Kirsten Berg

The other 'cancel culture': How a public university is bowing to a conservative crusade

by Daniel Golden and Kirsten Berg

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In August 2020, Boise State University chose a doctoral student in public policy, Melanie Fillmore, to deliver what is called a “land acknowledgment” speech at a convocation for incoming freshmen. Fillmore, who is part Indigenous, would recognize the tribes that lived in the Boise Valley before they were banished to reservations to make way for white settlers.

Fillmore considered it an honor. She was devoted to Boise State, where she had earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, taught undergraduate courses and served on job search committees. She also admired Marlene Tromp, a feminist literary scholar who came from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 2019 to become Boise State’s first female president. Tromp had been hired with a mandate to promote diversity, and including an Indigenous speaker in the ceremony marking the start of students’ higher education would advance that agenda.

The convocation was to be virtual, because of the pandemic. Fillmore put on beaded Native American jewelry and recorded an eight-minute video on her phone. She began by naming the “rightful owners of this land,” the Boise Valley Indigenous tribes, and then described her own “complicated” background. Her father was Hunkpapa Lakota, her mother white. “I can trace eight generations of my Lakota ancestors being removed from the land of their lifeblood to the reservation, just as I can trace seven generations of Norwegian and English ancestors taking that land,” she said.

Fillmore urged viewers to “find a way to share your story here at Boise State” and to learn the history of Indigenous people. “When we acknowledge the Boise Valley ancestors and their land, we make room for that story of removal that was genocidal in purpose,” she said. “When we tell those stories honestly and fully, we heal, and our ancestors heal with us.”

She submitted her speech to the university, but the students never heard it. Boise State higher-ups thought that it was too long and too provocative to roll out in a politically precarious climate, one former official said. They consulted another administrator about whether to drop the speech. “I communicated that pulling it was a bad idea and incredibly wrong,” said this person, who has also left the university. “I don’t believe in de-platforming Indigenous voices.”

The advice was disregarded. Two days before the convocation, the vice president for student affairs told Fillmore that her appearance was canceled, explaining that her safety might be at risk or that she might be trolled or doxxed online.

Fillmore was devastated. She had encouraged the students to tell their stories, and now hers was being erased. She wondered if administrators were worried about the timing. The Idaho Legislature — which normally meets from January to March, when it decides how much money to give to public education, including Boise State — would hold a special session three days after the convocation to consider COVID-19 measures. Conservative legislators, who ever since Tromp’s arrival had been attacking Boise State’s diversity initiatives, might hear about Fillmore’s talk and seize on it to bash the university.

“I didn’t say anything that I haven’t already been sharing with my research and work,” she wrote to a faculty mentor, political scientist Stephen Utych, in an email the next day.

“I was incredibly frustrated for Melanie, but also that the university caved on something so relatively benign, because there’s so much pressure coming externally,” Utych said in an interview. He added that concerns about the Legislature’s impact on Boise State were one reason he quit his tenured professorship this year to work in market research.

When the university’s convocation committee, which organized the event, was informed of the decision, Amy Vecchione expressed misgivings. “I remember saying, ‘Typically, what we do is allow speech to take place, regardless of the content,’” said Vecchione, assistant director of the university’s center for developing online courses, who was the faculty senate liaison to the committee. “‘We process reactions if there are any. That’s part of academic freedom.’”

After the convocation, Tromp commiserated with Fillmore over Zoom. “She told me it was a sad outcome,” Fillmore said. Tromp did not respond to questions about the incident. Alicia Estey, chief of staff and vice president for university affairs, said in an email that “safety was a concern.”

Almost two years later, Fillmore still broods about how she was treated. Although she loves teaching, she’s rethinking her aspirations for an academic career. “I really lost a lot of faith in Boise State,” she said. “It was more important for the university to cope with whatever the Legislature wanted than to advocate for students. I feel more like a liability than a part of the community.”

Across the country, elected officials in red states are seeking to impose their political views on public universities. Even as they decry liberal cancel culture, they’re leveraging the threat of budget cuts to scale back diversity initiatives, sanitize the teaching of American history and interfere with university policies and appointments.

In Georgia, the governor’s appointees have made it easier to fire tenured professors. Florida passed a law requiring public universities to survey faculty and students annually about “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented,” and allowing students to record professors’ lectures as evidence of possible bias. In North Carolina, the Republican-dominated legislature, through its control over key positions, is “inappropriately seeking to expand [its] purview into the day-to-day operations” of state campuses, the American Association of University Professors reported in April. In Texas, the lieutenant governor and conservative donors worked with the state university’s flagship Austin campus to start an institute “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets,” according to The Texas Tribune.

Perhaps reflecting such tensions, the average tenure of public university presidents has declined from nine years to seven over the past two decades, and they are increasingly being fired or forced to resign, according to data prepared for this article by Sondra Barringer and Michael Harris, professors of higher education at Southern Methodist University. Between 2014 and 2020, 29% of departures by presidents of NCAA Division 1 public universities were involuntary, up from 19% between 2007 and 2013, and 10% between 2000 and 2006. Moreover, based on media reports and other sources, micromanaging or hyperpartisan boards were responsible for 24% of involuntary turnover at such universities in red states from 2014 to 2020, a rate more than four times higher than in blue states, Barringer and Harris found.

“One way to weaken these institutions is to weaken the leadership of these institutions,” Harris said. “Higher education is under attack in a way that it has never quite been before. These are direct assaults on the core tenets of the institutions. ... Boards are running leaders out of town. It’s scary stuff.”

The pressure has been intense in Idaho — and especially at its largest university, Boise State. Egged on by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to “exposing, defeating, and replacing the state’s socialist public policies,” conservative legislators have pushed to prevent an overwhelmingly white institution from considering diversity in its policies and programs.

In 2020, Idaho banned affirmative action at public universities. Last year, the state trimmed $1.5 million from Boise State’s budget, targeting diversity, equity and inclusion programs, along with a total of $1 million from the other two state universities. Idaho also became thefirst of seven states to adopt laws aimed at restricting colleges’ teaching or training related to critical race theory, which examines how racism is ingrained in America’s laws and power structure. The lieutenant governor convened a task force to “protect our young people from the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism and Marxism” in higher education. This year, the Legislature adopted a nonbinding resolution condemning critical race theory and The New York Times’s 1619 Project for “divisive content” that “seeks to disregard the history of the United States and the nation’s journey to becoming a pillar of freedom in the world.”

Boise State is a revealing prism through which to examine how public universities, meant to be bastions of academic freedom, are responding to red-state pressures. The school would seem to be in a strong position to resist them. It receives a relatively modest 18% of its budget from the state, with the balance from tuition, student fees, federal student financial aid, research grants and donors. Buoyed by its nationally known football team, which plays on a blue field that has come to rival the potato as Idaho’s most recognizable symbol, and located in one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas, Boise State has seen its academic stature and private fundraising rise. It received $41.8 million in donations in fiscal 2021, up from $34.2 million in 2020, although one prominent donor vowed to reduce his giving, complaining that the university was trending leftward.

But for all its seeming clout and independence, Boise State has yielded again and again. It has canceled events, like Fillmore’s speech, that might alienate conservatives; avoided using the terms “diversity” and “inclusion”; and suspended a course on ethics and diversity with 1,300 students over a legislator’s unfounded allegation of misconduct by a teacher.

University administrators “seem to want to placate the conservatives,” said sociology lecturer Michael Kreiter, who was an instructor in the suspended course and teaches classes on racism. “Their goal, in my view, is just to stay out of sight, hoping that all of this backlash won’t get focused on them.”

Idaho’s anti-critical race theory law “has chilled some Boise State educators and shut down their teaching and speech about race and gender in the classroom,” said Aadika Singh, legal director at the ACLU of Idaho, which investigated potentially unconstitutional enforcement of the law. “But it is also clear that some courageous educators have doubled down and reacted to the legislature’s attacks on education by teaching more controversial topics. The university administration has not been courageous; they haven’t had their faculty’s backs.” While the investigation remains open, Singh said, the ACLU of Idaho shifted its focus to educating faculty members on their academic freedom and free-speech rights in the classroom.

Boise State spokesperson Mike Sharp said that the 18% slice of its budget doesn’t convey the full scope of the state’s support for the university. Its land is titled in the name of the state Board of Education, and its buildings are all state buildings, he said. If Boise State had to cut programs to meet payroll, he added, enrollment would decline, and its credit rating might be downgraded. Without state support, “Boise State as it exists today would disappear,” Sharp said.

In an email to ProPublica, Tromp explained her strategy. “My aim is to support our faculty, students and staff and to open lines of dialogue with those in our community who are certain universities don’t see or hear them,” she wrote. “The work we are doing has the potential to be truly transformative — not just here but more broadly.” She declined to comment further, saying it is “a delicate moment, in which it continues to be easy to harm the best efforts in almost any direction.”

Some professors worry that the unanswered attacks are hurting Boise State’s credibility. When faculty members and community organizations recently sponsored a symposium on how to adjust property taxes to help homeowners affected by Boise’s soaring housing values, they held it off campus and didn’t list the university as a sponsor, in contrast to a similar symposium that the university conducted on campus 15 years ago.

“I am saddened by what’s happened in the last couple of years,” said Boise State political scientist Stephanie Witt, who helped organize the discussion. “There’s the perception that working with us is somehow connected to this taint on all higher education. We can’t be trusted.”

As it searched for a president in 2019, Boise State was increasingly gaining national recognition — and not just for athletics. Founded as a junior college by the Episcopal church in 1932, it entered the state system in 1969 and became a university in 1974. For years thereafter it was largely a commuter school for working adults. But now enrollment was steadily growing, especially from out of state; 17% of its undergraduates come from California. Its status had recently been upgraded to “high research activity” under the Carnegie system for classifying universities, and U.S. News & World Report had named it one of the country’s 50 most innovative universities.

One shortcoming stood in the way of its aspirations: a lack of diversity. Its faculty is 83% white, 5% Latino, 5% Asian and 1% Black. Even though 43% of degree-seeking undergraduates come from outside predominantly white Idaho, fewer than 2% are Black. Latinos make up 14%. The services needed to attract faculty and students of color, as well as low-income and LGBTQ students, and make them feel at home were scanty compared with many universities.

“We are a modern day Cinderella story,” a university commission concluded in 2017. “Unfortunately ... it is not clear that everyone is being invited nor supported to participate in the ball.” It called for creating “an infrastructure with executive leadership, and with the appropriate resources.”

During the presidential search, faculty, staff and students emphasized the importance of diversity. But some candidates were wary of Idaho politics. One finalist, Andrew Marcus, former dean of arts and sciences at the University of Oregon, cited “limited state funding and a climate of growing national concern about universities” as challenges in his job application. A Boise State staffer warned Marcus that Idaho was a one-party state in which Republicans were split into three factions: Mormons, who supported state funding for higher education; and libertarians and Trump acolytes, who didn’t.

Another hopeful bowed out after researching state politics. “I felt my values may not be shared by the governance structures in Idaho,” she said. “I didn’t want to have those fights.”

Tromp was the clear choice for the job. Born in 1966, she was raised a two-hour drive from the Idaho border, in Green River, Wyoming. Her father was a mechanic in a trona mine, a mineral processed into baking soda, and her mother was a telephone operator. Her high school guidance counselor applied to colleges for her, because she couldn’t afford the application fees. When an East Coast university offered her a full scholarship, her father said, “Honey, what would happen if you got all the way across the country and this turned out not to be real?” She enrolled at Creighton University in Nebraska, where she was smitten by Victorian poetry.

