell and for the Trump marketing campaign declined to remark. Fox referred to as the Dominion litigation “baseless” and defended its proper to inform “both sides” of the story.) Oltmann’s finest protection could be to supply corroboration of his claims about that telephone name — he has stated there have been as many as 19 individuals on the line — however he has to date declined to take action.
As Coomer watched the video, although, he felt a second sturdy emotion: a strong sense of remorse — as a result of the Facebook posts have been, the truth is, genuine. Why, he thought, hadn’t he simply deleted them? Coomer might think about how his phrases would sound to simply about any Republican, not to mention somebody already listening to on Fox News that Dominion was switching votes for Biden. He advised me that he believed each phrase of what he stated on Facebook, however when colleagues later requested him what he was considering, he was frank: He had screwed up. At a time when well-funded efforts to sow distrust in the election have been already underway, Coomer had given conspiracy theorists a precious useful resource, a grain of sand they may remodel into one thing that had the really feel — the false promise — of proof.
Elections in the United States are impossibly convoluted. Every county — and, in some states, each municipality — runs its personal election, making a patchwork system wherein voters in a single place could have a remarkably completely different voting course of from their neighbors only a few miles away. That variation can breed distrust: If voters in a single county consider their election course of is being administered appropriately, completely different strategies in different counties would possibly strike them as suspect.
Local governments additionally depend on non-public corporations like Dominion and its opponents ES&S and Hart InterCivic, which collectively management 90 p.c of the voting-machine market, to supply machines, software program and technical help. For Americans who’re suspicious about an election consequence — or wish to create suspicions — these comparatively obscure, non-public corporations current an apparent goal. In 2004, after George W. Bush narrowly gained the presidency, Democrats centered on doable irregularities in Ohio, whose 20 electoral votes would have given the presidency to John Kerry. The voting machines utilized in Ohio that 12 months got here from Diebold, whose chief govt, Walden O’Dell, was a longtime Republican donor. A 12 months earlier than the election, O’Dell wrote a letter to about 100 individuals inviting them to a fund-raiser: “I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year,” he wrote. The language bolstered distrust of Diebold machines amongst some Democrats. O’Dell later stated the letter was a “huge mistake,” and Diebold in the end bought its voting-machine enterprise.
Dominion was based in the wake of a unique controversy: the failure of punch-card voting machines — and their notorious hanging chads — in the 2000 election. After Congress funded a invoice to exchange these machines, many counties bought direct-recording digital (D.R.E.) voting machines, which eradicated paper ballots altogether. The limits of that method turned obvious in 2006, when, in Sarasota, Fla., a Congressional race that used D.R.E. machines made by ES&S produced a consequence that struck partisans and impartial observers as unlikely. ES&S stood by the outcomes, however in the absence of a paper poll, doubts and uncertainty lingered.
Dominion was well-positioned at that second. John Poulos, the firm’s chief govt and one in every of its founders, began the enterprise in 2003, serving a small circle of shoppers who favored a paper poll. Additionally, Dominion developed a tabulator that saved a digital picture of the paper ballots in order that they may very well be simply audited. (They additionally bought machines that met the wants of visually impaired voters, with audio interfaces and headphones that allowed for independence and anonymity.)
Dominion grew quick, buying the property of a competitor, Sequoia Voting Systems, in 2010. Among Sequoia’s workers was Eric Coomer, who turned Dominion’s vp of engineering for the United States. Coomer labored with Poulos for greater than a decade at Dominion. (The funding agency Staple Street Capital owns a majority share in the firm.) Coomer’s position shifted over time from overseeing the firm’s engineers to a extra strategic position, working instantly with election officers in varied states and discussing Dominion’s companies on technical panels.
For the 2020 election, activists and specialists pushed for paper ballots nationwide, to supply an easy, simply audited file. Coomer, expressing a standard assurance amongst election specialists, has identified that as a result of each Dominion system “creates a durable, voter-verifiable, paper record of the cast votes, which is the official record,” voters had concrete proof of how the vote went in the face of any allegations of digital vote-switching or different fraud.
At the identical time, voting-machine companies knew that paper ballots can create some confusion amongst voters — resembling the fear that ink from Sharpies and different markers might bleed by means of the web page and invalidate their vote. In truth, poll layouts can keep away from misreads from bleed-throughs, and Sharpies have the benefit drying rapidly, so ink doesn’t smudge on the scanner.
Concerns about Sharpies, nonetheless, ending up feeding into coordinated efforts to solid doubt on the 2020 election. In Maricopa County, Ariz., the most populous county in a key swing state, Dominion ballots with a Sharpie-friendly structure have been used, and ballot staff handed the markers out. Some voters weren’t ready to make use of Sharpies after years of being advised to keep away from them. The confusion reached social media, the place, in the palms of partisan messaging networks, the cost rapidly turned: Republicans have been being given Sharpies in Maricopa County in an effort to invalidate their votes.
Dominion was nonetheless attempting to assist election officers deal with so-called Sharpiegate when Poulos obtained a name, on Nov. four, with extra dangerous information: in Antrim County, Michigan, ballots have been up to date shortly earlier than Election Day however the system used to tabulate them was not. A sequence of fail-safe procedures meant to deal with such an error had been neglected. As a consequence, preliminary returns confirmed Joe Biden main in the closely Republican county earlier than they have been corrected. To the frustration of key gamers in the election neighborhood, neither native officers nor Dominion instantly launched an announcement explaining what went mistaken; the silence created a possibility for these charging fraud to fill the vacuum with unfounded allegations.
