ELECTIONS

'We need you to stop the counting': Records detail intense efforts by Trump allies to pressure Maricopa County supervisors

Yvonne Wingett Sanchez
Arizona Republic

Then-President Donald Trump tried to speak directly with the chair of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in the weeks after the November 2020 election as his allies sought to change the election results in a state he narrowly lost to Democrat Joe Biden.

New records obtained by The Arizona Republic reveal the behind-the scenes efforts by Trump, his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, and state GOP Chair Kelli Ward to pressure the county supervisors, who make up the elected body that oversees elections in the state’s most populous county. 

Text messages and voicemails make clear that Trump’s allies were fixated on how the supervisors were going to address what the Trump team deemed as voting irregularities. Those concerns included the software used in voting machines, and how to reconcile Trump's underperformance around the county compared with other GOP candidates.

The Republic obtained the material through a public information request to Maricopa County seeking all records documenting calls made to county supervisors from Trump, Giuliani, Sidney Powell and any other individuals representing the White House or the Trump campaign from Nov. 1, 2020, through late May.

In 2020, Biden flipped precincts that had voted for Trump by small margins in 2016, helping to deliver Biden the White House. It contributed to a loss Trump still has not accepted. He still hopes the Republican-commissioned ballot review in Arizona will vindicate his unfounded position.

Much of the attention from Trump's allies was focused on Supervisor Clint Hickman,  the 56-year-old lifelong Republican from a prominent West Valley family that runs an egg company.

At the time, Hickman chaired the five-member Republican-controlled board, a position that gave him the power to set agendas, hold hearings on the election process, and certify — or delay — the 2020 election results. 

But others also felt the pressure, too.

'POTUS will probably be calling you,' Hickman learns

On Nov. 13, hours after a late-evening ballot update from Maricopa County clinched Biden’s victory in Arizona, Ward delivered a missive to Hickman: “POTUS will probably be calling you.” 

It was the same day GOP officials had tried and failed to have more county ballots reinspected by hand.

Hickman, who is not close to Ward, sought to avoid a call from the president. He texted back that it looked as if the board would be in a private executive session and he would be unavailable.

Maricopa County Supervisor Clint Hickman listens as County Recorder Stephen Richer speaks during a Board of Supervisors meeting about the Senate audit of Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election in Phoenix on May 17, 2021.

“I cannot talk about litigation,” he wrote. 

The president didn’t want to talk about the ongoing lawsuits, Ward responded.

“Just a check in from the President of the United States,” she wrote. “...So I guess that means you could/should  take the call.”

The call didn’t come immediately. 

Hickman’s phone rang weeks later, about 8:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, while he was on a date with his wife and friends in north-central Phoenix. He didn’t recognize the number carrying Washington, D.C.’s, area code and let it go to voicemail. 

Hickman quickly listened to the message. The White House switchboard wanted him to call back so he could talk to the president, he recalled in an interview with The Arizona Republic. Hickman did not return the call and later deleted that voicemail, he said. 

Three days later, news broke of Trump’s Jan. 2 phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which Trump encouraged him to “find” enough votes to reverse Trump’s narrow loss there.

Hickman recalled listening to the leaked audio of that hour-long phone call on Jan. 3,  after the Washington Post and other media outlets published the recording.

“I was horrified,” Hickman said.

That same night, at 9:22 p.m. — approaching midnight in Washington — his phone buzzed again. It was the same area code again. He let it go to voicemail again. 

“Hello, sir. This is the White House operator I was calling to let you know that the president's available to take your call if you're free,” the voicemail said. “If you could please give us a call back, sir, that’d be great. You have a good evening.” 

Hickman said he presumed Trump would try to pressure him to change the election results or outline election conspiracies, just as he had done to Georgia officials, so he never returned that call, either. 

“I didn’t want to walk into that space,” Hickman said. The calls came amid ongoing election-related litigation and he wanted to avoid anything that could be deemed as improper communication, he said. 

“I’m not going to tape a president, so I’m not going to talk to a president. … I didn’t want to have a very rough call to my home on a Sunday night.” 

