‘Mad Dash’: Trump’s demand for a Texas ‘audit’ caught Gov. Abbott off guard

Donald Trump’s letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott demanding he pursue an “audit” of the 2020 election set off a “mad dash” in the governor’s office as aides sought to figure out just how serious the former president was, according to two sources familiar with the situation.

In the letter, Trump called on Abbott to hold a “Forensic Audit of the 2020 Election” and pass HB 16, a bill recently filed in the Third Special Session of the Texas legislature, which would allow for an Arizona-style “audit” of the presidential election.

“Despite my big win in Texas, I hear Texans want an election audit!” Trump wrote in a public letter addressed to Abbott on Thursday. “Texas needs you to act now. Your Third Special Session is the perfect, and maybe last, opportunity to pass this audit bill. Time is running out.”

Just hours after Trump released the letter, a statement was put out by Sam Taylor, assistant secretary of state for communications, who said the office had “already begun the process” of reviewing 2020 votes in the state’s two largest Democrat and two largest Republican counties: Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Collin. Trump only won Collin County, and Biden won Dallas, Harris and Tarrant counties in 2020.

During an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” Abbott said that the audits “began months ago”— a statement that echoed the claim made by the office of the secretary of state.

“State audits conducted by the Texas Secretary of State’s office have already been underway for months,” Renae Eze, press secretary for the governor, said in a statement. “Under federal law, county election officials only have to keep these materials for 22 months, and it is imperative that all aspects of elections conducted in 2020 are examined before the counties clear out these materials in September 2022.”

But in reports from both the Texas Tribune and CNN, local officials in counties targeted by the “audit” said they had not learned of the review until Thursday’s statement from the secretary of state’s office.

And behind the scenes, the Texas governor’s office was caught off guard by Trump, whose letter made no mention of “audits” already underway. There had not been contact between Trump and Abbott ahead of the release, and Abbott’s office was uncertain if they could meet Trump’s demands to pass HB16 without complicating the legislative agenda. One Texas political aide familiar with how the process played out said, “The secretary of state‘s decision to call for audits in the four largest counties in Texas was predicated on Trump’s statement mentioning Gov. Abbott.”

“There was a mad dash to determine if Trump was actually being serious with his statement and it was decided this was the best route to take without blowing up the special session,” the aide said.

The scramble among Abbott’s team to placate the president illustrated the degree to which Trump and his election conspiracies continue to set the rules of engagement for virtually all other GOP elected officials.

Trump won Texas by 6 percentage points — over 600,000 votes — in the 2020 election, which raises questions as to why he would want the result audited. Indeed, the decision by the secretary of state’s office (a position that has been vacant for months) prompted criticism about eroding public trust in elections and the use of taxpayer dollars.

Ruth Ruggero Hughs stepped down as Texas secretary of state in May 2021 after the Texas Senate refused to confirm her position. Now, the governor is poised to pick the state’s next top elections officer, who will have new powers via the new Republican elections bill.

Earlier this year, a deputy to Hughs told lawmakers that “Texas had an election that was smooth and secure.”

In a statement, Taylor said he expected the state legislature to provide funds for the audit. In his Fox News interview, meanwhile, the governor defended the audits.

“Why do we audit everything in this world, but people raised their hands in concern when we audit elections, which is fundamental to our democracy?” Abbott said on Fox News Sunday. “We have a responsibility to ensure the integrity and confidence in the elections in the state of Texas.”

Trump’s push for Texas to hold an audit came one day before a Republican-commissioned report was released in the state of Arizona concerning a so-called “audit” there. The effort was criticized extensively for being the purview of conspiracy theorists intent on finding a way to flip the state to Trump. But the final report reaffirmed President Joe Biden’s victory and did not find evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Democrats say they fear that the audits and voting restriction bills making their way through GOP statehouses are pretenses for Republicans — led by Trump — to challenge the election in 2024 should the party again lose the presidency.

Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.

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