Security specialists distinguish between disinformation — easy lies — and malinformation, data that begins with a element that’s true however is then used or taken out of context to help a false story line. “It’s harder to fight malinformation, because of the fundamental truth being used to spread the lies,” says Matthew Masterson, who was a senior adviser for election safety at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency throughout the Trump Administration. Antrim County, he anxious at the time, may very well be used as a chief supply of malinformation.
It was not till Nov. 6 that Michigan election officers started explaining what occurred. By then, rumors — together with the false suggestion that Nancy Pelosi’s husband owned Dominion — had unfold. Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, held a information convention asserting that “the fight is not over,” and that Antrim County made her fear that there may very well be related irregularities elsewhere. The Michigan State Legislature issued a subpoena to state election officers asking for extra data.
That identical week, studies emerged of an Election Day glitch in Spalding County, Ga. There, Dominion machines have been unable to name up voters’ ballots due to an issue with an out of doors vendor’s database and since procedures that will have caught the error or offered different methods of calling up the ballots weren’t adopted. The native elections supervisor, nonetheless, advised Politico Dominion consultant had defined that the drawback was the fault of an replace the firm made the evening earlier than the election.
Poulos was baffled: The know-how didn’t enable for that form of distant replace, as the machines will not be linked to the web. “It would be like me saying I came into your house and updated your kitchen table without your knowing it,” Poulos stated. None of his staff’ telephone data mirrored any such name, and Georgia election authorities reported log file that will have mirrored an replace the earlier day confirmed none. The Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, finally referred to as for the ouster of the official. (She is not in that place.) But the incident was one other story that will stick with Dominion. “Georgia Counties Using Same Software as Michigan Counties Also Encounter ‘Glitch,” ran the headline on Breitbart News on Nov. 7.
After Sidney Powell’s Nov. eight look on Fox News, Dominion turned a fixture in election-conspiracy theories. Originally, right-wing chatter was linking Dominion to election fraud even in cities like Pittsburgh, which the firm didn’t serve. Over time, the focus shifted to a few vital swing states — Georgia, Arizona and Michigan — that used Dominion machines.
Sidney Powell, proper, and Rudy Giuliani at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington. Credit…Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press
Before he left for work on Nov. 10, Coomer checked the settings on his Facebook account. Had he been careless? As he thought, his privateness settings ensured that his posts have been solely seen to his 300 or so Facebook mates. Coomer began deleting outdated posts, however he realized how foolishly he had put his religion in a notion of digital privateness. Any one in every of Coomer’s “friends”— and he had a number of whom he knew to be Trump supporters — might have taken screenshots of his posts and despatched the data alongside to somebody who might use it.
At work, Coomer felt an growing sense of dread, however Poulos, the chief govt, appeared assured that the Oltmann story would blow over. From Poulos’s perspective, the Conservative Daily Podcast was hardly a prime concern when Fox News was permitting Sidney Powell to air claims that Dominion switched votes.
Coomer’s youthful brother, who requested that his title not be used out of worry for his security, arrange a dashboard to trace on-line references to Eric Coomer. “I deleted it within two days,” he stated — the materials was too disturbing and overwhelming. He recalled a few of what he noticed: “People were essentially taking bets on how my brother’s corpse would be found and which nefarious shadow group would be behind his death. He would be executed by the state or he would be found with a falsified suicide note and two gunshots in the back of his head.” He and Eric’s older brother, Bill, deleted their social media profiles and alerted mates and associates to not reply questions on them; they directed their dad and mom to do the identical. The youthful brother packed a go bag in case he needed to flee his residence.
Before lengthy, a whole bunch of Dominion staff had their non-public data — deal with, telephone numbers, names of family members — printed on social media, and threats began pouring in to their Dominion e mail. Angry e mail messages saved arriving for Coomer as effectively, and hostile posts continued to look on social media: “He’s goin’ to GITMO. No one escapes this. Pain is comin’!”
Over the subsequent few days, as Coomer tried to deal with wrapping up the election certification in Chicago, he thought of his difficult previous and questioned what else would possibly floor. He grew up the rebellious baby of a high-ranking army officer, a Vietnam veteran who fought throughout the Tet offensive and was awarded the Silver and Bronze Stars. Coomer, brainy and stressed, acquired an R.O.T.C. scholarship but it surely was rescinded due to his bronchial asthma. As a young person and into his 20s, he thought of himself a skinhead, however he was aligned with a faction who have been against racism. “To me, being skin is being proud that you have a shaved — at least short — hair,” he wrote in 1991.
Coomer earned his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from Berkeley in 1997 however grew disenchanted with academia. He began to fill extra of his time with mountaineering and moved to Colorado. He summited Yosemite’s El Capitan a number of occasions and have become well-known sufficient amongst elite climbers that he landed a job at Planetoutdoors.com, which employed prime athletes to reply buyer questions. While he was there, he began writing code for the firm. He continued climbing, till issues in his private life slowed him down.