After earning her doctorate at the University of Florida, she spent 14 years at Denison University, a liberal arts college in Ohio. An English professor and director of women’s studies, she earned teaching awards and churned out books and articles. She advocated for nontraditional departments such as queer studies, said Toni King, a professor of Black studies and women’s and gender studies at Denison. “She cares very deeply about individual people, she pulls talent together, she innovates beyond,” King said. “She was always, ‘We can get there quicker, sooner, bigger.’”

Tromp immersed herself in campus life, speaking at “Take Back the Night” marches to raise awareness of violence against women. She was married on the steps of Denison’s library in 2007. Music department faculty played in the reception band. When she left for Arizona State, King thought, “There goes a college president.”

At Arizona State, Tromp served as dean of a college that offered interdisciplinary programs across the sciences, social sciences and humanities. At UC Santa Cruz, which she joined in 2017 as executive vice chancellor, she launched a mentoring program for faculty from underrepresented groups. She also proposed a new strategic plan too quickly, without enough familiarity with campus culture, according to Ronnie Lipschutz, an emeritus professor of politics.

“Marlene swept in and wanted to make an impact,” said Lipschutz, who is the author of an institutional history of UC Santa Cruz that examines why numerous strategic plans there have failed. “She didn’t talk to many people about how the place operated.” Tromp did not respond to questions about the strategic plan and her experience at Santa Cruz.

The battle over her plan was dragging on when Tromp left. She told the Santa Cruz academic senate that “incidents involving her personal and family’s safety” led her to accept the Boise State presidency, according to meeting minutes summarizing her talk. She also “expressed fear that there may be a lack of understanding of how easy it is to incite rage against the leaders in our community.” Santa Cruz colleagues said that she had been alarmed when people threatened and jeered her while she was jogging along a coastal road. They may have been unhoused students for whom dormitory space wasn’t available, and who had been denied permission to live in their cars and park in a campus lot, one friend said.

For a feminist university president, Idaho seemed unlikely to provide a safer, less volatile environment. “We were all surprised” at her departure, “especially since her project had not finished,” Lipschutz said. “The fact that she was going to Idaho was also a bit of a surprise. It was like, ‘Why on earth would you go to Idaho?’”

Tromp had no such doubts. “She was very enthusiastic and very much felt that she was coming home to the region that shaped her,” King said.

The Legislature wasn’t about to give her a honeymoon. In June 2019, Boise State’s interim president had highlighted the university’s diversity initiatives in a newsletter. They included graduation fetes for Black and LGBTQ students, six graduate fellowships for underrepresented minority students, recruiting a Black sorority or fraternity and implicit bias training for employees.

The next month, eight days after Tromp started, half of the 56 Republicans in Idaho’s House of Representatives wrote to her, assailing these programs as “divisive and exclusionary” and “antithetical to the purpose of a public university in Idaho.”

Through no fault of her own, Tromp was boxed in. She responded by calling for “meaningful dialogue,” thanking legislators for their “genuine engagement” and saying she looked forward to hearing their concerns.

In the midst of this firestorm, she met with three student activists. Ushered into her office, they noticed her treadmill desk and the bookshelves featuring her own works. When they told her about racism on campus, including swastikas painted on dormitory walls, Tromp started crying, according to two students, Ryann Banks and Abby Barzee.

“Didn’t you know about this before you took the job?” Banks asked her.

“I did not know,” Tromp said.

About 10 days after the legislators’ letter, cartoon postcards were mailed anonymously to state officials and lawmakers, depicting Tromp as a clown. Other attacks ensued. Although Tromp had spent only two years at UC Santa Cruz, the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s sister organization, Idaho Freedom Action, lampooned her as a “California liberal ... Turning Boise State Into a Taxpayer-Funded Marxist Indoctrination Center.” A scholar of xenophobia in Victorian England, Tromp was experiencing fear of outsiders firsthand.

After the foundation encouraged its supporters to troll her, Tromp received “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of some of the most venomous hateful emails I could possibly imagine,” she said at a private 2021 meeting, according to a recording the Idaho Freedom Foundation obtained and posted. “Threats to drag me out in the street and sexually assault me and kill me. Messages of hatred. ... It’s a manifestation of the toxicity of the political climate across our country.”

Much as former President Barack Obama once courted congressional Republicans, Tromp sought to conciliate the conservative legislators. In one-on-one meetings, she assured them that she took the free-speech rights of a student wearing a Make America Great Again hat as seriously as anyone else’s. “All means all” became her mantra. Previously either a Democrat or undeclared, she registered to vote in Idaho as a Republican.

But she faced several disadvantages, starting with her gender. “These extremists think that it’s easier to pick off a woman than a man, and so they go after” her, said former Boise State President Bob Kustra.

Tromp’s striking appearance — she’s tall and slender, with close-cropped hair, glasses (often red) and multiple ear piercings — may have disconcerted some Idahoans. “I sometimes wonder if Dr. Tromp isn’t an easier target because she looks like a modern woman,” said Witt, the political scientist. “People say, ‘She’s got more than one hole in her ears, she’s got short hair.’”

As Idaho’s only urban university, Boise State attracts disproportionate media attention and conservative skepticism. It also has few of the natural allies on whom universities often lean politically: alumni in key government posts. Tromp reports to the state Board of Education, which has only one Boise State graduate among its eight members.

While its campus is a mile from the state Capitol building, Boise State’s presence there is sparse. About 10% of legislators are Boise State alumni, which may be partly attributable to its lack of a law school. Two Mormon institutions, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg, together have about twice as many alumni in the Legislature as Boise State does. The University of Idaho has almost double Boise State’s representation. Gov. Brad Little is a University of Idaho graduate.

The disparity is even greater on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which sets the higher education budget. Six members of the Republican majority on JFAC graduated from the University of Idaho, including a co-chair, and none from Boise State.

As Idaho’s only land-grant university, with the state’s only public law school, the University of Idaho possesses in-state cachet and connections that Boise State is hard-pressed to match. Its diversity initiatives are comparable to Boise State’s. It has a chief diversity officer, as well as a director of diversity and inclusion for its engineering college. Boise State has neither position. Yet the Legislature appropriated 72% more per student to the University of Idaho in fiscal 2022 than to Boise State.

The University of Idaho’s president, C. Scott Green, called out the freedom foundation this past January, denouncing “a false narrative created by conflict entrepreneurs who make their living sowing fear and doubt with legislators and voters.”

Green avoided any pushback because “he has friends in key positions,” said Rep. Brent Crane, a committee chairman and former House assistant majority leader, who graduated from Boise State in 2005.

Even though Crane is an alumnus, Boise State can’t count on his support. His father, a former state legislator and treasurer, is treasurer of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, with which Crane agrees 82% of the time, according to its rankings.

The 47-year-old Crane represents the Boise suburb of Nampa, where he was born and grew up, and where he’s vice president of his family’s security and fire alarm business. He and his brother also own a fire sprinkler company. At a nearby coffeehouse, he said that, when he was a political science major at Boise State, his teachers never revealed their opinions. “What I respected most about my professors was that I didn’t know if they were Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “Whatever the student thought, the professor took the opposite tack. In my perfect world, I’d like to see Boise State get back to where it was when I was there.”

Crane, who is white, said that he disagrees with critical race theory: “There’s no racism in my life.” In his boyhood, he said, “African Americans were revered and looked up to. They were the athletes who played on the football and basketball teams. They were the heroes.”

Under immediate pressure, Tromp began rethinking her agenda. “From day one, when she came in, and the letter from the legislators came in saying, ‘You’re under a microscope, you’d better start scrubbing your campus of these programs,’ that changed the operating environment from her perspective, and probably the perspective of everyone,” one insider said.

“There was a quiet reassessment of what can we reasonably accomplish and an ongoing conversation about how do we serve our students best without unnecessarily inflaming the rage and the accusations of these legislators?’”

Crane, the legislator and Boise State alumnus, had a role in one of the university’s early concessions. Boise State was advertising for a new position: vice provost for equity and inclusion. It would be the top diversity job at the university, implementing Tromp’s agenda. The vice provost would oversee recruiting and retaining faculty, building diversity into the curriculum and monitoring the campus climate.

The search produced two finalists. One of them, Brandy Bryson, looked into Idaho politics and withdrew her name from consideration. “There was no way the institution was going to survive the political strong-arming that was coming from the Legislature,” said Bryson, director of inclusive excellence at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. “Boise State’s desire to hire a vice provost for equity and inclusion was a clear commitment to academic excellence and the empirically proven benefits of diversity, which the Legislature didn’t seem to understand or value.”

The other finalist, John Miller Jr., then chair of social work at a liberal arts college in the South, noticed that someone from the Idaho Freedom Foundation was tracking him on social media. Nevertheless, he accepted an invitation to visit Boise State, where he met in March 2020 with Tromp and other leaders, and gave a presentation.

Some search committee members had reservations about Miller, who wasn’t a shoo-in, insiders said. Still, “the vibe I got, when I was dropped off at the airport, I fully expected an offer,” Miller said. “I was definitely under strong consideration.”

After the student newspaper reported on the opening, though, Boise State’s critics weighed in. Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman wrote on the group’s website that “BSU didn’t get the message” from the “written rebuke” by the 28 legislators. Shortly after Miller returned to South Carolina, Crane denounced his alma mater for hiring a “vice president of diversity,” calling it “a direct affront” to the Legislature and “me personally.” Despite getting the job title wrong, Crane clearly meant the vice provost position.

Crane also conveyed his concerns privately to Tromp. He regarded the new position as part of “the woke agenda sweeping the country: I don’t want to see Boise State caught up in that,” he told ProPublica. The House had already killed the higher education budget twice. If Tromp had forged ahead, other Boise State priorities might not have been funded, Crane said.

“She and I disagree on the vice provost of diversity,” he told ProPublica. “That’s not a hill she wants to die on. She chose to pay deference.” A week later, Boise State notified Miller that it had halted the search. It never filled the position.

Crane continued to lambaste Boise State. During an April 2021 debate on the higher education budget, Crane read aloud what he said was an email from an unnamed Boise State music student complaining that a professor had asked a class to discuss how Black composers are superior to white composers. The student protested that skin color has nothing to do with the quality of music but was purportedly told to be quiet. (The incident could not be confirmed.)

“I’m disgusted. I’m embarrassed and I’m ashamed,” Crane told the legislature. “There has been a direct shift in the ideology that’s being taught at Boise State University. ... Our tax dollars” do not “need to be spent silencing kids’ voices on our college campuses.”

One way that Boise State sought to reduce legislative pushback was by adjusting its language. For example, Tromp asked a university planning committee to avoid the words “diversity” and “inclusion,” which legislators would be searching for, said Angel Cantu, a former student government president on the committee. Boise State’s 2022-26 strategic plan doesn’t mention “diversity” or “inclusion,” while the phrase “equity gaps” appears four times. By contrast, the University of Idaho’s plan calls for building an “inclusive, diverse community” and creating an “inclusive learning environment.”

Boise State administrators discussed the importance of terminology at several meetings, a former official recalled. The message was that “you can use different words to have the same meaning. Equity and words like that are less incendiary.”

The university tweaked job titles similarly. In August 2020, Francisco Salinas, then the university’s top diversity officer, moved from “director of student diversity and inclusion” to “assistant to the vice president for equity initiatives.”

