The adviser insisted later that he was referring to past Democratic efforts to accuse Republicans of voter suppression.
A senior member of Donald Trump's reelection campaign was caught admitting to Republican voter suppression efforts in an audio recording obtained and published by the Associated Press on Friday, claiming the campaign planned to closely monitor "rural areas" where Democrats supposedly "cheat."
Justin Clark, a political adviser and senior counsel for the Trump campaign, specifically said the party planned to engage in such efforts in 2020, though he insisted later that his comments implied Republicans would simply be monitoring the polls more closely in the coming election.
"Traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places," Clark said in the recording, which was first captured by One Wisconsin Now on Nov. 21, as part of a broader 2020 discussion event, and provided to the liberal opposition research group American Bridge.
"Let's start protecting our voters. We know where they are. ... Let's start playing offense a little bit. That's what you're going to see in 2020. It's going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program."
Clark was speaking at a private event with Republicans in Wisconsin. When confronted with the remarks he claimed they had been taken out of context.
"As should be clear from the context of my remarks, my point was that Republicans historically have been falsely accused of voter suppression and that it is time we stood up to defend our own voters," he told the AP over the weekend. "Neither I nor anyone I know or work with would condone anyone’s vote being threatened or diluted and our efforts will be focused on preventing just that."
Clark also told the attendees in the recording that, in his conversations with Trump, Trump had frequently brought up voter fraud, which has often been shown to be statistically nonexistent but is often used by Republicans as an excuse to engage in voter suppression.
Referring to the party's efforts in Wisconsin, Clark said Trump is "committed to this, he believes in it and he will do whatever it takes to make sure it’s successful."
Clark reportedly claimed the Trump camp planned to "focus on rural areas around mid-size cities like Eau Claire and Green Bay, areas he says where Democrats 'cheat,'" but did not provide any examples to explain what he meant.
"Cheating doesn’t just happen when you lose a county, cheating happens at the margin overall," he said, in the recording. "What we’re going to be able to do, if we can recruit the bodies to do it, is focus on these places. That’s where our voters are."
Trump won Wisconsin by 1.3% in 2016. Previously, the state had voted for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election between 1988 and 2012.
Wisconsin has been the site of conservative efforts to manipulate the voting process in favor of Republicans for several years.
After the 2016 election, the state's then-Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, noted that voter suppression assisted the party's efforts there.
"We battled to get voter ID on the ballot for the November ’16 election," he told a local radio host, connecting the campaign to Trump's surprise win the state. As a result, the state had its lowest voter turnout in two and a half decades, especially among black voters who are disproportionately affected by voter ID laws.
A conservative group, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, recently won a lawsuit that seeks to purge as many as 230,000 votes from the state's voter rolls.
Wisconsin's Republican-dominated state legislature has kept gerrymandered legislative districts that favor Republicans in place, despite voters backing nonpartisan districts. The party has attempted to cut off early voting there as well.
At the national and state level Republican officials have been increasing efforts to suppress the vote ahead of the 2020 election, purging voter rolls and making it more difficult for reeinfranchised voters to cast a ballot.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D), who ousted former Republican Gov. Scott Walker in November 2018, has since responded to Clark's comments, saying engaging in any sort of voter suppression efforts would be "bad for our democracy."
"If there’s bad behavior on the part of one side or the other to prevent people from voting, this is bad for our democracy," Evers said. "And frankly, I think will whoever does that, it will work to their disadvantage. It will make them look, frankly, stupid."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.