In 2004, at age 34, he wrote on a climbing message board about his struggles with heroin and cocaine and the way a lot they’d broken his life. By then, he was on the verge of chapter, had misplaced his marriage and had ended up in jail after being charged with a number of counts of driving beneath the affect. “Another bout of dry heaves racked my body as I lay on the cold cement floor of the jail cell,” he wrote. “Jail is no picnic under the best of circumstances — being in jail while withdrawing from heroin is absolutely the worst I can imagine.”
In 2005 he managed to cease utilizing heroin for good. “I stayed with a friend for a week and told him to take my shoes and my wallet,” Coomer advised me. Three months later, whereas he was nonetheless in withdrawal, he acquired a chilly name from somebody asking if he would contemplate doing programming work for Sequoia, the voting-machine firm whose property Dominion bought 5 years later.
Soon, he was channeling the identical obsessive focus he had for climbing into the voting-machine enterprise, its obscure state legal guidelines and county rules, its competing and complex calls for for privateness, safety, entry and verifiability. “I fell in love with the election business,” Coomer stated. “There’s no money in it, and you only ever hear from people complaining about what went wrong. But it felt meaningful.”
Eric Coomer from Dominion Voting Systems demonstrating his firm’s touch-screen pill, which produces a paper poll, in Grovetown, Ga. Credit…Bob Andres/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, through Associated Press
In 2016, Coomer was on Facebook when he got here throughout just a few posts from a relative referring to Barack Obama as a Muslim born in Kenya. Coomer was appalled that one in every of his circle of relatives members was spreading disinformation, however as a substitute of confronting his cousin instantly, he poured all his disgust and disappointment right into a 200-word anti-Trump screed that he posted on Facebook. “It was not intended for the general public,” Coomer stated. “It was a lashing out.” Years later, after the demise of George Floyd, Coomer posted hyperlinks to a punk band singing “Pigs for Slaughter” and a hip-hop tune referred to as “Cop Shot.” (On his podcast, Oltmann highlighted Coomer’s linking to each songs.)
About a 12 months earlier than the 2020 election, Coomer was a part of a number of conversations amongst Dominion staff about find out how to steadiness their proper to precise themselves with the sensitivities particular to their trade. Dominion additionally searched by means of its staff’ social media accounts, checking for feedback or tweets which may mirror poorly on the firm. No one ever raised any issues with Coomer about his posts, as a result of his posts have been obtainable solely to his Facebook mates.
On Friday, Nov. 13, the right-wing information outlet the Gateway Pundit, selecting up on Oltmann’s podcast, ran a narrative that talked about Coomer by title in the headline, included hyperlinks to movies wherein Coomer was speaking about election safety, and ran a full reprint of the open letter about antifa that he had reposted on Facebook. While most of that letter was uncontroversial — “Antifa supports and defends the right of all people to live free from oppressive abuse of power” — one line concluded that whereas nonviolent protest was preferable, “we cannot and will not take responsibility for telling people how they are allowed to be righteously outraged.” The letter additionally referred to as for President Trump and Vice President Pence to resign, though “Nancy Pelosi isn’t a great deal of improvement.” (Coomer says he thought of the letter satirical.) As quickly as the Gateway Pundit article ran, Coomer knew he not might hope, realistically, that his title would recede from the information.
Later that night, Poulos requested Coomer to affix a name with Gabriel Sterling, the chief working officer for the Georgia secretary of state. Sterling met Coomer in 2019, when Dominion gained a contract to assist Georgia improve its voting machines. Someone had forwarded Sterling an article — probably the one in the Gateway Pundit, he says — that featured the Facebook posts in addition to Oltmann’s declare about Coomer rigging the election. “My gut told me it was crap to begin with, but I had to ask the question,” Sterling says.
Yes, Coomer advised each males, I did write or repost these issues; no, it has by no means affected my work. No, I by no means was on an antifa telephone name. No, I by no means stated that I’d intrude in the election in any manner. Sterling — who thought of Coomer “one of the best” in the enterprise — advised Coomer that these postings, particularly the one about antifa, have been “a dumb-ass thing to do.” Coomer sounded deflated to Sterling. Coomer says it was “excruciating” to comprehend that Sterling’s popularity would possibly undergo.
When they hung up the telephone, Poulos made it clear that he discovered the scenario deeply problematic. Coomer started to worry he would possibly lose his job however turned defiant. “I was like — ‘I don’t know, First Amendment?’” Coomer advised me. Dominion, he reminded Poulos, had finished nothing mistaken; he had finished nothing mistaken. “My attitude was: This is bullshit. I’ve never done anything but try to make the whole process more transparent and auditable and free and fair.”
Election officers who knew Coomer have been stunned that he would categorical his political beliefs so bluntly. “It’s not what we do in this industry,” says Masterson, the election-security adviser in the Trump administration. “Generally, this community is very tough on people who don’t toe that line.” Masterson thought of the misstep an anomaly for Coomer, somebody he had identified for a couple of decade. “He was serious about his job,” Masterson stated. “I never encountered him as being anything other than professional and making the system as good as he could.”