Although his responsibilities did change, Salinas said, the new description wasn’t his choice, and he disagreed with scrubbing words like diversity. “The tactics being used” against Boise State, he said, “were bullying tactics. It’s the same thing you learn as a kid. If a bully is successful at taking your lunch money, they’re going to keep going. You have to stand up and let them know they can’t do that to you.”

Discouraged, Salinas left Boise State in April to become dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at Spokane Falls Community College in Washington. He said other diversity officials have fled. “I know what Dr. Tromp’s heart is,” he said. “I was very pleased she was hired. I thought she’d be able to make progress along this axis. But the environment did not afford that.”

The legislative barrage also affected recruitment. “I’ve been on hiring committees and I see who applies for jobs here,” said Utych, the former political science professor. “They are a lot whiter than they are at other universities. Part of that is the location, but part of that is also the Legislature attacking diversity and inclusion.”

Tromp “described being very, very disheartened that the best thing to do might be to pull back because of the resistance,” her friend King recalled. “There was concern, with all the information she had before her, how could she move forward? She had to think about the university as a whole.”

When the university did move forward with a lightning-rod event, it took precautions to avoid a backlash. Republican legislators had attacked the “Rainbow Graduation,” which honors LGBTQ students, in their letter to Tromp, and the Idaho Freedom Foundation had accused Boise State of holding “segregationist” commencements. At this spring’s Rainbow Graduation, Boise State’s dean of students pointedly reminded the 30 or so seniors that “this is not a commencement ceremony.” Since they were aware that they would actually graduate nine days later, the disclaimer appeared to be intended for critics outside the university.

Some faculty were undaunted. The sociology department has doubled the number of its courses focusing on race and racism from two to four, and it opened an Anti-Racism Collective that brings in speakers. “This is a great opportunity in some sense,” said sociology department chairman Arthur Scarritt. Added Kreiter, who doesn’t have tenure: “I feel I don’t have a lot of longevity here. I’m just going to teach this as fiery as I can.”

Several professors and administrators urged Tromp to fight back. “There were a lot of people on campus, even in senior leadership, who said, ‘You can’t get out of this by taking the high road,’” one recalled. “I would have preferred a more direct approach.”

Tromp drew the line at cultivating the Idaho Freedom Foundation. Hoffman said he has asked to meet with her on multiple occasions and has been refused. “Nothing has changed at Boise State,” he said in an email. “It’s just handled more carefully.”

There is some evidence for the contention by Crane and other critics that conservative students at Boise State tend to feel squelched in class. A state Board of Education survey completed last November found that 36% of Boise State students who self-identified as right of center felt pressured often or very frequently to accept beliefs they found offensive, as opposed to 12% of students in the center and 6% on the left. Conservative students were more apt to feel this pressure from professors; liberals, from classmates.

Still, the faculty encompasses a range of views. Anne Walker, chair of the economics department, holds a fellowship in free enterprise capitalism. One member of the lieutenant governor’s task force on communism in higher education was Scott Yenor, a Boise State political scientist and occasional Tucker Carlson guest. In December 2020, Yenor and an Idaho Freedom Foundation analyst co-authored a report urging the Legislature to “direct the university to eliminate courses that are infused with social justice ideology.” In a speech last fall, Yenor mocked feminists as “medicated, meddlesome and quarrelsome” and universities as “the citadels of our gynecocracy.”

Boise State’s donors also span the political spectrum. Timber and cattle ranching magnate Larry Williams served for 20 years on the Boise State Foundation board and has donated millions of dollars for athletics and business programs. He has also given six figures to the Idaho Freedom Foundation. In this year’s Republican primary campaign, he gave about $125,000 to more than 30 conservative candidates, including $1,000 to Crane.

Throughout 2020, Williams pressed Boise State to scuttle the programs identified by the 28 Republican legislators, to no avail. Although he found Tromp to be open and engaging, he told legislators in February 2021 that he would no longer donate to Boise State, with the exception of its football program, “until this is turned around.”

“It appears BSU no longer shares our Idaho values,” Williams wrote. “Students are taught ... that our honest, hardworking rural farmers, ranchers, miners and loggers are ‘white privileged’ with ‘implicit bias’ toward minorities and Native Americans.”

The Idaho Freedom Foundation’s Hoffman acknowledged that Boise State has fewer diversity initiatives than some big universities in other states. “We recognize that it’s a small but growing dedication of resources to this enterprise,” he said. “I don’t care how big it is. I care if any taxpayer dollars are wasted on these efforts. We want to catch it now before it becomes an even bigger problem.”

Like white students from rural Idaho who are exposed for the first time to concepts like white privilege and systemic racism, some students of color, especially from other states, endure culture shock on campus. After Kennyetta Coulter, a biology major from Long Beach, California, arrived at Boise State last year, accompanied by her mother, they hardly saw another Black person for two weeks. “If you don’t like Boise, don’t be afraid to tell me,” her mother said on leaving.

In a “Difficult Conversations” class, Coulter, who describes herself as a political moderate, found that she was the only student in her discussion group who favored background checks for gun buyers or was open to letting transgender athletes participate in sports based on their gender identity. Her three roommates, all of whom had blue eyes and blond hair, were nice to her. But sometimes she felt peer pressure to suppress her views. At Boise State football games, she squirmed in the student section while “big, buff white boys with cowboy boots” chanted, “Fuck Joe Biden.”

Coulter became so depressed that she sought counseling. “Sometimes I just feel I’m all alone,” she said, “and I’m the only one who understands what I’m going through.” She didn’t have the energy to go to class and stayed in bed and watched television.

The administration’s reluctance to challenge legislators dispirited her. “Why isn’t the university saying anything?” Coulter wondered.

In some red states, public universities have fought back. The University of Nebraska has been especially effective in warding off political pressure. It’s the only public university in Nebraska, and about half of the state’s legislators earned degrees from institutions within the University of Nebraska system. So did all eight regents. And as a retired vice admiral and former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, Nebraska president Ted Carter has the kind of military credentials that make it hard to call him a communist.

University regent Jim Pillen, a veterinarian and former Nebraska football star who is running for governor, proposed a resolution last year that critical race theory “seeks to silence opposing views and disparage important American ideals” and should not be “imposed in curriculum, training and programming.”

Aided by the ACLU of Nebraska and other advocacy groups, the university’s administration, faculty and student government mobilized against the resolution. At a hearing last August before the regents, almost 40 people testified against it, while only a handful supported it. Defenders of critical race theory noted that the Declaration of Independence refers to “merciless Indian Savages.” A retired English professor pleaded with the board: “If you pass this, you repudiate my whole career.”

The four nonvoting student regents also voiced their opposition, including Batool Ibrahim, the first Black student government president of Nebraska’s flagship Lincoln campus. Ibrahim considers herself a native Nebraskan, although technically she isn’t. Her Sudanese parents were flying to the U.S. in 1999, hoping she would be born on American soil so she could become president someday, when her mother went into labor on the plane. The pilot hurriedly landed in Dubai, where Ibrahim was born. The family soon moved to Lincoln, where she grew up.

Critical race theory “is the history of people of color in this nation,” Ibrahim said. “It is my history. So when we talk about whether critical race theory should be taught or it should not be taught, you’re telling me that my history does not belong in the classroom.”

Pillen defended his resolution, saying that it did not violate academic freedom and that “Nebraskans deserve the confidence of knowing their hard-earned tax dollars cannot be used to force critical race theory on anyone.”

The board upheld teaching critical race theory by a 5-3 vote. But the battle was just starting. One regent in the majority warned that 400 of 550 constituents who contacted him supported the resolution — a promising sign for Pillen, who would go on to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

In November 2021, the chancellor of the University of Nebraska’s Lincoln campus, saying he had been “shaken” by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, announced a plan to “recruit, retain and support the success of students, faculty and staff who are people of color.” Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who can’t seek reelection because of term limits and has endorsed Pillen, called the plan “ideological indoctrination” that would “inject critical race theory into every corner of campus.”

Then a Nebraska legislator proposed withholding funds from colleges or public schools that engaged in “race or sex scapegoating.” In a rerun of the regents’ hearing, 40 people testified against the bill in February, while three supported it. Speaking for the university, Richard Moberly, dean of the law school, warned that the bill could be interpreted to prohibit legitimate discussion of systemic racism and unconscious bias. It died in committee.

Pillen isn’t giving up. “As governor, I’ll fight CRT and other un-American, far-left ideologies in our classrooms,” he told ProPublica.

Despite Tromp’s conciliatory approach, a controversy in October 2020 further roiled the university’s critics. It pitted a popular downtown establishment, Big City Coffee, which had just opened a branch in Boise State’s library, against student activists galvanized by Floyd’s killing five months before.

Big City Coffee’s name appears to be ironic. Agricultural signs hang from the walls and rafters: “Duroc Hog,” “Strawberries for Sale,” “Cattle Crossing.” But it was another aspect of the downtown location’s decor that prompted student complaints, even though it wasn’t replicated in the library shop: a “thin blue line” flag. The students argued that such flags can signify support for white supremacists and hostility to the Black Lives Matter movement, and that a business with those sentiments should not have a campus outlet.

The coffee shop owner, who describes herself as a political moderate, explained that she was engaged to a former police officer who had been shot and disabled in the line of duty, and that she only meant to support law enforcement. Student government President Angel Cantu agreed that the shop should not be kicked off campus simply for being sympathetic to first responders.

The protesters weren’t mollified. They were already upset with Cantu because they wanted the university to cancel its security contract with Boise police. He felt Boise State shouldn’t do so without first knowing how to replace the department’s services.

The wrangle escalated as Big City Coffee shut down the campus branch, and other student government leaders impeached Cantu. The coffee shop owner sued Boise State, Tromp and three other university officials, accusing them of forcing her off campus. Charges against the university and Tromp were dismissed, while the case is proceeding against the other defendants, who have denied wrongdoing.

The branch’s demise and Cantu’s impeachment galvanized conservative students. Jacinta Rigi, a sophomore who had opposed the impeachment, posted a video accusing the student government of ignoring her and others on campus. “Freedom of speech is being abused and stolen from many students at the university and our voices are being silenced,” she said. The video drew almost 8,300 views, and Rigi ran for student government president in 2021.

Although Rigi lost — she now works at Fox News in New York while completing her Boise State degree online — the political momentum on campus had shifted. This past March, Adam Jones, a former intern in the Republican Party’s Boise office who urged Boise State to reconcile with the Legislature, was elected student government president. “Too often it is looked at that the state is being the bad guy,” Jones told ProPublica.

Jones is a Boise native. His father, a lawyer, and his mother, a banker, both graduated from Boise State. He campaigned in a 1993 white Ford pickup truck he rebuilt himself, with “Blue Lives Matter” and “God Bless America” stickers on its rear windshield, a mounted American flag and a “USA4EVA” license plate. Asked about public safety at a candidates’ debate, he said, “Every time I see a Boise police officer go by, I feel safe.”

In March 2021, about 1,300 Boise State students were taking University Foundations 200, “Foundations of Ethics and Diversity.” The course, which predated Tromp, was split into more than 50 sections. Each tackled the topic through a different lens, from the “Star Wars” saga to how lack of access to technology affects rural Americans and other groups.

Sociology professor Dora Ramírez was teaching a section on censorship. She was about to start a unit about a bill, under consideration in the Idaho Legislature, attacking critical race theory. Then, Ramírez said, she and the other UF 200 instructors got a lesson in censorship from their own university.

Boise State had received a complaint from a legislator, who has never been publicly identified. The legislator said he had seen a video of a UF 200 class in which an instructor had demeaned a female student’s intelligence and forced her to apologize in front of the class for being white. She was supposedly taunted by other students and left the class in tears.