Hickman, along with other members of the Board of Supervisors, the county recorder and other elected county officials maintain there was no evidence of fraud, misconduct, or malfunction that had led to Trump’s loss. 

By early January, Hickman had publicly pleaded with constituents and elected officials to “dial back the rhetoric, rumors and false claims” about the election’s integrity. He faced mounting pressure from Republicans to conduct a recount. 

Although the county sought to demonstrate its election was fair and accurate and certified the results, it was not enough to put to rest concerns the election had somehow been rigged against Trump, or that the county’s election procedures were somehow amiss. 

After subpoenas, court battles and talk of arresting the county supervisors, a judge acknowledged that the GOP-controlled state Senate could review all 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County to audit results of the 2020 presidential and U.S. Senate races.

The results of the review, whose methods have been widely criticized by election experts, are expected later this summer.

GOP Chair Kelli Ward texts, calls supervisors

While Hickman and others on the county’s board sought to instill confidence in their ballot count, Ward pressed them to further question it. 

When her efforts failed, Ward declared them “unAmerican.” 

Text messages and voicemails revealed multipronged attempts by Ward to halt Trump’s impending loss in Arizona.

She tried to get the supervisors "to stop the counting," delay certifying the results and to look into whether voting software added votes for Democrats. Her attempts continued as Trump’s legal challenges fell short across the country. 

Text messages and voicemails revealed multipronged attempts by Arizona Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward to halt Trump’s impending loss in Arizona.

Ward’s pressure campaign with Hickman began in earnest on Nov. 7, as votes were still being counted. Problems with tabulation machines, she wrote, were “harming Jack,” a reference to Republican Supervisor Jack Sellers, who for a time trailed his Democratic opponent but won by just 403 votes out of more than 470,000 cast. 

“A hand count before counts are complete is CRUCIAL,” she wrote. “Make this happen!”

Hickman responded there were Republicans, a federal oversight committee and "staff who report to you overseeing tabulation."

He texted, “Jack’s interests are covered."

Ward complained election observers were unable to see and “people need transparency of a human evaluation of the ballots."

After Hickman pressed for specifics, Ward responded, “We need you to stop the counting.” 

On Nov. 13, the day Biden was projected to beat Trump in Georgia, Ward began messaging Hickman at 5:38 a.m. She asked him to “at least get an independent computer expert” to look into whether there were issues counting some ballots, given questions over the use of markers on ballots

“Not someone who already works there,” she wrote. “These ballots can be counted manually, assuming nobody deleted the folder holding the ambiguous ballot scans. If the folder was deleted, federal data forensics teams could theoretically undelete it and perhaps track down the person who deleted it. What if election fraud was as easy as dragging votes from one folder to another?” 

Hickman tried to convey that a screenshot of information she had texted him was not from machines used by the county. Given the litigation at the time, he asked her to send the rest of her questions to his official county office. 

“We want you guys to do the right thing — prove to millions of AZ voters that the Maricopa vote is legit,” she wrote. “Don’t try to simply tell us that the recorder and elections dept say it’s fine. Prove it to AZ and to America. You have all the power you need to make it happen.” 

Hickman, she wrote, would probably be hearing from the president. 

Records show Hickman stopped responding to her messages, but she continued to send them. 

Ward to supervisor: 'You all have the ability to be real heroes'

The next day, on Nov. 14,   she texted Republican Supervisor Steve Chucri and told him the supervisors still had the chance to save the day. 

“I want you guys to be well-armed with info as you go into this,” Ward texted. "You all have the ability to be real heroes.” 

She told Chucri that Sidney Powell, an attorney drawing national attention for claiming unsubstantiated election fraud, wanted to talk to him. 

“I have her number. But she wants you to review a little bit of data first,” Ward texted. “Where can I send it?” 

Chucri told Ward he couldn’t talk because of the litigation and expressed his surprise with Ward’s own “actions against the board to call us out to other Republicans and beat down our doors and phone lines to do things that we don’t have statutory authority to do on our own.” 

Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Chucri

Ward’s efforts continued. 

On Nov. 16,  she texted him to say it was important to evaluate certain scanner machines, examine ballot files and asked how the county handled adjudication of ballots with stray marks. 