The posts additionally pained Jennifer Morrell, a founding father of the Elections Group, an organization that helps counties and states adjust to voting rules. “It didn’t look good,” she stated. “And that’s the frustrating part. I know this individual to be a really decent person who cares a lot about democracy and getting things right and transparency — and you read something like that, and it is a really hard thing to get past, for critics.” Morrell, who got here to know Coomer by means of a Colorado working group meant to enhance the state’s audit system, described him as “irreverent” however clearly moral; the posts, she stated, didn’t mirror the particular person she knew.
Coomer was hardly the first particular person to hunt the rush of righteous self-expression on social media, solely to find the long-lasting prices later. He spent a variety of time questioning how Oltmann obtained his palms on these posts. Had a political operative been doing opposition analysis on varied election officers, protecting it at the prepared, relying on the election outcomes? Coomer, a self-described motorhead with an curiosity in classic vehicles, began to assume the supply might need been a Facebook good friend he made at Bandimere Speedway, a racetrack he typically visited. The racetrack had hosted a gathering organized by a neighborhood businessman who was beginning to make a reputation for himself in Colorado politics, Joe Oltmann.
Joe Oltmann of “The Conservative Daily Podcast.” Oltmann displayed screenshots of Coomer’s Facebook posts on his present.Credit…Conservative Daily Podcast, through YouTube
If Eric Coomer’s life modified on Nov. 9, so did Joe Oltmann’s. On his follow-up podcast the subsequent day, Oltmann advised his viewers that he had excellent news. “I have been in touch with someone who has put us in touch with the Trump attorneys,” he stated.
That week, Oltmann spoke to Jenna Ellis, a Trump marketing campaign lawyer who regularly appeared with Giuliani to advertise lawsuits to problem the election outcomes. She advised him that he ought to put together a notarized affidavit of his allegations, which he did with assist from the lawyer and conservative radio host Randy Corporon. That Saturday, Corporon invited Oltmann on his radio present, and Representative Lauren Boebert, a Republican from Colorado, referred to as in to speak about the election. She thanked Oltmann for his work.
Before the election upended his life, Oltmann was the chief govt of PIN Business Network, a digital-marketing firm that he based, which had about 60 staff. The co-owner of a gun store, he was politically conservative and community-minded — a member of the United Way Tocqueville Society and a board member for a nonprofit group that assists refugees. (Oltmann requested that I not title the group, although it confirmed his affiliation. He additionally rejects the label “conservative” regardless of the title of his podcast.) The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic marked his transfer right into a extra public position: In the spring of 2020, he helped begin the Reopen Colorado motion, which organized anti-lockdown protests. People have been struggling as others have been “throwing the Constitution in the trash,” he advised me. He started giving impassioned interviews about the public-health measures imposed by the state’s governor, Jared Polis.
By that October, following the 2020 summer season of protests, he had based a nonprofit group, FEC United, meant, its web site says, “to defend the foundation of our American Way of Life through the pillars of Faith, Education and Commerce.” FEC fashioned a partnership with a bunch often called the United American Defense Force, which, the website explains, provides “protection and support when first responders are unwilling or unable to fulfill their civic duties.” Oltmann characterizes it as a humanitarian group, although he added in an e mail, “We are all armed.” At one early FEC occasion, a so-called Patriot Muster, a Trump supporter assaulted and pepper-sprayed a safety guard, who shot and killed him. (The guard was charged with second-degree homicide and has pleaded not responsible.)
The Coomer story took Oltmann from the small world of right-wing politics in Colorado into broader Republican circles. The identical week that he spoke to Jenna Ellis, Oltmann gave an interview about Coomer to Michelle Malkin, a former Fox contributor in Colorado who had joined the even-further-right community, Newsmax.
Around this time, Oltmann started creating his idea of how a voting system might enable for fraud, which he later defined at size in a movie referred to as “The Deep Rig”: Someone might manipulate the system in varied methods to permit for the chance of including pretend or phantom ballots, which may very well be entered into the tabulation system. Real ballots would get replaced with the pretend ones with out a historical past of that occuring. “It’s clear from the video that Joe Oltmann does not understand how elections are conducted or how the technology works,” says Morrell, who stated a few of what Oltmann proposed would require a widespread effort of staff from each events colluding to bypass some key techniques.
Thanks to Oltmann and others, the conviction that Dominion had helped rig the election for Joe Biden appeared to solidify amongst a few of Trump’s most loyal supporters. On Thursday, Nov. 12, One America News Network, also called OAN, ran a narrative about Dominion. Shortly after that, Trump retweeted: “REPORT: DOMINION DELETED 2.7 MILLION TRUMP VOTES NATIONWIDE,” the first of many occasions Trump went to Twitter to assault Dominion. Five days later, an OAN correspondent, Chanel Rion, tweeted out Oltmann’s claims about what Coomer supposedly stated on that antifa telephone name. Then, simply eight days after Oltmann first talked about Coomer on his podcast, Eric Trump broadcast it to its widest viewers but. “Trump’s not gonna win. I made f**ing sure of that!” Eric Trump tweeted, above a photograph of Coomer and a hyperlink to a different Gateway Pundit article that referred to as Coomer, in its headline, “an unhinged sociopath.” (Lawyers for Malkin, Rion, OAN and the Trump marketing campaign, every a defendant in the Coomer lawsuit, didn’t reply to requests for remark. Lawyers for the Gateway Pundit, one other Coomer defendant, declined to remark.)