Without seeing the video, Tromp suspended all UF 200 sections for a week and hired a law firm to investigate. “Isn’t it ironic?” to suspend a censorship class, Ramírez recalled thinking. “What a way to undermine the authority of all those instructors. You work so hard to build a rapport with all those students. Then they’re thinking, ‘What did she do wrong?’”

Some faculty members were appalled. “A lot of us were quickly pointing out, ‘We have students of color made to feel bad every day of the week,’” said sociologist Martin Orr, a former president of the faculty senate. “One white student feels bad, all hell breaks loose.”

When the course resumed, Kreiter used the suspension as fodder for his UF 200 section on inequality in higher education. “The university is robbing you of your education because of politics,” he told students. “You’re still out the same tuition bill, but you’re getting less education.”

The law firm’s report, which came out in May, concluded that no student was mistreated and no instructor acted improperly. The complaint apparently mischaracterized a class discussion about universal health care in which a student had called an instructor’s logic “stupid” — not the other way around. “There were no reports of anyone being forced to apologize for being white.” The legislator told investigators that he didn’t have the video, which has never surfaced publicly.

Tromp told the Inlander, a community newspaper in Spokane, Washington, that since she hadn’t known in which class section the alleged incident took place, she had been forced to suspend the entire course. Other university presidents whom she consulted agreed with her decision, she said. “It’s a little bit like being told there’s a gas leak in the building, but you don’t know where it is,” Tromp said. “It always feels dramatic to clear the building to find the gas leak.”

For one UF 200 instructor, who was teaching a section on misinformation, the incident was “very much” what his class was about. Legislators were “trying to craft a completely unwarranted narrative for political reasons in order to shut something down.”

Nevertheless, Tromp redoubled catering to them. She established an “Institute for Advancing American Values” to inspire “us to talk and listen to each other respectfully.” Its first speaker was conservative pundit Jason Riley.

Boise State also scaled back an annual tradition, “Day at the Capitol.” In the past, a dozen student government members would set up a booth in the Capitol rotunda and chat with legislators. Other students were invited to watch from the gallery.

Mostly, Democratic lawmakers dropped by. Republicans sent aides to say they were busy. “We got used to being avoided by them,” Cantu said. “We still went out of our way to invite them.”

This year, there was no booth. “The university’s concern was that the students would protest or do something inappropriate,” Jones said. Two student leaders met briefly with the governor as he declared it “Boise State University Day.” Three other students delivered gifts — 105 jars of honey, courtesy of Boise State’s beekeeping team — to the offices of each of the 70 representatives and 35 senators.

While reining in students, Boise State invited Crane, the alumnus who had opposed hiring a vice provost for equity and inclusion, to introduce its leadership team on that special day to the House chambers. Crane was delighted to help.

Inside the creation of Trump’s stolen election myth

By Doug Bock Clark, Alexandra Berzon and Kirsten Berg

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

By the time Leamsy Salazar sat down in front of a video recorder in a lawyer’s office in Dallas, he had grown accustomed to divulging state secrets. After swearing to tell nothing but the truth so help him God, he recounted that he was born in Venezuela in 1974, enlisted in the army and rose through its special operations ranks. He described how in 2007 he became the chief of security for Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader whose electoral victories had been challenged by outside observers and opposition parties. After Chávez died in 2013, Salazar said he provided intelligence on top Venezuelan officials involved in drug trafficking to American law enforcement agencies, which had helped him defect.

After about 45 minutes of Salazar telling his life story, the lawyer questioning him, Lewis Sessions, abruptly changed the course of the conversation. “I want to take a moment to get off the track,” said Sessions, the brother of Republican Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas. “Why are you here? What has motivated you to come forward?”

“I feel that the world should know — they should know the truth,” Salazar answered. “The truth about the corruption. About the manipulation. About the lies.”

“The truth about what?” Sessions asked.

“In this case, it’s the manipulation of votes,” Salazar said. “And the lies being told to a country.”

That morning of Nov. 13, 2020, Salazar had a new sort of intelligence to share. He claimed to know that the 2020 U.S. presidential election had been rigged — and how.

Speaking through an interpreter, Salazar said that when he worked for Chávez, he had attended meetings in which the administration discussed how to develop specialized software to steal elections with representatives from Smartmatic, a voting technology company whose founders had ties to Venezuela. He recalled that during the 2013 presidential election, in a secret counting center in Caracas, the capital, he saw officials use software to change votes in favor of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, after the polls closed. Watching the 2020 American election, he said, he noticed votes for Joe Biden jumping in a pattern that he thought was similar.

When Sessions asked if Salazar could draw a connection between the events in Venezuela and the recent American election, Salazar replied, “I can show the similarity.” In the 2020 election, Smartmatic machines were only used in Los Angeles, but Salazar explained away this discrepancy. He claimed that the company’s software had been “purchased” by Dominion Voting Systems, whose machines were used in such battleground states as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — all of which had gone to Biden, sealing his victory over Donald Trump.

Salazar said in a subsequent court filing that he had taken his concerns about the election to “a number of reliable and intelligent ex-co-workers of mine that are still informants and work with the intelligence community.” (He did not specify whether he meant the U.S. or Venezuelan intelligence community.) From there, sources told ProPublica, his concerns reached a former intelligence officer active in Republican politics and then the conservative lawyer Sidney Powell.

Powell was on the hunt for just such information.

By the second week of November, it had become known in right-wing circles that she was working behind the scenes with the president’s legal team to challenge the results of the election. In an email to ProPublica, Sessions wrote that he “conducted the interview at the request of a person working with Sidney Powell’s legal team.” The day after the interview, Trump made Powell’s position official with an announcement on Twitter.

The following morning, Powell traveled to South Carolina, where a loose coalition of lawyers, cybersecurity experts and former military intelligence officers were gathering on a plantation owned by the defamation lawyer Lin Wood to search for evidence of election fraud. One person present at the plantation said that Wood and Powell treated the Salazar video “like the holy grail of evidence.” (In an email to ProPublica, Wood wrote that he was not part of any coalition and that he had only seen “a few minutes” of the video, in which he had “no interest beyond general curiosity.” Powell did not respond to requests for comment.)

There was just one problem. Salazar’s claims were easily disprovable. Hours after the video was recorded, Trump campaign staffers reviewed some allegations about Dominion that were almost identical, and it took them less than a day to discover they were baseless. The staffers prepared an internal memo with section headings that read: “Dominion Has No Company Ties To Venezuela,” “Dominion And Smartmatic Terminated Their Contract In 2012” and “There Is No Evidence That Dominion Used Smartmatic’s Software In The 2020 Election Cycle.” Independent fact-checkers came to the same conclusions. Dominion later released a statement calling a version of these allegations that Powell pushed in a lawsuit, “baseless, senseless, physically impossible, and unsupported by any evidence whatsoever.” A lawyer for Smartmatic wrote to ProPublica: “There are no ties between Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic — plain and simple.” He added that “Salazar’s testimony is full of inaccuracies,” strongly denied that Smartmatic’s technology was designed to steal Venezuelan elections, and said the company, which operates worldwide, has “registered and counted over 5 billion votes without a single security breach.” (Salazar did not respond to requests for comment.)

Salazar’s story was just one of many pieces of so-called evidence that members of the coalition have offered as proof that the 2020 election was rigged. That unfounded belief has emerged as one of the most potent forces in American politics. Numerous polls show that over two-thirds of Republicans doubt the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Millions of those Republicans believe foreign governments reprogrammed American voting machines.

ProPublica has obtained a trove of internal emails and other documentation that, taken together, tell the inside story of a group of people who propagated a number of the most pervasive theories about how the election was stolen, especially that voting machines were to blame, and helped move them from the far-right fringe to the center of the Republican Party.

Those records, as well as interviews with key participants, show for the first time the extent to which leading advocates of the stolen-election theory touted evidence that they knew to be disproven or that had been credibly disputed or dismissed as dubious by operatives within their own camp. Some members of the coalition presented this mix of unreliable witnesses, unconfirmed rumor and suspect analyses as fact in published reports, talking points and court documents. In several cases, their assertions became the basis for Trump’s claims that the election had been rigged.

Our examination of their actions from the 2020 election to the present day reveals a pattern. Many members of the coalition would advance a theory based on evidence that was never vetted or that they’d been told was flawed; then, when the theory was debunked, they’d move on to the next alternative and then the next.

The coalition includes several figures who have attracted national attention. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who served briefly as national security adviser to Trump before pleading guilty to lying to law enforcement about his contacts with Russian officials, is the most well known. Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com who left his position after his romantic relationship with the convicted Russian agent Maria Butina became public, is the coalition’s chief financier and a frequent intermediary with the press. Powell, who represented Flynn in his attempt to reverse his guilty plea, spearheaded efforts in the courts.

Before Powell arrived at the plantation, Wood had filed a lawsuit in federal court in Atlanta against Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that sought to stop him from certifying Biden’s victory. Soon after Powell showed up, Wood submitted an anonymized declaration from Salazar as evidence of how the election was corrupted. He then filed an emergency motion that sought access to Dominion machines in Georgia to “conduct a forensic inspection of this equipment and the data therein.” The case was eventually dismissed, but it would serve as a template for the series of high-profile lawsuits that Powell would file in Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia.

Salazar’s declaration was central to the four lawsuits, and it went further than the assertions he had made in the video. His claim that he could show “the similarity” between anomalies in Venezuelan and American elections expanded to become an allegation that “the DNA of every vote tabulating company’s software and system” in the United States was potentially compromised.

Wood told ProPublica, “I was not involved in the vetting, drafting or filing any of the lawsuits filed by Sidney Powell,” though his name appears as “of counsel” in all four. A judge sanctioned him in the Michigan case, writing that “while Wood now seeks to distance himself from this litigation to avoid sanctions, the Court concludes that he was aware of this lawsuit when it was filed, was aware that he was identified as co-counsel for Plaintiffs, and as a result, shares the responsibility with the other lawyers for any sanctionable conduct.”

All the lawsuits would fail, with judges excoriating the quality of their evidence. It wasn’t just the evidence in the lawsuits that was flawed. In fact, much of the evidence that members of the coalition contributed to the stolen election myth outside the courts was also weak. Yet the coalition’s failure to prove its theories has not hindered its ability to spread them.

This is the story of how little untruths added up to the “big lie.”

When Powell and Rudy Giuliani, who was leading the Trump campaign’s legal team in challenging the vote, began investigating election fraud in November 2020, they quickly were inundated with tips. This flood increased once Wood and others began soliciting evidence on far-right message boards and mainstream social media platforms.

Some of the participants at the plantation described the inundation of claims, which overwhelmed their inboxes, as a type of evidence in itself: There must be something to allegations of election fraud if so many people were making them. ProPublica spoke to eight sources with firsthand knowledge of the coalition’s efforts on the plantation, many of whom said they worked relentlessly in a chaotic environment. Tips that easily could have been dismissed as dubious instead were treated as credible.

In examining hundreds of emails sent to the plantation, ProPublica found that some were hearsay or anecdotes seemingly misinterpreting everyday events; others were internet rumors; and many were recycled narratives that some members of the coalition had pushed on social media. None of the tips that ProPublica examined provided concrete proof of election fraud or manipulation.