The next day, Ward pressed Chucri, Hickman and Republican Supervisor Bill Gates  to contact Powell, who was drawing national attention for her promise in a Fox Business Network interview to “release the Kraken.” Ultimately, Trump's legal team distanced themselves from Powell.

Ward texted Chucri, “Did you call Sidney Powell? Perhaps you and one other member can call her so there are no open meeting violations.” She texted Powell’s phone number. Chucri never spoke to Powell, who at one point after the election had left him a voicemail asking him to call her back, he recalled. He didn't.

Ward also texted Powell's number to Gates. "Not asking you to talk to me. Please talk to her." He never did.

That same day, at 7:38 a.m., Ward asked Hickman on their text thread to call Powell and sent her phone number. Hickman said he never called Powell. 

Later that day, in an open letter to constituents, Hickman said the county’s voting system was accurate and reliable. There was no evidence of fraud, misconduct or malfunction, his letter said. 

Vice-chairman Bill Gates (from left), Chairman Jack Sellers and Supervisor Clint Hickman attend a Maricopa County Board of Supervisors meeting about the Senate audit of Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election in Phoenix on May 17, 2021.

“Board members listened to and considered many theories about the election results,” it continued. “We asked, and continue to ask critical questions of County staff and none of these theories have proven true or raised the possibility the outcome of the election would be different.”

On Nov. 20, the Board of Supervisors was scheduled to certify Biden's win over Trump.

Ward’s texts became more pointed.

At 6:30 a.m. that day, Ward texted Gates, "Can we talk today now that the lawsuit is over? There are so many abnormalities that must be adjudicated. I know the Republican board doesn’t want to be remembered as the entity who led the charge to certify a fraudulent election.”     

After sending information alleging fraud — and shortly before the board voted to accept the election results, she texted him, “Sounds like your fellow Repubs are throwing in the towel. Very sad. And unAmerican.” 

He did not respond. 

That same morning, she texted a similar message to Hickman.

“The lawsuit is gone so I guess you can talk to me now,” she wrote. “There are so many abnormalities that must be adjudicated. I know you don’t want to be remembered as the guy who led the charge to certify a fraudulent election.” 

That day, Ward also texted Chucri about what she deemed as irregular voting patterns, particularly in two Republican-represented congressional districts.  

She asked Chucri why the Board of Supervisors had decided to canvass the election results. 

“Why not wait for 11/23,” she asked. “Seems you’re playing for the wrong team and people will remember. *WRONG team.” 

On Dec. 3, after Trump publicly ruminated about a “rigged election” and running in 2024 if necessary, Ward resumed her appeals to the county’s officials.

She texted Chucri that he should “demand to look at all duplicate ballots” and claimed, “We found votes that were changed. They don’t want us to see the rest. Despicable.” 

A day later, she texted Chucri, “POTUS may be calling you. And Clint.” 

Chucri reiterated his position that he supported the auditing of tabulation machines: “voter confidence in this election and future elections is paramount.”

She replied, “I told him you were the most open minded and also most influential with others. I also told him you might be mad/irritated with me.” 

Chucri never heard from the president, he said. 

Ward did not respond to The Republic's request to talk about her communications.

Giuliani: 'The president wanted me to give you a call'

Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, also made calls to supervisors before and after his Nov. 30 meeting about the election outcome with a handful of Republican state lawmakers, who outlined their election concerns at a downtown Phoenix hotel. 

Sometime in mid- to late November, around the time Chucri went public with supporting a third-party audit of the county’s tabulation machines as a way to address some concerns about the election, Giuliani had reached out to him. 

“I see we’re gonna get a chance to take a good look at those machines. And we've got people that are ready to come out right now. Let’s get it done quickly. And at least get some preliminary stuff done right away," Giuliani said in a voicemail as music blared around him. "So give me a call as soon as you get a chance. The president also wanted me to pass on a few things to you, too." 

Chucri said he met with Giuliani for 10 minutes or so in a caucus room at the state Capitol around the time Giuliani had been in Phoenix to meet with the lawmakers. 