Rion later invited Oltmann on her present to debate his claims, and the section turned one in every of OAN’s highest rated clips, amassing 1.5 million views on YouTube. By then, Eric Coomer’s title began trending on Twitter, together with #ArrestEricCoomer.
On Nov. 19, Poulos, sitting in his workplace at his residence in Toronto, turned on a small tv to observe a information convention occurring at the Republican National Committee headquarters, which Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell have been internet hosting. He knew that Giuliani and Powell had every individually accused Dominion of wrongdoing on Fox News and on right-wing information websites; however he dreaded listening to his firm’s title at an occasion that appeared to have the full legitimacy of the R.N.C. behind it.
After half an hour of watching the occasion at the R.N.C., what Poulos had feared got here to cross: Giuliani referenced hacking “being done by a company that specializes in voter fraud,” then turned the microphone over to Sidney Powell. Powell listed a sequence of implausible claims about Dominion in deadpan, lawyerly tones, pushing up a sleeve of her leopard-print cardigan as if to point out she had actual work to do. She spoke of “the massive influence of communist money through Venezuela, Cuba and likely China” on Dominion’s operations.
Poulos says that whereas he watched, he was in such a state of disbelief that he needed to remind himself that what he was seeing was actual and never a part of a nightmare. “Oh, my God!” he screamed. “I can’t believe what’s going on!” He yelled so loudly that his spouse and two teenage kids got here working into his residence workplace. They discovered him there, beside himself, crying. His kids had by no means seen him remotely emotional about his work; now they stared, shocked and mute. Poulos felt anger towards Giuliani and Powell for utilizing their energy to unfold false data. He additionally felt some sympathy for these voters, disenchanted by their candidate’s loss, who would inevitably be desirous to consider what they have been listening to from individuals so near the president. The manner many individuals felt watching the revolt on Jan. 6, Poulos advised me, was how he felt throughout that information convention. “It was an assault on democracy,” he says.
Powell talked about Coomer by title, embellishing Oltmann’s story by claiming that there was an precise recording of Coomer on the antifa name. Giuliani introduced Coomer up as effectively. “By the way, the Coomer character, who is close to antifa, took off all of his social media. Aha! But we kept it. We’ve got it. The man is a vicious, vicious man,” Giuliani stated. The room the place he was talking was, from all studies, scorching and airless; Giuliani was sweating. Brown liquid began snaking down either side of his face. “He wrote horrible things about the president,” Giuliani continued. “He is completely warped. And he specifically says that they’re going to fix this election. I don’t know what you need to wake you up to do your job!”
When Coomer watched the information convention, he began sweating and shaking; he thought he would possibly vomit. Already, earlier that week, he had met with safety officers that Dominion employed, who advised him it was not protected for him to go residence. The day earlier than the information convention, he had gone again to Colorado, the place he had organized to remain at a good friend’s cabin in the mountains.
‘People were essentially taking bets on how my brother’s corpse could be discovered and which nefarious shadow group could be behind his demise.’
Trump’s Bid to Subvert the Election
Card 1 of four
A monthslong marketing campaign. During his final days in workplace, President Donald J. Trump and his allies undertook an more and more pressing effort to undermine the election outcomes. That wide-ranging marketing campaign included perpetuating false and completely debunked claims of election fraud in addition to urgent authorities officers for assist.
Baseless claims of voter fraud. Although Mr. Trump’s allegations of a stolen election have died in the courts and election officers of each events from each state have stated there isn’t any proof of fraud, Republicans throughout the nation continued to unfold conspiracy theories. Those embrace 147 House Republicans who voted towards certifying the election.
Intervention at the Justice Department. Rebuffed by rating Republicans and cupboard officers like Attorney General William P. Barr, who stepped down weeks earlier than his tenure was to finish, Mr. Trump sought different avenues to hawk his unfounded claims. In a bid to advance his private agenda, Mr. Trump plotted to oust the performing lawyer basic and pressed prime officers to declare that the election was corrupt. His chief of workers pushed the division to research an array of outlandish and unfounded conspiracy theories that held that Mr. Trump had been the victor.
Pressuring state officers to 'discover votes.' As the president continued to refuse to concede the election, his most loyal backers proclaimed Jan. 6, when Congress convened to formalize Mr. Biden’s electoral victory, as a day of reckoning. On that day, Mr. Trump delivered an incendiary speech to hundreds of his supporters hours earlier than a mob of loyalists violently stormed the Capitol.
His arrival had been fraught. When the aircraft touched down at the airport, Coomer tried to log into his work e mail, with no success. He texted Poulos to let him know he was having an issue. Poulos reminded him that he had instructed Coomer take a break, which Coomer interpreted to imply he ought to attempt to take it simple for some time. He was nonetheless serving to shoppers, he reminded Poulos; his boss advised him the firm would handle issues with out him. Only then did Coomer notice that the partitions have been already going up round him. He was formally on go away, however he suspected that he would by no means work in elections once more.
After he left the airport, he stopped by his residence to feed his cats and decide up a rifle. He then drove out of city to his good friend’s cabin. It was outfitted with surveillance cameras, an elaborate safety system and a gun protected; he positioned a number of weapons round the property, so they’d be simply reachable. Then he tried to settle down. He had lots to determine, together with what he was going to do with the remainder of his life.