One of the first tips Powell and Giuliani promoted came from Joe Oltmann, a Denver-based conservative podcast host who said he had infiltrated an antifa conference call and had heard a high-level Dominion employee named Eric Coomer declare that he would make sure that Trump lost the election. Powell and Giuliani highlighted Oltmann’s claim at a press conference on Nov. 19, 2020, at the Republican National Committee headquarters.

By that time, Powell was paying for an investigator to travel to Denver, according to a person familiar with the events. The investigator, the source said, interviewed Oltmann at a brewery in Castle Rock, Colorado, and spent several days checking out his story. Not long after the press conference, according to the source, the investigator emailed Powell his assessment that Oltmann was at the very least embellishing, but she did not respond. Powell soon referred to Oltmann’s allegations in court filings in Georgia and Michigan; roughly a week later, she submitted an affidavit from Oltmann in the Arizona and Wisconsin lawsuits. Coomer has denied being on the call and has brought a defamation suit against Oltmann, Powell, Giuliani, the Trump campaign and others. Oltmann has never presented proof of Coomer being on the call, and in March 2022, the judge overseeing the defamation case sanctioned Oltmann, fining him almost $33,000 for failing to appear for a deposition. When Powell was asked in a July 2021 deposition if she had anyone look into Oltmann and “his background,” she said she did not recall. (Oltmann did not provide responses to questions about the investigator’s assessment.)

Within days of the investigator’s Oltmann probe, Powell turned to another dubious witness: Terpsehore Maras, a QAnon-promoting social media influencer and podcaster who goes by the online handle Tore Says.

In September 2020, in a civil consumer-fraud judgment in North Dakota, Maras had been found to have made false online charitable fundraising solicitations and to have created “an entirely fake online persona.” (Maras has claimed that the allegations against her remain “unproven” despite the legal finding and that “false identities were imperative for me to execute my duties,” which include being a “former private intelligence contractor, whistleblower, and investigative journalist.”)

Powell filed a declaration in early December 2020 from an anonymous individual in the Arizona and Wisconsin lawsuits. The individual claimed that there was “unambiguous evidence” that “foreign interference is present in the 2020 election” and pointed to a vast and unproven conspiracy that involved Dominion, George Soros, a company with an office in China, and the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations. The Washington Post later identified the declaration’s author to be Maras.

In the weeks after the election, Maras presented herself to Byrne as knowledgeable about election fraud. But he discovered that she was unreliable after he had a team of investigators debrief her. Byrne and Maras said the debriefing occurred after Powell filed the declaration.

In an email to another witness he had debriefed, Byrne described the investigators’ assessment: “Tore was taken out and interviewed by some people I know from the intelligence community who are absolutely on our side. They came back telling me: ‘She knows some things and has been behind the curtain, but she also lies, exaggerates, deflects, changes subject rapidly trying to throw people off, and we cannot rely on her for anything factual because we caught her in too many lies and exaggerations over three hours.’” (“I tried my best to deceive” the debriefers, Maras wrote on her blog in response to questions from ProPublica. “I was scared.”)

Byrne has since repeatedly promoted Maras’ right-wing activism, as he does in this September 2021 video, some of which revolves around questioning the legitimacy of the election. (“She’s a friend and an ally, and I know that she’s a little goofy,” Byrne told ProPublica in an interview, explaining that he had recently been impressed by work she had done on their shared causes. “I think she has relevant knowledge.”)

Byrne, Powell and other coalition members weren’t just relying on witness statements in their effort to prove the election was rigged. Some of them also pointed to multiple mathematical analyses. One that Powell and Byrne advanced came from a man named Edward Solomon. In the weeks after Nov. 3, 2020, Solomon produced a series of online videos purporting to demonstrate how algorithms adjusted the vote total in Biden’s favor.

Before Byrne and Powell highlighted Solomon’s voting analysis, he came to public attention briefly in 2016, after authorities seized 240 bags of heroin, 25 grams of cocaine and weapons from his home; he later pleaded guilty to selling drugs. (Solomon did not respond to requests for comment.)

One person who coalition members entrusted to vet Solomon’s analysis was Seth Keshel, a former Army intelligence officer who was brought into the group by Flynn and who acknowledged to ProPublica that his mathematical expertise drew from “a long track record of baseball statistics.” In the end, his level of expertise didn’t matter; because of a server error, the emailed request to vet Solomon never reached Keshel, who said he had no memory of checking Solomon’s claims.

Byrne used Solomon’s analysis in his book, “The Deep Rig,” to make the case that the election was fraudulent. In February 2021, a month after the book was published, the University of Pennsylvania’s FactCheck.org reported that officials at the college Solomon had attended said that, though he had been a math major, he had never received a degree. The article quoted experts who pointed to flaws in Solomon’s analysis, especially that the “vote shares” he suggested were suspicious were “not at all surprising,” and a Georgia elections official who said that Solomon “shows a basic misunderstanding of how vote counts work.”

A paper posted that month by University of Chicago and Stanford researchers found that the numbers Solomon had said were suspicious were normal for a fraud-free election and that by not considering this, his analysis was a classic example of how “fishing for a finding” can “lead an argument astray.”

Byrne kept promoting Solomon’s work until at least July 2021, when he described him in a blog post as a “Renowned Mathematician.”

Five months after the FactCheck.org story and the research paper, Powell was asked in a sworn deposition which mathematicians or statisticians she relied on to support her belief that the election was fraudulent. She cited among others a “Mr. Solomon.”

In addition to relying on the flawed claims of Salazar, Oltmann, Maras and Solomon, Powell also promoted the assertions of an Arizona woman named Staci Burk, who had contributed to two fraud rumors after the election. In the first, Burk claimed that she’d spoken with a worker at a FedEx operations center in Seattle who had observed suspicious canvas bags marked as “election mail ballots” passing through the facility. The second involved a South Korean airplane flying fake ballots for Biden into Phoenix a few days after the election; Burk said that she had recorded a man who had confessed to the scheme.

A lawsuit that Powell filed in Arizona on Dec. 2, 2020, later included a “Jane Doe” witness who would “testify about illegal ballots being shipped around the United States including to Arizona.” Burk told ProPublica that she was the “Jane Doe.” The same day that Powell filed the Arizona lawsuit, she claimed at a rally outside of Atlanta to have evidence of “a plane full of ballots that came in,” and she continued pushing the idea, declaring in a Dec. 5 interview with the host of a YouTube channel, “We have evidence of a significant plane-load of ballots coming in.” The judge tossed the case before Burk could testify.

Burk’s theories proved false, and at least three coalition members were informed of this. Byrne said that he passed Burk’s claims to a contact at the Department of Homeland Security, who told him about a week later that it “had been looked into and there was nothing there.” This was in November 2020, before Powell filed her lawsuit. Byrne said that he let some of his associates know that Homeland Security had dismissed the claim but was unsure if he informed Powell. (He also said that later his contact showed renewed interest in the idea.)

In late December, James Penrose, a former senior official for the National Security Agency who had been at the plantation and described himself as working for Wood and Powell, called Burk and explained that he had spent $75,000 on a team of former FBI analysts turned private investigators to check out the theories. On the call, which she recorded, Penrose said that the investigators had tracked the claims about the South Korean airplane to the person who first made them. “When he was pressed, that guy admitted that he made it up because he hated the MAGA people that he worked with. And he was purposely trying to troll them by saying he saw ballots on the plane,” Penrose told Burk. “That created the rumor.” The man whom Burk recorded confessing to his involvement in the ballot scheme told Penrose’s investigators that in trying to impress Burk “he fabricated everything.”

“I mean, are you saying that it — that none of it’s true?” Burk asked. Penrose replied: “Yes. I’m saying that the entire thing was fabricated. It’s all bullshit.”

Penrose’s team had also checked out the Seattle FedEx incident, and he told Burk, “We’re not able to confirm anything that looked like conspiracy along those lines.”

Neither Penrose nor anyone associated with the coalition ever publicly released the findings of the investigation. (Penrose did not respond to requests for comment.)

Burk has since renounced her belief in the rumors she had once backed. “I obviously made a mistake believing lies,” Burk wrote to ProPublica. She said she had come to believe that some members of the coalition had manipulated her and her stories to further their ends. “As things unfolded over time, it became apparent I [was] used as a theatre set piece.”

Burk’s stories would shape the audit of the election results that Arizona legislators would later authorize — and which Byrne, Flynn, Powell, Wood and other associates helped fund, contributing about $5.7 million. The 2021 audit was criticized by elections experts and uncovered no proof of fraud.

“You have no idea how widespread the belief is in Arizona to this day that there’s 300,000 ballots that were brought in via an airplane,” said Doug Logan, a coalition member who worked with Penrose on the plantation and whose company Cyber Ninjas would run the audit. Logan said that Penrose told him that the woman’s theories were false. Still, Logan said, he had auditors examine ballots to check a range of theories, including whether bamboo fibers were mixed into the paper, which auditors believed could show that they were imported from Asia. “Our goal in the audit was to figure out what’s really true and deal with it,” Logan told ProPublica. “That’s why we did paper examination.”

No fibers were found.

Few pieces of evidence were more consequential to the stolen-election theory than a report that claimed to have found evidence of intentional election fraud in Dominion voting machines in Antrim County, Michigan. It was heralded as technical proof that votes were stolen for Biden. It was repeatedly promoted by the president. And Byrne and other proponents of the stolen election myth continued to refer to it when speaking to ProPublica reporters.

However, one of the authors of the report recently told ProPublica that the original version never found definitive evidence of election fraud in the Antrim voting machines.

“There was no proof at that specific moment,” the author, Conan James Hayes, said. He described finding what he considered a surprising number of errors in the data logs that he thought “could lead to” election fraud. “But there was no, like, ‘There was election fraud,’” he said, “at least at that time in my mind.”

Antrim had been the subject of national attention when, on election night, returns showed that Biden had unexpectedly won the Republican stronghold. The next day, the county clerk, a Republican who supported Trump, explained that officials had discovered that a clerical error had switched roughly 3,000 votes from the president to Biden. After the clerk’s office made corrections, Trump, as expected, had won the county with more than 60% of the vote.

Internal documents reviewed by ProPublica reveal that some members of the coalition almost immediately suspected that the mistake in Antrim was not human error. Rather, it was an incident in which the voting machine software hadn’t been surreptitious enough in stealing votes and unintentionally revealed itself. Their logic was simple: If they could do a forensic audit of the Antrim machines, they could finally establish how the election was stolen. The challenge was how to access the machines.

The day after Thanksgiving 2020, Byrne paid for a private plane to fly two cybersecurity specialists working with the coalition to Antrim: Hayes, a former professional surfer who had taught himself about computers, and Todd Sanders, a Texas businessman with a cybersecurity consulting business. Hayes and Sanders were turned away from the first two offices they tried, but at a third, a county worker agreed to unroll voting tabulation scrolls, which they photographed.

Highlighting discrepancies in the vote tally produced by the error, a Michigan lawyer won a court order to allow the machines to be formally accessed. On Dec. 6, Hayes, Sanders, a deputy for Giuliani and data forensic specialists engaged by Wood flew to Antrim, again on a private plane paid for by Byrne, and imaged the hard drives of a computer that was the county’s election management server.

Hayes and Sanders returned to Washington, where they examined the data and, in less than a week, assembled a report. Hayes and another individual familiar with the original version described it as a straightforward technical document, which noted aspects about the data that seemed suspicious but was cautious about claiming election fraud. Then the report was turned over to Russell J. Ramsland, the head of Allied Security Operations Group, a small security contracting company connected to Texas conservative circles.

