By Jeremy Herb and Sunlen Serfaty, CNN
The day after the 2020 election, conservative lawyer Cleta Mitchell was wrapping up her work in Montana when she got a phone call that would send her on a path to become one of former President Donald Trump’s most devout election conspiracy crusaders.
Mark Meadows was on the other line. The Republican congressman-turned Trump’s White House chief of staff wanted to know if Mitchell could go to Georgia, where the Trump political operation was preparing to turn to the courts as Trump’s path to victory narrowed, Mitchell explained last week on a newly launched podcast about election fraud.
“I was just putting in the coordinates to get the directions to go to the airport in Bozeman to fly home, and I got a call from Mark Meadows,” Mitchell said on her podcast, “Who’s Counting?”
The call from Meadows led to a series of events that have now put Mitchell squarely in the middle of congressional efforts to investigate the events leading up to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
Mitchell is among three people whom a new Senate report singles out for further examination, pointing to her involvement in Trump’s efforts to convince both the Justice Department and state officials to back his claims of fraud.
After the election, Mitchell worked as a volunteer legal adviser to Trump’s campaign in Georgia, helping to file a December 2020 lawsuit in the state seeking to invalidate the presidential election results by alleging widespread voter fraud. In early January, Mitchell participated in Trump’s infamous phone call where he asked Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes for him to win.
The fallout over the call cost Mitchell her job at her law firm, which was unaware she was helping Trump’s campaign. The call is now a key part of the Fulton County District Attorney’s criminal investigation into Trump’s attempts to overturn the state’s 2020 election results.
In the months since, as Trump has doubled down on his lies about the election and vowed revenge against Republicans who crossed him, Mitchell has remained at the forefront of a group of lawyers and congressional allies echoing his voter fraud claims.
Mitchell was hired earlier this year by conservative advocacy groups to help pass laws restricting voting in several states. She also helped funnel money to groups working on the partisan Arizona ballot review that Trump and his allies have twisted to advance their false narrative. And she’s continued to raise doubts about the 2020 election result, making allegations about missing or duplicate ballots that have been repeatedly debunked.
“One of the great advantages of resigning from my law firm is that I can devote all my time to something I love,” Mitchell told The Associated Press in a March interview.
Mitchell declined CNN’s requests to be interviewed for this story.
From Democrat to ardent Trump backer
Mitchell has worked as a lawyer on elections and campaign finance issues in Republican politics for several decades in Washington, though her political career began as a Democrat. Mitchell won a seat in the Oklahoma state legislature in 1976 and served for eight years. She launched an unsuccessful bid as a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 1986.
A decade later, Mitchell became an independent and then eventually registered Republican. She worked as an election lawyer for the national Republican Party, as well as conservative groups like the National Rifle Association.
She was known for many years as one of the conservative wing’s most prominent voices alleging voter fraud, even before Trump’s 2020 campaign.
Mitchell quietly joined Trump’s post-election efforts in Georgia, helping prepare the Trump campaign’s December court case to contest Georgia’s presidential election results, making debunked claims there were “literally tens of thousands of illegal votes” in Georgia.
“We called ourselves team deplorables,” she said on her podcast.
Emails obtained by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats show how Mitchell also took part in the White House’s efforts to convince the Justice Department of its fraud claims. On December 30, she sent Meadows a copy of the lawsuit filed against Raffensperger and offered to provide the Justice Department with 1,800 pages of exhibits.
Meadows forwarded the email to acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen. “Can you have your team look into these allegations of wrongdoing. Only the alleged fraudulent activity,” he asked.
The exchange is now part of what’s understood to be a larger, persistent push by Trump and those around him to co-opt Justice Department leadership into supporting his election fraud accusations.
A fateful phone call
Mitchell remained under the radar outside of Washington circles until the audio of Trump’s hourlong January 2 call with Raffensperger was leaked — and she was featured prominently.
Trump insisted on the call that there were tens of thousands of fraudulent votes in Georgia, turning at several points to Mitchell for backup, while telling Raffensperger to find the number of votes he needed to win the state. Raffensperger and state attorneys repeatedly debunked Trump’s conspiracies about widespread fraud.
Also on the call, Mitchell discussed the campaign’s lawsuit to decertify Georgia’s results, and she pushed state officials to give the campaign access to voter data.
“We don’t have the records that you have. And one of the things that we have been suggesting formally and informally for weeks now is for you to make available to us the records that would be necessary,” Mitchell said to Raffensperger.
The repercussions were swift. Law firm Folley & Lardner, where Mitchell was a partner, was caught by surprise by her work for Trump’s campaign supporting his false claims of fraud. On January 5, two days after the call became public, the firm and Mitchell split.
Mitchell blamed her departure on “a massive pressure campaign in the last several days mounted by leftist groups” against her, according to an email she sent to friends.
Back in the fight
It didn’t take long for Mitchell to jump back into the fight over the 2020 election and Republican efforts to restrict voting.
She joined the limited-government advocacy group FreedomWorks in March to lead its “National Election Protection Initiative,” intended to help pass restrictive voting laws and purge voter rolls in the battleground states where Trump has claimed fraud, according to the conservative outlet Newsmax.
She also joined former South Carolina GOP Sen. Jim DeMint’s Conservative Partnership Institute as a senior legal fellow focused on election integrity. DeMint’s organization, which he launched in 2017 after he was ousted from the conservative Heritage Foundation, added Meadows as a senior partner after Trump’s term ended. The organization is hosting Mitchell’s new podcast.
Mitchell was involved with helping to fund the partisan Arizona ballot review of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, according to documents released by the Arizona Senate in response to a lawsuit and posted by the transparency group American Oversight.
They include July email correspondence from Mitchell arranging for wire payments from an escrow account totaling $1 million to three subcontractors working with the Cyber Ninjas, the group that carried out the partisan ballot review.
Randy Pullen, a spokesman for the Cyber Ninjas, told The Arizona Republic last month that he had known Mitchell for 20 years and “indirectly” helped her get involved with the audit. Pullen said Mitchell solicited donations for the account.
In the emails, Mitchell wrote that the funding to the subcontractors was coming from the “American Voting Rights Foundation,” though it’s not clear what the organization is or its affiliations. Thomas Datwyler, whom she cited as the group’s treasurer, told the Republic that the organization had been created in June and he could not speak about the foundation’s work.
Through a spokesperson, Mitchell did not respond to a request for comment on the funding. Pullen and Datwyler did not respond to requests from CNN for comment.
In the March interview with The Associated Press, Mitchell declined to detail her conversations with Trump about the push to restrict voting laws, but noted, “I’m in touch with the president fairly frequently.”
In her first podcast episode, she vowed to help his efforts to support candidates to run in state elections who embrace his lies about the election being stolen. “We’re going to take those election offices back,” Mitchell said, “and we need you to help us.”
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CNN’s Katelyn Polantz and Stephanie Giambruno contributed to this report.