For a number of months, Coomer moved round to alleviate his isolation, visiting shut mates, declining to inform his dad and mom and siblings the place he was staying to get rid of the chance that anybody would slip up and reveal particulars of his whereabouts to somebody who would possibly make them public. Even although all his mates advised him watching Oltmann’s present was a horrible thought, he did it anyway — it was a manner of staying on prime of the scenario, of confronting his personal fears.
He tracked the story on social media because it moved from Oltmann’s assertion that he had rigged the election to an evidence of how he did it. On right-wing Twitter, a specific story line took off, specializing in the Dominion system of adjudication, which had Coomer’s title, amongst others, on the patent. Like all digital-adjudication techniques, Dominion’s allowed election officers to set varied parameters to find out at which level a poll — if it had further writing on it or solely partially-filled ovals — could be directed to a bipartisan panel that will then agree, primarily based on state requirements, on voter intent. Rather than making a brand new paper poll, the system would create a digital file of the new adjudicated consequence whereas preserving the authentic digital file. In one extensively circulated video, Coomer was strolling election officers by means of the methods they may use it, utilizing the first particular person to explain the varied steps, which suspicious viewers took actually, as if he have been letting the officers know the way he, personally, might change the adjudication settings.
In the latter half of November, a letter arrived at his dad and mom’ residence with a handwritten profanity scrawled at the backside, telling them their son would undergo in jail. His father, now 80, started carrying a weapon on his particular person, even at residence. They acquired two calls in the center of the evening, strangers asking to talk to Eric.
Coomer’s dad and mom had already suffered extra grief than most do in a lifetime. Their daughter died in a automobile accident when she was solely 9 and Coomer was 22. Nine years in the past, his older sister, who labored as a paralegal and a trainer, additionally died, at age 47, after a protracted sickness. Coomer felt powerless: He couldn’t shield his household from harassment, couldn’t spare them additional fear for the security of one in every of their kids. “I’m so sorry,” he advised them again and again.
Coomer stopped returning mates’ calls, was sleepless at evening and suffered from panic assaults throughout the day. Occasionally, he returned residence for just a few hours. On one event in mid-December, two males pulled as much as the home. Did they observe him there or simply get fortunate? He had no thought, however he grabbed a gun. One of the males walked round the perimeter of his home; the different got here proper to the door, peering in the massive window. One had a video digital camera. “Has anybody from the D.O.J. tried to contact you?” the man referred to as out, in Coomer’s recollection. “We just want to know why you threw the election. Do you have a few minutes to talk?” Coomer advised them to depart — they have been trespassing. Twenty minutes after they left, he obtained a voice-mail message: One of the males recognized himself as a journalist for a right-wing information website, now calling to observe up.
Trump’s tweet on Nov. 12, 2020, repeating the false declare that Dominion deleted votes.Credit…through Twitter
In December, as Trump’s varied lawsuits have been beginning to be dismissed in court docket, Oltmann started posting extra menacing messages. “Eric Coomer, you are a traitor,” he wrote. “We are coming for you and your shitbag company.”
On Dec. eight, Coomer responded to a few of the assaults. In an op-ed for The Denver Post, he referred to as out the “fringe media personalities” who “continue to prey on the fears of a public concerned about the safety and security of our electoral system.” He additionally claimed that “any posts on social media accounts purporting to be from me have also been fabricated.” And but, Coomer had written the posts that Oltmann had highlighted. Asked about the deceptive language, Coomer concedes that his writing might have been clearer however says he was referring to social media purporting to be his that have been posting at the time (his personal Facebook account was not energetic). The column didn’t assist Coomer’s credibility amongst these inclined to distrust him already.
His title, just about unknown in most mainstream circles, was now tightly linked with the story of Dominion fraud, particularly amongst QAnon followers: According to the nonpartisan and nonprofit group Advance Democracy Inc., from Nov. 1 to Jan. 7, Coomer’s title appeared in 25 p.c of the tweets that talked about Dominion in its database of QAnon-related accounts.
On Dec. 22, Coomer filed his defamation lawsuit. “Together, defendants conceived of a story that the results of the election were fraudulent and consciously set out to establish that Dr. Coomer perpetuated this fraud so as to further their own ends,” the amended grievance reads. All the claims they made about Coomer began with Oltmann: It was his story about Coomer being on an antifa name that Eric Trump retweeted, that Giuliani and Powell trumpeted at the Nov. 19 occasion at the R.N.C. Their protection would relaxation on the credibility of Oltmann’s declare or at the very least some proof that it had a foundation in actuality.
The day earlier than the defamation lawsuit was filed, Oltmann reported on his podcast that the F.B.I. had been asking questions on him, though he didn’t specify why. Dominion, too, despatched him a letter demanding that he retract his statements and protect all data associated to his repetition of the “outlandish story that you infiltrate(d) Antifa.”
Early in the new 12 months, Oltmann was gearing up for the rallies deliberate earlier than the ascertainment of the election on Jan. 6. “Do not tell me you are tired,” he wrote in a publish that 1,001 individuals preferred. “I’m here to tell you we are winning this fight against evil. Now stand the hell up, run some dirt in it, and don’t stop till the evil is crushed with the heel of your shoe. … we are the warriors who MUST stand up to the evil we face.”