When the report was released after a court hearing on Dec. 14, it was a very different document, according to Hayes and the other person familiar with the original version. It had “REVISED PRELIMINARY SUMMARY, v2” and Ramsland’s name at the top and his signature at the bottom, and it made an outright accusation. “The Dominion Voting System is intentionally and purposefully designed with inherent errors to create systemic fraud and influence election results,” it claimed. “This leads to voter or election fraud.” Allied Security, it said, had discovered enough proof of election fraud to decertify the results in Antrim.

Hayes’ and Sanders’ names were nowhere on the report. Hayes told ProPublica that the new “information must have been written by” Allied Security. (Sanders did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

It wasn’t just people associated with the original report who believed Ramsland’s version was flawed. An analysis commissioned by the Michigan secretary of state found that the report contained an “extraordinary number of false, inaccurate, or unsubstantiated statements,” including that “the errors in the log file do not mean what Mr. Ramsland purports them to” and were instead “benign” lines of code generated by processes that did not affect the vote outcome. A bipartisan investigation led by Republican legislators in Michigan declared that the Antrim theories are “a complete waste of time to consider.” (Ramsland did not respond to ProPublica’s questions about revising the report. But he did tell The Washington Post that the Michigan analysis only addressed 12 of Allied Security’s 29 “core observations.”)

Trump supporters immediately seized on the report as definitive proof that the election was rigged. Flynn tweeted, “MI forensics report shows a massive breakdown in national security & must be dealt w/ immediately. @realDonaldTrump must appoint a special counsel now.” Byrne and Flynn lobbied for Powell to become the special counsel.

In a statement, Giuliani said: “This new revelation makes it clear that the vote count being presented now by the democrats in Michigan constitutes an intentionally false and misleading representation of the final vote tally. The Electors simply cannot be certified based on these demonstrably false vote counts.” (Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment.)

Byrne described the report as a “BOMBSHELL,” posting it on his blog under the claim: “You wanted the evidence. Here is the evidence.”

Trump tweeted: “WOW. This report shows massive fraud. Election changing result!” Over the next three days, on social media, he promoted the Antrim report and suspicions about Dominion voting machines 11 times.

Late on the afternoon of Dec. 14, Trump’s personal secretary sent an email to the deputy attorney general with the subject line “From POTUS.” The Antrim report was attached to the email. An additional document included talking points (“This is a Cover-up of voting crimes”) and conclusions (“these election results cannot be certified in Antrim County”). That email launched Trump’s attempt to persuade the Department of Justice to assist in overturning the election results, according to a 2021 report by Senate Democrats. In the end, the deputy attorney general rebuffed the president, and officials in the department threatened to resign en masse if he was replaced.

When Trump demanded that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “find 11,780 votes,” enough for him to win the state, in a recorded phone call on Jan. 2, the president mentioned the Dominion conspiracy 10 times.

At the Jan. 6 “Save America” rally on the Ellipse, directly before Trump spoke, Giuliani took the stage and suggested that halting the certification of Biden’s victory was justified because of “these crooked Dominion machines.”

Trump’s speech emphasized the “highly troubling matter of Dominion Voting Systems” and the events in Antrim to explain that the election had been stolen.

Not long after, while Trump supporters made their initial assault on police barricades, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona was on the House floor objecting to the certification of his state’s electoral votes — the beginning of the effort to block the certification of Biden’s victory by Congress. He cited as evidence “the Dominion voting machines with a documented history of enabling fraud.” About a minute later, Gosar’s speech was interrupted and then cut off. The crowd was storming the Capitol. One person in the throng raised a sign that read, “No Machines Dominion STEALS.”

In the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol, many of the same people who had pushed the claims about Dominion repackaged their theory of how the election was stolen. It relied on the same data and the same arguments, except now it had a new name.

This transformation happened after Dominion’s parent company filed a lawsuit against Powell for defamation in a Washington court on Jan. 8. She and others began talking less about Dominion and more about voting machines in general. Dominion would go on to sue Byrne, Giuliani and others for billions of dollars in collective damages, contending that they promoted and in some cases manufactured false claims. The defendants have each denied responsibility or wrongdoing. (Smartmatic USA Corp. also brought defamation suits against Powell, Giuliani and others, all of whom have denied wrongdoing.)

By the summer of 2021, Hayes and Sanders, the two cybersecurity specialists who had performed the Antrim operation, had become involved in an effort to prove a theory called Hammer and Scorecard. The theory had been making the rounds in conservative circles for more than five years, and Powell had promoted it before the 2020 election. It posited that a supercomputer called Hammer had been developed by the CIA and then commandeered by the Obama administration to spy on Americans, including Trump, Flynn and Powell. Around the time of the election, the theory expanded to suggest that Hammer was using a software called Scorecard to alter results in voting machines and that foreign governments had possibly gotten ahold of it.

Part of the usefulness of Hammer and Scorecard is that built into the theory is an explanation for why it can’t be disproven: It is so top secret that the person who could expose the conspiracy can’t. That person is a former Department of Defense contractor named Dennis Montgomery. The people promoting the theory claim he can’t reveal the evidence because he’s under a gag order imposed by the U.S. government.

Phil Waldron, a former Army colonel, a spokesperson for Allied Security and a member of the coalition who worked remotely with those on the plantation, said in an online interview that if the gag order against Montgomery were lifted, “Specifically what that would reveal is the level of foreign interference in the election.”

Montgomery has been accused of fraud by former associates, though no criminal charges have resulted from those accusations. In the aftermath of 9/11, he allegedly duped the Department of Defense and other federal agencies out of more than $20 million in part by selling them software that he claimed could unearth messages to terrorist sleeper cells hidden in Al-Jazeera broadcasts. (It does not appear that the government ever attempted to get the money back.) Once those claims collapsed, allies of Montgomery began spreading the idea of Hammer. In 2018, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a suit Montgomery had filed against FBI Director James B. Comey, which attempted to expose an alleged government spy program, calling it “a veritable anthology of conspiracy theorists’ complaints.” (Montgomery did not reply to repeated requests for comment, but in the past he has denied the fraud accusations.)

The person behind the 2021 campaign pushing Hammer and Scorecard was Mike Lindell, the My Pillow magnate who has claimed to have poured about $35 million into efforts to prove the 2020 election was fraudulent. In July 2021, Lindell announced that he had gotten hold of a mysterious set of data that would prove the election was stolen. According to sources and messages reviewed by ProPublica, the data related to Hammer and Scorecard, though Lindell didn’t publicly name the theory or refer to Montgomery.

Lindell said he would reveal the data at a three-day “cyber symposium” he was hosting in August 2021 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Reporters, cybersecurity experts and elected officials — as well as anyone tuning in online — would finally see the proof that the election was fraudulent. Lindell said that independent cybersecurity experts would vet 37 terabytes of data at the symposium and posted an online offer of a $5 million reward to any attendee who could prove that “this cyber data is not valid data from the November 2020 election.” The event, he suggested, would result in Trump being returned to the presidency.

In the run-up to the symposium, before the independent experts did their analysis, the data was given to a group that included Waldron, Hayes, Sanders and Joshua Merritt, a self-described “white hat” hacker — all of whom had been associated with Allied Security at one time or another. (They called themselves the “Red Team” but coordinated on a group chat named “Purple Unicorns.”) Also on the team was Ronald Watkins, who has been identified by two independent forensic linguistic analyses as “Q,” the anonymous figure behind the QAnon conspiracy theory. (Watkins has denied on numerous occasions that he is Q; he did not respond to requests for comment.) Private communications reviewed by ProPublica show that he was in contact with people at the plantation in November 2020, advising them on how to set up secure systems to transfer information and helping with research into the Dominion theory.

Soon after arriving at Sioux Falls, it became evident to the Red Team that the data Lindell had provided wasn’t what was promised. “I have checked them all and they are NOT PROOF,” Watkins wrote in a text message to the rest of the team. “So there are a few files that could potentially be from hammer/scorecard in there, but that is only because it didn’t include a source. Since there is no source, it could be from anywhere — or even fake.”

“At the 11th hour, why do we still have zero proof,” another person on the chat wrote, frustrated that Montgomery hadn’t delivered on his guarantees. “If this software does exist, and the developer” — Montgomery — “is working with us, it shouldn’t take him 10 months to figure out how to extract data” that would prove his assertions.

According to Merritt, when the Red Team tried to inform Lindell two nights before the symposium was to start that the data contained no proof, the CEO yelled at them that they were wrong.

For months leading up to the event, conservatives who believed that the 2020 election was stolen had warned Lindell or an attorney working with him that promoting Hammer and Scorecard risked discrediting other efforts to prove the election was rigged. Two people, including election fraud activist Catherine Engelbrecht, the executive director of True the Vote, cautioned that they had had negative experiences with Montgomery and his representatives and that Hammer and Scorecard wasn’t credible, according to documents viewed by ProPublica and interviews with people familiar with the matter.

On the eve of the symposium, the Red Team learned that Montgomery would not be attending; he said he had suffered a stroke. The final proof of election fraud, which he was supposed to deliver last minute, was no longer going to arrive.

The event drew hundreds of thousands of viewers online, with more than 40 state legislators and others gathering in person. Onstage with Lindell, Waldron explained that the Red Team had looked at the data and “we’ve seen plausibility” and that a separate group of independent analysts would now comb through it.

By the end of the third day, the independent analysts — longtime election security and computer experts, some skeptical of Lindell’s claims and others sympathetic — appeared to have reached a consensus: None of the data contained the proof that Lindell had promised, according to accounts from five of them. In fact, much of the data turned out to be from the Antrim voting machines or harvested from other elections offices and was just a recycling of evidence that had already been discredited.

The data “was some gobbledygook,” said Bill Alderson, a cybersecurity specialist from Texas who had voted for Trump. Merritt told ProPublica that he feared that the hollowness of the data undermined other, more legitimate efforts to prove the election was stolen. Partway through the symposium, The Washington Times quoted him saying that “we were handed a turd.”

Waldron and Lindell, however, did not inform the crowd and those online what the analysts had found. On the last day of the conference, Waldron claimed to have “credible information on a threat in the data streams,” implying the evidence could have been sabotaged.

The day after the symposium ended — the day he had suggested that Trump would be returned to office — Lindell dined with the former president at Mar-a-Lago, a photo of which was leaked to Salon. At a rally, not long after, Trump called the symposium “really amazing,” and he has continued to praise Lindell’s efforts on his behalf. Lindell did not respond to a list of questions from ProPublica and instead wrote, “The election crime movement started November 3rd when the CCP” — the Chinese Communist Party — “and many others did a cyber attack on our election!”

In March 2022, ProPublica sent dozens of letters to the individuals named in this article and others that asked about factual problems with the evidence many had put forth as proof that the election was rigged.

Some of the responses were dismissive. “Stupid article,” wrote Michael T. Flynn’s spokesperson and brother, Joseph J. Flynn. “No one we care about will read it.”

Others contested the article’s findings. Russell J. Ramsland wrote, “So much of this narrative is false or highly misleading that I am not willing to respond point-by-point.”

Despite repeated requests, others did not respond. They include Sidney Powell, James Penrose, Phil Waldron and Todd Sanders.

Some, like Doug Logan, disputed that they had worked as part of a coalition. Others, however, felt it was an accurate description. “I was a member of said coalition,” wrote Seth Keshel.

“‘Coalition’ may not be the right word,” wrote Patrick Byrne, who said that he has spent $12 million on “election integrity” efforts through early 2022, often working in close coordination with Flynn. “We think of it as a network of fellow-travelers who were all volunteering to work to expose what we believed was a rigging of the election on November 3. But I can live with ‘coalition.’” Messages and documents reviewed by ProPublica reveal that the named individuals were in closer contact than has been publicly known, especially in the weeks immediately following the election.