“He said, ‘Well, I understand you support an audit,’” Chucri recalled. “And I said, ‘I do. But I think it might be for different reasons than you.’ And there was a very civil and nice conversation. And he said we can agree to disagree on some of this.”

On Dec. 4, Giuliani sought to speak with Hickman

“I was very happy to see that there's going to be a forensic audit of the machines,” Giuliani said. “And I really wanted to talk to you about it a bit. The president wanted me to give you a call. All right. Thank you. Give me a call back. I’d really appreciate it.” 

It was a message Hickman did not return, given ongoing litigation about the election results. 

The civil tones couldn’t change the escalating split among Republicans.

On Dec. 23, Trump urged Georgia’s chief elections investigator to uncover “dishonesty” in the election there to undo Biden's win. The next day, Christmas Eve, Giuliani tried to reach Gates and Sellers through separate phone calls.

Not knowing it was the president’s personal attorney calling, Gates let the call go to voicemail. 

“If you get a chance, would you please give me a call,” Giuliani said. “I have a few things I'd like to talk over with you. Maybe we can get this thing fixed up. You know, I really think it's a shame that Republicans sort of are both in this kind of situation. And I think there may be a nice way to resolve this for everybody."

That same day, about the same time, he left a message for Sellers, according to a transcription of the voicemail from county officials.

“I’m hoping we could have a chance to have a conversation,” Giuliani said. “I’d like to see if there’s a way that we can resolve this so that it comes out well for everyone. We’re all Republicans, I think we have the same goal … Let’s see if we can get this done outside of the court, gosh.” 

Sellers never returned the call.

“What he was suggesting was, let's find a way to get this out of the court," Sellers told The Republic. "And I didn't feel that was an option, so I didn't call."

Arizona’s GOP-controlled state Senate subpoenaed Maricopa County's ballots and election machines. The county board voted to sue the Senate, citing an abuse of power, but eventually a judge sided with state lawmakers, paving the way for the Senate-controlled audit.

Eventually, the supervisors did hire outside auditors, who found voting machines had not been tampered with or hacked.  

In retrospect: What do supervisors say?

Looking back, Hickman said Trump and his team's months-long pressure campaign against Biden's win set a dangerous precedent that could bring lasting damage to the county as an institution and to future elections. 

"Nobody truly understands what our job is as publicly elected officials that swear an oath, and part of that is to protect ... the secret ballot. ... We've tried to protect the processes and procedures that counties use to tabulate votes," Hickman said.

For a time after the election, Hickman received death threats. Protesters showed up at his house, sheriff's deputies were dispatched to protect him and his family there, and his wife got a phone call from someone threatening sexual violence, he said. He rarely left his house but remembers doing so on the night of Jan. 6, after a pro-Trump mob rioted at the U.S. Capitol and the same day his role as a chair of the Board of Supervisors came to an end. 

"This has just been a troubling time in my public service, really, that's all I can say," he said. "I didn't do public service for this."

Gates said he took Ward's texts to him seriously, given his job as someone entrusted with certifying elections. But knowing now what he didn't know then, he said they also were part of an orchestrated effort to thwart the results of the election. 

"Looking back on it, it's clear that this was part of a concerted effort that actually, I would argue, started even before the election results came in, when you had the president saying he was going to decide whether he was going to acknowledge the results once he found out how it came out," Gates said. "At the time, I thought it was being done in good faith, and now looking back on it." 

Chucri said he didn't see the efforts by Ward and Giuliani as pressure because early on he had expressed his support for further examination of the results.

"I didn't feel the pressure because I did what I believed, and they were saying some of these things after I've already said what I believe," Chucri said. 

Sellers, who is now months into his chairmanship of the board, said he is frustrated by the entire episode in part because it has diverted attention from other county priorities.

Sellers said he is still gobsmacked by the treatment of Hickman, who was supportive of Trump's presidency, met him on the airport tarmac during one visit and even got a shoutout from Trump during a rally.

"It's just incredible how little it took for the president and all the president's men to turn on the people that have been very faithful to him," Sellers said.

Have news to share about Arizona politics? Reach the reporter on Twitter and Facebook. Contact her at yvonne.wingett@arizonarepublic.com and 602-444-4712.

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