On Jan. 5, at a rally on Freedom Plaza in Washington, a sequence of anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, Soros-haters and Trump supporters addressed a big crowd. “If they want to fight, they better believe they’ve got one!” the right-wing radio host Alex Jones roared. Peter Navarro, a White House adviser, whipped the crowd right into a frenzy about the supposedly false election. And then lastly, following Roger Stone, the final speaker of the day stepped as much as the lectern: Oltmann. He was launched as a businessman, an information professional and, “most importantly, the guy who found and fingered Eric Coomer.” Oltmann tried to speak the crowd by means of a flowchart presentation involving tabulation techniques and faux ballots. But by far the largest response he obtained was when he talked about Coomer. “Eric Coomer is suing me,” he stated. “I’m going to crush him in discovery.” The crowd roared.
Later, Oltmann described, in varied podcast interviews, what occurred throughout his time in Washington. On Jan. 6, he claims that he went to the State Department to speak to a lawyer who labored with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to clarify what he’d uncovered. (“They said, ‘If this is true … this is a coup!’ I said, ‘Well, that’s exactly, that’s what I would call it!’” he recalled.) He additionally claimed that he met with John Eastman, a lawyer who was arguing to Trump’s crew that Pence might legally reject the election. Oltmann claimed that he fed Eastman the idea of election fraud that he introduced at the rally on Jan. 6 close to the Ellipse, the place Trump spoke shortly earlier than a crowd stormed the Capitol.
Oltmann additionally stated he requested Giuliani to rearrange a gathering with Trump to stroll him by means of the identical idea of election fraud he had been presenting to others. “I was like, ‘Look, just put me in front of President Trump,’” Oltmann recalled, claiming that Giuliani and others organized for him to have that assembly on the Jan. 7. (In a deposition, Giuliani stated he didn’t consider he had met Oltmann, however he couldn’t be certain.) But the day after the revolt, doorways that had maybe as soon as been open have been now closed. “There were people who stopped me from having those meetings with President Trump on the 7th,” Oltmann advised one podcaster. “We were dealing with a compromised group of people who don’t understand what courage is.”
Instead of assembly with the president, Oltmann stated, he acquired a name from an govt at PIN, who was calling to inform him that he had misplaced the confidence of the board. Oltmann stepped down. He referred to as it a “sad day and something that is driving my fire to get to the bottom of the truth.”
In these first weeks at his good friend’s cabin, Coomer typically felt rage in any respect that had been taken from him. Often he lay awake all evening, attempting to find out if he heard sounds outdoors. Following the violent occasions of Jan. 6, Coomer determined to depart the nation forward of the inauguration. He remained overseas for three weeks, discovering respite in a complete world full of individuals whom he may very well be pretty positive had by no means heard of him.
In late April, Coomer determined to take a three-week tenting journey with no entry to e mail or textual content messages. On May 14, when he was once more inside vary of a cellphone tower, his telephone began pinging, again and again and over. Congratulations, a lot of the texts learn; however he was additionally receiving texts and voicemails that reminded him of what he’d left behind — harassment, feedback from hostile strangers that arrived on his telephone telling him, a method or one other, that he was going to jail.
Coomer was receiving a brand new onslaught of consideration as a result of Newsmax, which had initially been named in his defamation lawsuit, had determined to settle. It additionally issued an apology, acknowledging that it had discovered “no evidence” to help the claims the community aired about Coomer’s influencing the election. Coomer felt some reduction: It typically had appeared that there would by no means be any accountability, for anybody, ever. But at the identical time the variety of hostile texts he acquired reminded him that no settlement was more likely to put an finish to his ordeal.
In May, Coomer formally left Dominion after negotiating “a mutually agreed-upon separation” with them. It was, he says, a surreal day: One extra reminder that his life had modified irrevocably.
By June, a file on Coomer that was greater than 100 pages lengthy started making the rounds on Telegram. It included hyperlinks to writing Coomer posted as a 20-something about the lack of his youthful sister; it included photographs of his ex-wife and 5 doable e mail addresses for her and listed what it claimed have been the make and mannequin of his brother’s automobile; it proposed a far-fetched idea that Coomer’s animus towards Trump was due to political choices that harm his brother’s employer. It additionally included a hyperlink to the essay Coomer had posted on a climbing message board wherein he spoke frankly of his drug habit and the place he talked about, in a forwards and backwards with commenters, a mental-health dysfunction (though Coomer now says he was by no means clinically identified). Even earlier than he noticed the file, Coomer knew from his incoming texts and emails, which overflowed with threats, that one thing new was on the market, persevering with to stoke individuals’s anger.
On Aug. 11, Oltmann was scheduled to be deposed by Coomer’s legal professionals for the defamation go well with. Coomer arrived at the state courthouse in Denver early that morning; it might be the first time he could be in the identical room with Oltmann.