On the whole, coalition members who responded to ProPublica doubled down on their belief in the stolen election myth. “I’ve not wavered on this,” Keshel emailed ProPublica. “I can spend hours with you showing you point after point after point to demand full investigation of this.” The single exception was Conan James Hayes, who wrote to ProPublica: “I don’t believe anything until I have all of the information to analyze, which to this point I do not have. So I can’t say either way.”

Over the course of months, Byrne acted as a champion of sorts for the coalition’s ideas, making himself available for numerous interviews and message exchanges. He also sent a 16,000-word letter in response to more than 80 fact-checking questions.

When presented with evidence that some of his past claims had proven incorrect, he acknowledged that there were instances when he and his allies had been wrong, especially when they were trying to interpret shifting information in the weeks after the election. He downplayed the weight they had put on claims about Dominion voting machines being exploited by foreign governments, though their own court filings and public statements from the time show this was their major claim. “I think that it’s picking at nits to look back at some of the stuff,” he said. He defended the coalition, saying, “I think they got the gestalt of it correct.”

Don’t pay attention, Byrne argued, to the many parts of the Antrim report that a technical expert commissioned by the Michigan secretary of state had debunked. (These errors included Allied Security’s central contention that Dominion machines were “purposefully designed” to create “systemic fraud” through a process known as “adjudication.” The machines in question did not have the “adjudication” software installed, according to the Michigan analysis.) Instead, Byrne stressed that what was now important was the claim that the voting machines’ security logs only went back to the day after the election, making it impossible to rely on any data on them. (The Michigan secretary of state expert found that logs were automatically overwritten to free up memory and that “the timing appears to be a coincidence,” though it said that having a limited amount of memory “is contrary to best practice.”)

Dominion voting machines, South Korean jets and Dennis Montgomery, Byrne suggested, weren’t central to the case. He repeatedly turned the conversation toward newer arguments for election fraud. He highlighted a March 2021 interim election audit report from a special counsel hired by Republican legislators in Wisconsin. The report’s primary claim was that a nonprofit had engaged in “election bribery” by providing funds to boost voter turnout in five urban areas, where voters are disproportionately Democratic. The special counsel raised the possibility that the report’s findings were serious enough that Biden’s victory in the state could be decertified. (A federal judge in October 2020 rejected the argument that the nonprofit’s work was illegal, and courts have repeatedly come to the same conclusion.)

Byrne continued to bring up new, supposedly bombshell claims. In his letter to ProPublica, he promoted a forthcoming documentary called “2000 Mules” by conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza that alleged that thousands of shadowy operatives filled drop boxes across the nation with ballots marked for Biden. “Videotapes of drop boxes, cell phone tower pings, and the testimony of a whistleblower,” Byrne wrote, “all point to about one million votes being stuffed” in Georgia.

There was always another report. Another debunking of the debunking.

Byrne acknowledged that no single piece of smoking gun evidence of election fraud had emerged, but he argued that the breadth of evidence that he and those with similar views had assembled made it inconceivable that elections weren’t corrupted.

What he was doing was necessary to save American democracy, Byrne had concluded. He was sure of it. “I’ve got my cards. You got your cards,” he said. “I’ll go all in.”

How China exports repression using a network of spies hidden in plain sight

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On the hunt again, the cop from Wuhan rolled into New Jersey on a secret reconnaissance mission.

Hu Ji watched the suburban landscape glide past the highway. He was in his early 40s, about 6-foot-1, smooth and confident-looking. His cases had led from Fiji to France to Mexico, making headlines back home. The work was riskier here; in fact, it was illegal. But he knew the turf. He'd identified himself as a Chinese police officer on his tourist visa, and the Americans hadn't given him any trouble. Sometimes, it was best to hide in plain sight.

Hu's driver took an exit into a wooded subdivision, cruising by big homes set back from the two-lane road that wound through one of the country's wealthiest enclaves. The driver was a new recruit, a boyish-looking Chinese immigrant in his late 20s who lived in Queens and called himself Johnny. Johnny's uncle in Houston had been a target of Hu's covert team. Two months earlier, they had “persuaded" the uncle, a former chief accountant for a provincial aviation agency, to return to China to stand trial for alleged crimes. Hu had essentially offered a brutal deal to Johnny and his relatives: If you want to help your family, help us destroy someone else's.

So in September 2016, Johnny became an indentured spy. He'd already done surveillance to prepare for this visit. Stopping the car, Johnny pointed out the location. The cop surveyed the large lawn, the trees flanking a brick path, the two-story house behind bushes.

Don't tell anyone you brought me here, he said.

Locked onto his new target, Hu mobilized his team. It grew to at least 19 American and Chinese operatives: hired muscle, private detectives (including a former New York Police Department sergeant), and undercover repatriation specialists who slipped in and out of U.S. airports with ease. The team did stakeouts while the unsuspecting neighborhood slept. They employed aliases and cover stories to relay money, intelligence and threats. When the stage was set, they brought their target's frail and elderly father from China to New Jersey as human bait — a high-stakes gambit known as an “emotional bomb."

This time, it blew up in their faces. Last October, Hu hit the headlines again, this time in the United States, when federal prosecutors in New York charged him and seven others with conspiracy to act as illegal agents for China. Six of them, including the former NYPD detective, were also charged with conspiracy to engage in interstate stalking.

The three-year investigation revealed for the first time the inner workings of Operation Fox Hunt, a shadowy fugitive-apprehension program that is a pillar of President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign.

But it underscored something more troubling: the extent to which China is brazenly persecuting Chinese people around the world, defying other nations' laws and borders with impunity. And it illuminated a little-known cloak-and-dagger battle between Chinese operatives and American agents on U.S. soil amid growing tensions between the two countries.

Launched in 2014, Operation Fox Hunt and a program called Operation Sky Net claim to have caught more than 8,000 international fugitives. The targets are not murderers or drug lords, but Chinese public officials and businesspeople accused — justifiably and not — of financial crimes. Some of them have set up high-rolling lives overseas with lush mansions and millions in offshore accounts. But others are dissidents, whistleblowers or relatively minor figures swept up in provincial conflicts.

In 2019, an immigration judge in New York granted political asylum to a former social security clerk from Beijing. The young clerk had landed on Fox Hunt's most-wanted list, but he argued in U.S. court that his former bosses in China had framed him for embezzling about $100,000 after he denounced their corruption. Despite the judge's ruling, he remains under federal protection because of ongoing harassment by Chinese government operatives.

Former Assistant Attorney General John Demers, who led the National Security Division of the Justice Department until last month, said China sets a dangerous precedent when it pursues expatriates here, violating U.S. laws and abusing human rights in both countries. (Demers declined to discuss the prosecution in New York.)

“If proceeds of corruption are laundered here, from China or any other country, we will investigate and, if we can, prosecute," Demers said. “But some of these people didn't do what they are charged with having done. And we also know that the Chinese government has used the anti-corruption campaign more broadly within the country with a political purpose."

The global Fox Hunt campaign, he said, reflects “the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government and their use of government power to enforce conformity and repress dissent."

China and the United States don't have an extradition treaty, in part because of well-documented problems in China's justice system. But U.S. authorities have tried to work with Chinese authorities to bring fugitives to justice. Some who were in the country illegally have been deported to their homeland. In other cases, China has supplied evidence to help American authorities convict legal immigrants for crimes, such as money laundering, committed in the U.S.

Nonetheless, over the past seven years Chinese fugitive hunters have stalked hundreds of people, including U.S. citizens and permanent residents, according to U.S. national security officials. Undercover repatriation teams enter the country under false pretenses, enlist U.S.-based accomplices and relentlessly hound their targets. To force them into returning, authorities subject their relatives in China to harassment, jail, torture and other mistreatment, sometimes recording hostage-like videos to send to the United States. In countries like Vietnam and Australia, Chinese agents have simply abducted their prey, whether the targets were dissidents or people accused of corruption. But in the United States, where such kidnappings are more difficult, Fox Hunt teams have relied mainly on coercion.

“They use pressure, leverage, threats against family, they use proxies," said FBI Deputy Assistant Director Bradley Benavides, chief of the China branch of the bureau's counterintelligence division. “Certainly, they are good at getting what they want."

Fox Hunt, experts say, is part of a calculated offensive to send a message that no one is beyond the reach of Beijing. As the Chinese Communist Party builds the largest police state in history, it is exporting repression. A report by Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights group, concluded that China conducts “the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world." With the West preoccupied by other threats such as terrorism, Chinese spies have saturated diaspora communities with conscripted agents.

“This is the one thing that Chinese dissidents most fear," said Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer and visiting professor at the University of Chicago. “Almost every Chinese overseas has at least one family member living in mainland China. Our fear is that our family will be targeted, they will have trouble. We have to worry about the personal safety of family members in China. That's why we have to practice self-censorship."

Transnational repression is just one front in a wide-ranging offensive. In April, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the FBI has over 2,000 active China-related investigations, with a 1,300% increase in economic espionage cases alone. The FBI opens a new investigation into China every 10 hours, Wray testified.

The Justice Department's China Initiative against spying has resulted in charges against former CIA officers, a U.S.-born professor, Chinese military officials and a China-based executive at Zoom charged with disrupting online commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

“We have seen an acceleration of efforts across the range of malign Chinese government behavior," Demers said. “There is a real change, I think, in the assertiveness and even the brazenness of some of this activity."

In addition to tracking down those accused of economic crimes, Chinese security forces also travel the world in pursuit of others in the regime's crosshairs, including Tibetans, Hong Kongers, followers of the Falun Gong religious movement and, perhaps most visibly, the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. The United States and others have accused China of committing genocide in the Xinjiang region against the Uyghurs.

Chinese leaders defend their efforts to retrieve fugitives. The lack of an extradition treaty with the United States, they say, makes the country a refuge for runaway criminals. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson dismissed the allegations in the New York case as a “smear."

“When conducting law enforcement cooperation with other countries, the Chinese law enforcement authorities strictly observe international law, fully respect foreign laws and judicial sovereignty, and guarantee the legitimate rights and interests of criminal suspects," said the spokesperson, Wang Wenbin. “Their operations are beyond reproach. Driven by ulterior motives, the United States turns a blind eye to basic facts and smears Chinese efforts to repatriate corrupt fugitives and recover illegal proceeds." (The Chinese embassy did not respond to a request for further comment.)

ProPublica's examination of the New Jersey case, the first prosecution involving a Fox Hunt operation, and of other clandestine Chinese missions in the United States, contradicts the official's statement. For years, covert repatriation squads from China have tracked their targets in all manner of quintessentially American settings, from quiet housing tracts to suburban chain restaurants to immigrant business districts. Hu's trail reveals the ambition of the effort. He is just one officer in one team from Wuhan, part of a swarm of teams from other provinces and Beijing that have been active in the United States.

To reconstruct Hu's trajectory and other Fox Hunt activities, ProPublica interviewed leaders of the FBI and Justice Department, current and former national security officials with expertise on China-related cases, and Chinese dissidents and expatriates. ProPublica also reviewed the federal criminal complaint and other court documents; reports by governments, academic entities and human rights groups; and social media and press archives.

The reporting uncovered evidence that went beyond the New Jersey case, indicating that the Wuhan Fox Hunt team had roamed coast to coast for several years, often without the knowledge of U.S. law enforcement, taking advantage of fear and silence in immigrant communities.

