Ex-Trump advisor purged from federal elections board after left-wing pressure campaign, emails show

“I do find it ironic that a group that supposedly promotes ‘free speech for people’ organized a campaign to make sure that the opinions and views of people like me are not heard,” Mitchell said.
An election worker places a box of scanned ballots on a pallet at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center on November 10, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona.

A federal agency did not reappoint a former Trump advisor to an elections advisory board called the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) after a left-wing activist group threatened to launch a public criticism campaign, according to emails obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation.

A close-up of a signDescription automatically generatedCleta Mitchell, a lawyer who is now the senior legal fellow at the Conservative Partnership Institute, was appointed to the advisory board for the Election in November 2021. After months of badgering United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) officials to oust Mitchell from the EAC board of advisors, Free Speech for People president John Bonifaz threatened to launch a “public campaign” criticizing the agency if it did not drop Mitchell at the end of her two-year term, emails obtained by the DCNF via public records request show.

“I am writing as a courtesy to let you know that, unless we hear from you by tomorrow, November 29, at 5 pm ET that the USCCR has decided not to reappoint Cleta Mitchell, we plan to launch a public campaign criticizing the USCCR for this decision, including by publicizing a copy of your 10/5/23 email below to me, which as you know is public record,” Bonifaz wrote on Nov. 28, 2023 to USCCR General Counsel David Ganz.

“I wanted to let you know about this so you’re not surprised if e.g. you or the Commission receive media calls,” Bonifaz added.

The threatening email seems to have worked. The next day, Free Speech for People, the same group that was behind several recent efforts to kick Trump off the ballot, celebrated that Mitchell would not be reappointed. Ganz had said in an Oct. 5 email that Mitchell’s appointment could not be withdrawn during her term, but suggested there may be alternate means of removing her from the board when her term expired.

The duties of the EAC, a federal agency established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, center on the administration of elections, including administering grant programs and offering voluntary voting system guidelines, testing and certification. Its board of advisors, comprised of 35 members appointed from a range of agencies and organizations such as the USCCR, reviews draft guidance and provides input to the EAC commissioners.

Mitchell’s appointment sparked backlash from Democrats and left-wing groups because her volunteer legal work for Trump’s 2020 campaign and her presence on a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call where Trump told Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes for him to win the state.

Mitchell told the DCNF she was not aware of Free Speech for People’s pressure, though she noted there were “a number of left-wing groups who went berserk when I was designated.”

“I do find it ironic that a group that supposedly promotes ‘free speech for people’ organized a campaign to make sure that the opinions and views of people like me are not heard,” Mitchell told the DCNF.

Free Speech for People was among the groups seeking to remove former President Donald Trump from the 2024 ballot under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, a ploy that was recently shut down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Free Speech for People filed lawsuits and urged election officials in various states to bar him from the ballot.

Trump-appointed USCCR commissioner J. Christian Adams told the DCNF he was not aware of Free Speech for People’s efforts. He said Republican commissioners were only able to get Mitchell appointed via a compromise with Democrats. The deal was Republicans would vote to approve President Joe Biden’s pick for USCCR chair and Democrats would support filling an open seat on the EAC board with a Republican — either Adams or Mitchell.

Now, since both USCCR’s appointments to the EAC board expired, he has been “agitating to have the process commenced to have these positions filled.” Neither Mitchell nor Democratic appointee law professor Jenny Carroll were reappointed after their terms expired.

“And as far as I can tell, nothing is being done by staff or the chair,” Adams told the DCNF.

Free Speech for People first sent a letter to USCCR staff director Mauro Morales in January 2023 calling for the withdrawal of Mitchell’s appointment, stating she was “deeply enmeshed in the disgraced former President Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 federal election.” It renewed that call in a July letter to Morales and the USCCR’s commissioners.

After the Fulton County grand jury’s final report revealed it had recommended charging Mitchell in the racketeering case against Trump, Bonifaz continued to push for her removal in emails. Mitchell was not indicted by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, whose case has since been bogged down by scandal.

Ganz told Bonifaz in an Oct. 5 email that the USCCR did not have the authority to “unilaterally revoke a post appointment” or remove a current member, though he noted the current appointees terms expired in November 2023. In light of this, he told Bonifaz he had requested USCCR commissioners “commence consideration of new appointments” to the board.

One agenda item for Nov. 1, 2023, the “Democratic Commissioner Caucus Call,” references an email from Bonifaz regarding new appointments to the EAC board. Yvesner Zamar, Special Assistant to USCCR Chair Rochelle Garza, wrote it was an issue that “has caused much consternation for The Commission and it doesn’t appear that will end soon.”

“There is uncertainty about how terms end automatically or rollover,” he wrote. “There are other outstanding considerations, but ultimately, we need to decide how we move forward. Most recently, outside inquiries were surprisingly punted over to me as the Chair’s Special Assistant regarding the appointment of new people.”

A Nov. 7 agenda item for a Democrat-only call included an “EAC Discussion” led by Vice Chair Victoria Nourse.

Zamar called Bonifaz shortly after his Nov. 28 email threat to tell him they were “working on appointing people” and would circle back with him the next week, according to an email he sent thanking him for taking the call.

It’s unclear precisely when the decision not to reappoint Mitchell was made, though an email the next day from Bonifaz suggests the USCCR sent the EAC a letter following his threat to launch a public campaign.

“We now understand that the USCCR has sent a letter to the EAC,” he wrote on Nov. 29. “Can you send us a copy of that letter or should we issue a FOIA request for it?”

A spokesperson for the EAC told the DCNF members on its board of advisors serve two-year terms.

“The USCCR informed the EAC that it would not be reappointing Ms. Mitchell for an additional term,” the spokesperson said.

Mitchell said she found out the same way.

“I just received a notice that both of the USCCR designees’ appointments were terminated,” she told the DCNF.

Free Speech for People pointed the DCNF to the public statement it issued after Mitchell’s removal.

“The election denier Cleta Mitchell had no place on the advisory board for the Election Assistance Commission and the US Commission on Civil Rights should never have appointed her to that position,” Bonifaz said at the time. “Today’s announcement is a triumph for our democracy.”

USCCR Chair Rochelle Garza declined to comment. Staff director Mauro Morales did not respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.


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