Coomer sat along with his lawyer, Steve Skarnulis, who had flown in from Austin, and two different legal professionals. At 9 a.m., Oltmann’s lawyer advised them that Oltmann wouldn’t be showing in court docket as a result of he didn’t really feel protected in the courthouse. (His lawyer, Andrea Hall, had provided to do the deposition through Zoom.) The decide was compelling him to disclose the title of the one who introduced him in on the antifa convention name, and though the court docket agreed the title would stay sealed, Oltmann had refused — for that particular person’s security and his personal, he stated. Now he was afraid that if he have been put in jail for contempt, he could be “dead within 72 hours,” Hall, advised me.
In the earlier weeks, the decide assigned to Oltmann’s case made rulings that didn’t lower in his favor, together with permitting Coomer’s authorized crew to do preliminary discovery with the varied defendants. Coomer’s legal professionals have additionally deposed Powell and Giuliani about their roles in spreading their conspiracy theories about Coomer and Dominion.
“The judge has become an activist judge,” Oltmann stated on an episode of “Conservative Daily” in July. “She’s allowing things to go forward that should not have been allowed to come forward.” At occasions, the weight of the costs appears to weigh closely on him. “I don’t want to get to the place where I feel sorry for myself,” Oltmann stated throughout a particular three-part “Conservative Daily” podcast on the matter of the Coomer go well with. He sounded emotional. “I don’t feel sorry for myself.”
Oltmann says that he, like Coomer, has been the topic of demise threats. On his podcast, although, he continues to push an ever-grander idea of election fraud. The extra viewers Oltmann attracts, the larger his viewers for a service he promotes on his present, the so-called Fax Blast, wherein customers pays to have faxes despatched to numerous legislators on their behalf. This spring, he began attracting advertisers as effectively, together with MyPillow, a enterprise owned by Mike Lindell, who can also be being sued by Dominion for his statements accusing the firm of rigging the election. (Previously one in every of the largest advertisers on Fox News, Lindell has been boycotting the community since they refused to air an commercial claiming election fraud. He didn’t reply to a request for remark.)
The variety of hostile texts he acquired reminded him that no settlement was more likely to put an finish to his ordeal.
Instead of exhibiting up in court docket on that August morning, Oltmann was in South Dakota, at a cybersecurity symposium hosted by Lindell, who at one level rushed offstage when it was introduced that his movement to dismiss Dominion’s defamation had been rejected. Steve Bannon, who was additionally at the occasion, interviewed Oltmann on his podcast, “Bannon’s War Room.” “I think people are asking,” Bannon stated to Oltmann, “if it’s a lawsuit and you think you’ve got the truth and law on your side, why would you not show up for a deposition?” The decide, Oltmann defined, was appointed by Jared Polis, a Democrat.
Coomer is discovering little consolation in the sluggish motion of the judicial course of. He has began a brand new enterprise, however he’s not but publicly disclosing what it’s. He continues to be liable to panic assaults. In August, he was disturbed to search out out that Jennifer Morrell had been receiving threats after the Gateway Pundit ran a 2018 picture of her at a barbecue at Coomer’s residence.
For her half, Morrell says that she misses having the ability to seek the advice of with Coomer on election issues. Earlier this spring, Morrell says, she was struggling to know a technicality concerned in a brand new audit process for a state that employed her. She briefly considered calling Coomer for clarification, however she realized that speaking to him was not an choice, even when he had nonetheless been working in the trade. Talking to Coomer, she anxious, might go away her shopper susceptible. “There’s this concern — I don’t want any phone record,” she stated. “Even though everything seemed crazy and outlandish, and you knew it was false and built on lies and conspiracy — you didn’t want to do anything that could jeopardize other places where you are providing support.”
Although Coomer’s case was particularly extreme, most election officers she knew had been receiving, since the election, demise threats or hateful messages. One colleague had photographs of her kids despatched to her, together with threatening notes, and now had safety outdoors her residence. Following earlier mentions of her election work in the press, Morrell had acquired a flurry of misogynist, violent texts. A message despatched to her through her firm’s web site stated that “the Caucasian founding fathers gave us a second amendment to use against the enemies of this nation … We fully intend to exercise this amendment to rid our society of you and your ilk.”
Morrell says she frequently will get calls from state or native election officers who say they’re shedding workers. The Times just lately reported that 25 p.c of the administrators or deputy auditors of elections in 14 counties in Ohio have left their jobs. The lack of a lot institutional data and experience, the sheer scarcity of staff, is one other problem going through an already frail election system.
Coomer stated he not wakes up each hour questioning if somebody is outdoors his residence. “But in some ways, it’s gotten worse,” he stated. When the marketing campaign towards him began, he feared for his security, however he thought the hazard could be short-term. But 9 months later, he needed to settle for that the modifications to his life have been everlasting: “Now it’s almost becoming a mainstream accepted narrative that I helped rig an election.” Millions of individuals now believed that story, and it was how historical past — or sure authors and readers of historical past — would ceaselessly bear in mind him.
If what occurred in Antrim County was one case examine in the energy of malinformation, Coomer’s is one other. “I think Dominion as a company would be facing all of the same things they are right now without me,” Coomer stated. “But I was an accelerant. And for lack of a better word, I was a perfect villain.”
Bryan Schutmaat is a photographer primarily based in Austin, Texas, who has gained quite a few awards, together with a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial fellowship, the Aperture Portfolio Prize and an Aaron Siskind fellowship.