Then-President Donald Trump personally pressured two Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers not to sign the certification of the 2020 presidential election, according to recordings reviewed by The Detroit News and revealed publicly for the first time.
On a Nov. 17, 2020, phone call, which also involved Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, Trump told Monica Palmer and William Hartmann, the two GOP Wayne County canvassers, they'd look "terrible" if they signed the documents after they first voted in opposition and then later in the same meeting voted to approve certification of the county’s election results, according to the recordings.
"We've got to fight for our country," said Trump on the recordings, made by a person who was present for the call with Palmer and Hartmann. "We can't let these people take our country away from us."
McDaniel, a Michigan native and the leader of the Republican Party nationally, said at another point in the call, "If you can go home tonight, do not sign it. ... We will get you attorneys."
To which Trump added: "We'll take care of that."
Palmer and Hartmann left the canvassers meeting without signing the official statement of votes for Wayne County, and the following day, they unsuccessfully attempted to rescind their votes in favor of certification, filing legal affidavits claiming they were pressured.
The moves from Palmer, Hartmann and Trump, had they been successful, threatened to throw the statewide certification of Michigan's 2020 election into doubt.
The revelation of the contents of the call with the former president comes as he faces four counts of criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States and its voters of the rightful outcome of the election. Efforts to prevent certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s 154,000-vote victory in Michigan are an integral part of the indictment.
The call involving Trump, McDaniel, Hartmann and Palmer occurred within 30 minutes of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers meeting ending on Nov. 17, 2020, according to records reviewed by The News.
The recordings further demonstrated the direct involvement of Trump, as an incumbent president, with Republican officials in Michigan in a bid to undermine Biden's win and how some details of his efforts had remained secret as he launched a campaign to win back the White House in 2024.
Neither Palmer nor McDaniel and Trump, through spokespeople, disputed a summary of the call when contacted by The News. Hartmann died in 2021.
The News listened to audio that was captured in four recordings by someone present for the conversation between Trump and the canvassers. That information came to The News through an intermediary who also heard the recordings but who was not present when they were made. Sources presented the information to The News on the condition that they not be identified publicly for fear of retribution by the former president or his supporters.
The timestamp of the first recording was 9:55 p.m. Nov. 17, 2020. The time was consistent with Verizon phone records obtained by a U.S. House committee that showed Palmer received calls from McDaniel at 9:53 p.m. and 10:04 p.m.
Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesman, said Trump's actions "were taken in furtherance of his duty as president of the United States to faithfully take care of the laws and ensure election integrity, including investigating the rigged and stolen 2020 presidential election."
"President Trump and the American people have the constitutional right to free and fair elections," Cheung said.
Allegations that the 2020 election was "stolen" remain unproven. In Michigan, a Republican-controlled state Senate committee investigated the claims and found no evidence of widespread fraud.
Palmer acknowledged to The News that she and Hartmann took the call from Trump in a vehicle and that other people entered the vehicle and could have heard the conversation. She said she could not, however, identify who entered the vehicle or might have heard the conversation.
Palmer told The News repeatedly that she didn't remember what was stated on the phone call with McDaniel and Trump.
McDaniel, a Wayne County resident, said she stood by her past push for an audit of the election in Michigan, a request she and then-Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox made in a Nov. 21, 2020, letter to the Board of State Canvassers.
“What I said publicly and repeatedly at the time, as referenced in my letter on Nov. 21, 2020, is that there was ample evidence that warranted an audit," McDaniel said in a statement.
But Jonathan Kinloch, who was a Democratic member of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers in November 2020, said what happened on the call with Trump was "insane."
“It’s just shocking that the president of the United States was at the most minute level trying to stop the election process from happening," said Kinloch, a Wayne County commissioner.
Despite the urging from McDaniel to seek an audit or not sign the certification, Michigan law required county canvassers across the state to prepare a statement of the votes in their counties and advance the findings to the Secretary of State's office.
About 18% of Michigan's population resides in Wayne County, and there were about 878,000 votes cast there for the November 2020 election.
Palmer previously said she left the Nov. 17, 2020, Wayne County Board of Canvassers meeting prior to physically signing the certification. As she was leaving, Trump called out of a "genuine concern for my safety," Palmer told reporters three years ago.
Back then, she described the contents of the Nov. 17, 2020, call with Trump as "Thank you for your service. I’m glad you're safe. Have a good night.”
The segments of the call reviewed by The News didn’t include those comments.
However, in the days after the call on Nov. 17, 2020, Palmer and Hartmann publicly attempted to rescind their votes and said "intense bullying and coercion" plus bad legal advice forced them to agree to certify the election after they had voted no.
'Never know what happened'
During an interview in September 2021, Palmer told the U.S. House's Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol that she couldn't recall the exact words that Trump used on the call and whether he raised issues related to the election.
The recordings reviewed by The News, which covered four minutes of a longer exchange that could have lasted no more than 11 minutes, according to phone records, clearly showed that Trump was focused on the 2020 election.
Trump said Republicans had been "cheated on this election" and "everybody knows Detroit is crooked as hell," according to the recordings.
McDaniel said if Hartmann and Palmer certified the election without forcing an audit to occur, the public would "never know what happened in Detroit."
