Hours before then-President Donald Trump sent his infamous late-night tweet on Dec. 19, 2020, encouraging supporters to come to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, where it would “be wild,” he met privately in the Oval Office with three key supporters: Attorney Sidney Powell, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and — somewhat improbably — Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com.
This was Byrne’s first meeting with the president, but theories he professed about the 2020 election being stolen had caught the attention of Trump allies like Powell. In an hourslong meeting marked by shouting and insults, according to testimony later provided to Congress, Byrne and his allies urged the president to seize voting machines, which he has argued publicly were “hacked” by the company Dominion using fraudulent software developed for former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. (This claim has been widely debunked by fact checkers.)
Until recently, Byrne has flown under the radar in national politics despite his ties with Trump, a large following on social media and spending big on the Arizona election audit. Today, he is focused not just on the 2020 election but on those ahead: Byrne funded a major poll-watching effort last year for the Virginia gubernatorial race, which was a success for Republicans and has launched a campaign to monitor the upcoming midterms in swing states.
“If I’m correct about the hackability of this election — if, in fact, what I say is true — then the insurrection was November 3rd,” said Byrne, who spoke with Grid on the phone and via text message. “We’re just trying to expose it.”
While not well known among the general population, the Jan. 6 congressional hearings raised Byrne’s profile and documented him as part of the pivotal Dec. 18 meeting. Former Trump aides testified they were shocked the meeting, which lasted for hours, was happening at all.
“First of all, the Overstock person, I didn’t know who this guy was. Actually, the first thing I did, I walked in, I looked at him and I said, ‘Who are you?’ And he told me,” former White House counsel Pat Cipollone recalled during a taped deposition. “I don’t think any of these people were providing the president with good advice, and I didn’t understand how they had gotten in.”
Via text message, Byrne did not deny the meeting was contentious but maintained the actions he requested would have been a “very quick” investigation. “Not commando SEAL teams breaking through walls,” Byrne added.
Despite former Trump advisers rejecting Byrne’s beliefs, he is emerging as one of the most influential donors in conservative politics and a folk hero among Trump supporters.
Elected leaders appear to be hearing Byrne’s message. According to a text message exchange obtained via public records request by the group American Oversight, Byrne had offered to stop to meet with Texas Secretary of State John Scott when he was crossing the country in his private jet the following day.
“I would be honored to land wherever you are in Texas and come see you and share a pot of tea,” wrote Byrne.
“I would love to visit with you tomorrow afternoon or another day if more convenient,” Scott texted back.
A contentious meeting at the White House
It’s unclear why the 59-year-old ex-CEO has chosen to insert himself into the heart of Trump’s Republican Party. He told New York Magazine he’s spent $20 million into efforts to question the outcome of the 2020 election, including more than $3 million on the Arizona election audit alone, according to the leader of the Arizona Senate’s election review. Byrne insists he has taken up the cause of “election integrity” because he is convinced America’s election system is in peril, and he has spent months and millions of dollars bankrolling investigations in various states and even producing his own documentary on the subject. Critics say he is promoting fake ideas that undermine democracy and do little for elections except continue to motivate the MAGA base.
“This is a message that some parts of the GOP like to just keep sending out to fire up their base,” said Paul Smith, senior vice president at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “Talk about a new ‘election integrity’ project is as much a way of keeping everybody involved, and interested, and upset, and angry as it is maybe a practical effort.”
The Dec. 18 meeting was what one lawmaker described as the “craziest” of the administration. White House aides pleaded with Trump to accept that there was no evidence of election fraud, regardless of his friends’ claims about Venezuelan meddling and other unfounded ideas.
“What they were proposing, I thought, was nuts,” testified former White House senior adviser Eric Herschmann.
Byrne maintains parts of the meeting are different from what has been previously reported. He said he laid out a strategy in which Trump would use past executive orders to instigate an investigation into the election that could have involved seizing voting machines but could also have been significantly less intrusive. “I am the one who spoke up and laid out the options,” Byrne said. Trump expressed interest in a less intrusive investigation that did not involve seizing voting machines or utilizing military personnel, he added. Powell did not respond to a request for comment for this story, nor did a lawyer representing Flynn.
When the meeting adjourned after midnight, Trump chose his side. “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election,” he tweeted. “Big protest in D.C. on Jan. 6. Be there, will be wild.”
It’s one of several moments during the weeks that immediately followed the election that Byrne surrounded himself with people who would be crucial to efforts to overturn the election results.
Byrne, who began raising the idea that the election could be stolen well before Nov. 3, spent time analyzing the results in South Carolina with Powell, Flynn and Trump ally and lawyer Lin Wood, who owned the property where they met and unsuccessfully tried to bring a lawsuit challenging the election results in Georgia. The group set up camp in Wood’s living room with whiteboards and laptops, Wood said.
According to a recent interview he gave with the far-right Epoch Times, Byrne helped fly a group of people from Texas to Washington, D.C., in December for a pro-Trump rally timed with the Electoral College’s certification of the election. Unbeknown to him, Byrne said, three people on the flight were affiliated with the Proud Boys.
In the weeks following the election, Byrne paid for flights for people to travel to Georgia and to Antrim County, Michigan, to investigate potential fraud brought on by Dominion voting machines. A report from the investigation — which was debunked by the state of Michigan — helped spread the notion that Dominion voting machines caused false election results. Dominion later sued Byrne, along with Powell and entities such as the conservative site Newsmax, for defamation; in court Byrne has denied any wrongdoing or violation of the law. (“I am confident in my position,” Byrne said of the lawsuit. “One of which is that their claims are rather fuzzy.”)
Patrick Byrne has dedicated himself to MAGA causes
Along with My Pillow founder Mike Lindell, Byrne is one of few business executives who has openly embraced the movement to deny the 2020 election results.
Byrne led Overstock for 20 years before resigning in 2019 after disclosing he’d had a romantic relationship with Russian spy Maria Butina, who tried to infiltrate Republican circles in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Byrne claimed, and continues to maintain, that he was working on behalf of the FBI to stymie Butina, but outside evidence hasn’t emerged to show whether that’s the case.
By Byrne’s own account, he has become involved with a range of pro-Trump causes beyond his initial push to investigate the 2020 election.
He helped fund the ReAwaken America Tour, which has drawn crowds of thousands of people skeptical about covid-19 and the 2020 election to hear speakers including Charlie Kirk, Eric Trump, and often Byrne and the Flynn brothers. He has claimed to support various groups in Florida that have fought against critical race theory. And he has said he is helping fund lawsuits brought by John Paul Mac Isaac, the Delaware laptop store owner who allegedly stumbled on a laptop left behind at the shop by Hunter Biden.
Byrne has also donated at least $88,000 to the Conservatives for Election Integrity PAC, a group allied with the America First Secretary of State Coalition, which supports pro-Trump candidates who, if elected, would have crucial influence over how state elections are administered.
Scaling the Virginia model
Last year, Byrne poured money into Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial election — and believes he honed a valuable model for volunteer election poll-watching and oversight that he can use in the months ahead.
Fairfax County, Virginia, was at the center of the effort, steered by people including Byrne, former Trump lawyer Cleta Mitchell and Leon Benjamin, a conservative politician now running for Congress. Byrne declined to say how much money he put into backing a group started by Benjamin, Virginians for America First.
Byrne and others believe they are improving elections — but election workers warn their work to monitor elections sows confusion and weighs down election workers. Republican efforts to monitor the Virginia election last year funded by Byrne created a “hostile environment” for workers, said Scott Konopasek, a longtime election administrator who served as director of elections in Fairfax County.
“I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years and in four states. I did eight presidential elections. There is nothing like this,” Konopasek told Grid.
Konopasek said the number of people and requests coming into his office made it more difficult to administer the election, even with one employee working full time to respond to public records requests. Starting in July 2021, he said he had numerous requests from people to “observe” parts of the election process and an observer was in his office nearly every day.
It’s not unusual for people to observe parts of the election process, and Konopasek said that in the past he’d seen it as an opportunity to teach about democracy. But the goodwill he’d seen from observers in past elections “has not been exhibited” by the new poll watchers, who appeared convinced Fairfax County was doing something wrong.
“They just overwhelmed us. It was almost like a DNS attack,” Konopasek said.
Byrne maintains his work is not malevolent. “Our research shows 83 percent of Americans consider ‘election integrity’ a high priority issue. The American people think something, they understand it if only latently, and they are absolutely correct,” he said.
Byrne plans to replicate last year’s work in Virginia across the country.
Along with the Flynn brothers, Byrne launched a project he calls “Operation Eagles Wings” earlier this year during a CPAC conference in Florida. The effort will target nine swing states: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Byrne has hired Mark Loyd, a former Virginia elections worker and longtime Tea Party activist, and Tim Meisburger, who along with Loyd served in the Trump administration at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Expanding the “Virginia Model,” Byrne said, entails training volunteers who will work reaching out to low-propensity voters, serving as election poll watchers, observing the elections process and monitoring absentee ballots.
“2022 offers us the opportunity to repeat a Virginia-type victory all around the nation,” Byrne told Grid in a text message.
What’s next …
What happened in Virginia and Arizona may be just a preview for 2022 and 2024.
For the most part, the groups that Byrne has started and partnered with are 501c4 “dark money” groups that do not have to reveal their donors, and Byrne’s organization The America Project has not yet had to disclose where it is spending its money. Because they are not political campaigns, they only have to disclose a limited amount of information about their activities.
But signs that Byrne-funded groups are organizing in states are beginning to appear: An organization called We the People in Arizona, which Byrne and The America Project have donated more than $100,000 to this year, has filed dozens of records requests from the Maricopa County Elections Department, for example, according to a list of such requests reviewed by Grid. The national efforts have drawn in “thousands” of volunteers so far, Byrne said in a text message.
Besides the program’s on-the-ground impact, these programs could have a significant effect at energizing pro-Trump voters and continuing to raise skepticism about elections. Byrne’s continual focus on auditing and monitoring elections could help further the idea that American elections are under threat, said Smith, even if Byrne’s volunteers find little evidence to back up his case.
“This is something that we’re hearing an awful lot more about, because it’s part of the core message of the Republican Party,” Smith said.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.