"How can anybody sign something when you have more votes than people?" Trump asked the canvassers, according to the recordings.
About 13 hours after the call, Trump posted on social media about Wayne County, again saying there were more votes than people.
"The two harassed patriot canvassers refuse to sign the papers," Trump added, referring to Hartmann and Palmer.
Want to subscribe?Five benefits of a digital subscription to The Detroit News
Trump's statement about there being more votes than people was inaccurate. There were only out-of-balance precincts in Detroit where there were mismatches between the number of ballots counted and the number of voters tracked. The absentee ballot poll books at 70% of Detroit's 134 absentee counting boards were initially found to be out of balance without explanation, an outcome that was not unusual for the largest city in Michigan.
In addition, Trump performed better in Detroit in 2020 than 2016, with his percentage of votes rising from 3% to 5%, and the Republican receiving 5,200 more votes in 2020 than four years earlier, according to the city's official results.
Jonathan Brater, Michigan's election director, said in an affidavit that the overall difference citywide in absentee ballots tabulated and names in poll books in Detroit was 150. There were "fewer ballots tabulated than names in the poll books," Brater said.
"If ballots had been illegally counted, there would be substantially more, not slightly fewer, ballots tabulated than names in the poll books," Brater said.
A call at night
The high-profile Wayne County canvassers meeting drew a national spotlight as supporters of Trump publicly urged the board not to certify the election based on unproven allegations of widespread fraud focused on vote counting in Detroit, a Democratic stronghold that's located in Wayne County.
Hartmann and Palmer initially voted to block the certification of the county's election, withholding the votes needed to approve certification. But later in the meeting, they changed course and supported certifying the election based on the condition that an audit take place of some precincts within Wayne County.
Later, Hartmann and Palmer refused to sign the official certification paperwork and publicly acknowledged they received a call from Trump and McDaniel.
Palmer and Hartmann participated in the call inside a vehicle that was parked outside the county's election department building on East Jefferson Avenue in Detroit, Palmer said. Hartmann was sitting next to Palmer during the call, she said.
Kinloch said Hartmann and Palmer left the meeting room on the night of Nov. 17, 2020, and never came back to sign the official statement of the votes for Wayne County.
The Michigan Bureau of Elections later told county officials the vote that occurred and the signatures of the chair or vice chair of the four-member canvassing board and the county clerk were the only things necessary to advance the certification to the State Board of Canvassers, Kinloch said.
The state board certified the 2020 presidential election on Nov. 23, 2020, solidifying Biden's victory in Michigan.
During the Nov. 17, 2020, call, Trump specifically told the Republican canvassers they'd look "terrible" if they signed the certification after initially voting against certification.
Chris Thomas, a lawyer who served as Michigan's elections director for more than three decades, said the Republican canvassers in Wayne County had no legal reason to block certification of the election.
It's pretty unfortunate, Thomas said, that Republican leaders offered to give them something, legal protection, for not doing their jobs.
"Offering something of value to a public official to not perform a required duty may raise legal issues for a person doing so," Thomas said.
As an expert in political dynamics and electoral processes, I'd like to provide an analysis of the events described in the article. The information presented in this article reveals a significant episode involving then-President Donald Trump and two Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers during the certification process of the 2020 presidential election.
1. Personal Pressure on Canvassers: The article describes how Trump personally pressured Monica Palmer and William Hartmann, the two GOP Wayne County canvassers, not to sign the certification of the 2020 election. The pressure came during a phone call on November 17, 2020, in which Trump, alongside Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, urged the canvassers not to certify the election results.
2. Trump's Direct Involvement: Recordings reviewed by The Detroit News reveal Trump's direct involvement, where he expressed concern about looking "terrible" if the canvassers signed the certification after initially opposing it. The call took place within 30 minutes of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers meeting ending, indicating a swift response to the canvassers' initial votes.
3. Legal Implications: The canvassers, Palmer and Hartmann, left the meeting without signing the official statement of votes, attempting to rescind their votes the next day. This move could have cast doubt on the statewide certification of Michigan's 2020 election. The article highlights that such actions, if successful, could have jeopardized the certification process and potentially raised legal questions.
4. Political Manipulation and Allegations: The recordings illustrate Trump's narrative that the election was "cheated" and that Detroit had issues. Trump urged the canvassers not to sign the certification without an audit, raising doubts about the election process. However, allegations of widespread fraud in Michigan were later investigated by a Republican-controlled state Senate committee, which found no evidence to support such claims.
5. Public and Legal Responses: The article mentions that neither Palmer nor McDaniel and Trump disputed the summary of the call. However, Palmer's acknowledgment that she couldn't remember the details of the call raises questions about the canvassers' motivations. Legal experts, such as Jonathan Brater and Chris Thomas, provide perspectives on the legal implications of the canvassers' actions.
6. Verification of Recordings: The Detroit News listened to four recordings made by an unidentified person present during the call. The information came through an intermediary who also heard the recordings but was not present during their creation. The timestamp of the first recording aligns with phone records obtained by a U.S. House committee.
In conclusion, this episode underscores the intensity of political maneuvering during the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. It reveals direct involvement by then-President Trump in pressuring local canvassers, raising questions about the integrity of the certification process and the role of political figures in influencing election outcomes.