“You have to understand the Chinese intelligence services," said an Asian American former counterintelligence official. “They will tap literally anyone with access in the community where the fugitive may be hiding and working. China has the largest security apparatus in the world."

In the summer of 2016, Johnny got grim news from Wuhan.

The Chinese police had somehow brought his uncle, the former accountant, back from Houston. Newspapers published photos celebrating the success of the secret manhunt. In them, a short, bespectacled, morose-looking man stood on an airport runway flanked by uniformed officers.

The cop who caught your uncle is named Hu Ji, Johnny's relatives told him. He will contact you about another case. Do what he says.

Johnny, whose given name is Zhu Feng, had studied in Guam before moving to Flushing, home to one of America's largest enclaves of Chinese immigrants. His extended family became legal U.S. residents and embraced their new home. His older brother served in the U.S. military and then worked for the Social Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection, according to court documents and public records. (A CBP spokesperson declined to comment, citing the open FBI investigation.)

Johnny, who is now 34, seemed a malleable recruit. He did odd jobs: tour guide, selling used cars. On social media, he sported a Yankees cap and a boyish smile and called himself “Endless Johnny."

Now, he put that life on hold and became a secret agent for the Chinese government, prosecutors said. From Wuhan, Hu laid out the mission. His new target, Xu Jin, had directed Wuhan's development commission before he left for the United States in 2010 with his wife, Liu Fang, a former insurance company executive. Prosecutors had charged them with taking millions of dollars in bribes — crimes for which the maximum punishment is death.

The couple, now both 56, had gotten U.S. green cards through a program that grants residency to foreigners who invest more than $500,000 in the United States. The California consultant who helped them apply later pleaded guilty to immigration fraud, and investigators in that case alleged that the wife's petition for residency contained false information. But they remain legal residents. (The couple declined to be interviewed.)

In 2015, the Chinese government put the couple on its list of 100 most wanted fugitives in Operation Fox Hunt. Chinese authorities have said they made three formal requests for U.S. assistance about the wanted couple, providing evidence about alleged money laundering and immigration crimes that could be prosecuted here. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on that assertion.

Meanwhile, Hu's team began a slow dance of coercion and harassment. They locked up the former official's sister in Wuhan to pressure him to return to China, court documents said. And they discovered other relatives of the couple living in the upscale New Jersey suburb of Short Hills. Hu's team suspected the targets had supplied illicit funds to buy the relatives' $1.3 million home, and that the couple was living nearby. The house was their best lead.

Scope out the house and take photos, Hu told Johnny.

The cop from Wuhan represents the two faces of Fox Hunt: swashbuckling crime fighter at home, stealthy criminal in the United States.

As a veteran of the police foreign affairs unit in China's ninth-largest city, Hu, who is now 46, was roughly the equivalent of a mid-level detective in Dallas. But his career soared after he joined a Fox Hunt task force. In early 2016, Wuhan media had published glowing profiles about him, describing his imposing height, his travels to 29 countries, his arrests of eight fugitives. In one photo, Hu beamed in a green suit outside the cavernous headquarters of Interpol in Lyon, France.

“Out of the country does not mean out of the legal system," he told the Hubei Daily. “Show your sword and punish even those in faraway lands."

Beijing led the crusade, but many of the traveling apprehension teams came from the provinces. Chinese embassies and consulates overseas helped them while maintaining deniability. If hunters like Hu succeeded, it enhanced their careers and helped spread Xi's message that there were no safe havens. If they failed, the central government was insulated.

In September 2016, Hu flew to New York to meet Johnny and launch the operation. Johnny drove him to New Jersey to check out the house in Short Hills and other locations. Hu soon pressed another relative into service: Johnny's father, Zhu Yong, who also goes by Jason Zhu. Jason, who is now 64, was divorced and suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure. He didn't have a steady job, dividing his time between a home in Connecticut and his older son's place in Queens, and he traveled frequently to China. But he, too, became a covert operative, prosecutors said. (Jason's lawyer and relatives declined to comment.)

This conscription of the families of captured targets is a ruthlessly effective tactic. It ensures loyalty and obedience. It's also tradecraft, using local intermediaries to shield Chinese officers. The teams are often organized in silos so the foot soldiers don't know other players or all the details.

At Hu's direction, the neophyte spies started building a network. First, they needed a local private investigator, preferably an ex-cop with contacts and the skills to track people down.

The Zhus' choice didn't seem like someone who would become entangled in foreign espionage. Michael McMahon, now 53, came from an Irish American family of police officers and firefighters. During his 14 years at the NYPD, he'd worked in narcotics and an elite street crime unit, rising to detective sergeant. He'd won the Police Combat Cross, the department's second-highest honor, for his role in a gunfight in the Bronx. In 2003, he retired on partial disability related to ailments caused by his time at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 attacks. His wife, an actress, had had a long-running part on “As the World Turns," a daytime soap opera.

To contact McMahon, the Fox Hunt team enlisted a woman who presented herself as the New York-based employee of a translation company, according to his lawyer, Lawrence Lustberg. The woman told the detective that she'd found him through a Google search and introduced him to Johnny and Jason Zhu, describing them as representatives of a private Chinese company that was trying to recover assets from a former employee who had stolen money, Lustberg said.

In late October, during a second U.S. trip, Hu sat down with McMahon at a Panera Bread restaurant in Paramus, New Jersey, a suburb about 20 miles from New York City. The Chinese cop posed as Eric Yan, an executive of the company, during that meeting and other interactions, the lawyer said. Jason and Johnny Zhu also participated in meetings with McMahon and were involved in paying him.

Johnny identified himself as the nephew of the owner of the Chinese firm, which he described as a construction company, Lustberg said.

McMahon “believed he was meeting company personnel" and never learned the team's true mission, Lustberg said. “Nothing seemed suspicious at meetings. They never mentioned the Chinese government or that anybody worked in law enforcement in China. They talked about asset recovery. And they came across as employees with a vested interest in locating the money."

Prosecutors would later dispute the idea that McMahon was an innocent pawn.

McMahon gathered information about the targets' property records, bank accounts and travel. He brought in two more investigators to help stake out the house in New Jersey, even alerting local police to the surveillance to prevent any trouble. But the team was unable to find the wanted couple's home.

On Nov. 12, Hu sent the private detective an email, using the Yan alias, to say he had “reported all we found" to his superiors in China.

In December, Hu visited New York again. This time, he brought his boss. Authorities have identified Hu's superior only as PRC (People's Republic of China) Official-1, the director of the Wuhan prosecution office's anti-corruption bureau and a leader of a Wuhan Fox Hunt task force that includes prosecutors and investigators in the Communist Party's anti-corruption unit. Hu and his boss were part of a group from Wuhan that entered the country with ease as they carried out their illegal mission. Once again, Johnny served as their driver.

Days after that trip, Hu summoned Johnny to Wuhan for a meeting. Next time, Hu told him, they didn't plan to come back from America empty-handed.

China does not have a monopoly on cross-border repression.

Saudi spies have secretly repatriated Saudi college students whom they accused of dissidence or Islamic extremism in the United States. A U.S. rendition program that captured dozens of suspected terrorists worldwide caused backlash in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2009, an Italian courtconvicted 23 Americans, most of them CIA officers, ofsnatching an extremist cleric off a street in Milan and flying him to his native Egypt, where interrogators tortured him. And this month, federal prosecutors charged Iranian intelligence officers with plotting the rendition of an Iranian American journalist, describing an audacious scheme that could have involved kidnapping her in New York, taking her by boat to Venezuela and flying her to Iran.

But Chinese law requires citizens to assist China's all-powerful intelligence agencies, a mentality that extends abroad. Systematic spying in the diaspora dates back decades. During the running of the Olympic torch in San Francisco in 2008, FBI agents watched Chinese spies with walkie-talkies direct platoons of dutiful students — about 7,000 bused in from around the country — disrupting pro-Tibet protests. More recently, the FBI has investigatedincidents in which cars painted and equipped like Chinese police vehicles cruised through immigrant communities in California. The rogue patrols are messages from the Chinese government that immigrants should obey the regime in Beijing and watch what they say and do, according to Demers, the former Justice Department official.

“There are so many organizations working for the Chinese government," said Teng, the legal scholar. “In most cases, student and neighborhood associations are actually controlled. The foreign governments and the universities have not realized this urgent and important issue. They don't deeply understand how the Chinese government uses these associations to achieve its own political purposes. The response by Western governments and universities has been far from sufficient."

When Xi became president in 2013, he declared war on graft. He capitalized on resentment of an elite enriching themselves in a rapacious economy. Many of them had sent children to foreign schools, purchased foreign homes and prepared exit strategies. Xi took aim at an exodus of public servants and businesspeople with dubious fortunes who were decamping to countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States.

“That is the genius of the Chinese political system," said Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “If you're in any position of power, it's highly unlikely you've never engaged in corruption. So that means anyone can be pursued through Fox Hunt."

The moralistic rhetoric highlighted scandalous details, such as the $4.4 million that a former finance director of Jiangxi province allegedly lost in Macau casinos before his deportation from Singapore. China secured Interpol red notices, which are alerts that a country has requested arrest and extradition, for expatriates around the world.

After Operation Fox Hunt started in 2014, U.S. authorities began detecting illegal incursions by fugitive hunters who threatened U.S. targets, showing up at their homes and trying to enlist the help of local police and prosecutors, especially Chinese Americans. In August 2015, as President Xi prepared to visit, Washington warned Beijing to rein in Fox Hunt. FBI agents still found themselves skirmishing with Chinese spies deployed to intimidate dissidents in American cities during the presidential visit.

Weeks after the presidential visit, Beijing seemingly retaliated against a dissident who had criticized Xi's regime during protests in Seattle, obtaining an Interpol red notice on charges of bid-rigging. A U.S. court later granted the dissident political asylum, and Interpol lifted the notice.

The Obama administration spent several years negotiating with China about the Fox Hunt fugitives. During the customary lighthearted exchange of gifts at a meeting, one senior U.S. official gave Chinese counterparts a toy stuffed fox. U.S. prosecutors charged some fugitives and repatriated others, including convicts who had done federal prison time for embezzling $485 million from the Bank of China.

But there was acrimony over Beijing's bargaining chip: about 39,000 illegal immigrants from China, including convicted criminals, in U.S. custody. They had spent years stranded in the United States after deportation proceedings because China refused to take them. Now Chinese diplomats offered to relent — if the U.S. threw in names from the Fox Hunt list. The Americans wanted Beijing to accept the deportees first. And the targets on the list, many of whom had legal status in the U.S., could not simply be shipped back to China.

“We resisted," said a former senior U.S. official. “We said it's apples and oranges. We can't do that. There's no due process. If you have a case, you have to present it."

By 2016, federal agents were infuriated to discover that China had used the talks as cover for additional covert operations on U.S. soil. Chinese police officers in the delegations that had come to Washington to discuss Fox Hunt had secretly peeled off to pressure Fox Hunt targets, three former U.S. officials told ProPublica.

“They used delegations to send officers to go out and try to threaten these people, either their assets or their relatives," the former senior official said.

Most of the stalled deportees remain here today. And not all the Fox Hunt targets turned out to be fat cats.

Liu Xu, a former clerk, was the youngest person on a list of the Fox Hunt 100 most wanted, and the one accused of stealing the smallest amount of money. He was 29 when he fled to Sugar Land, a Houston suburb, in 2013. He told a U.S. immigration judge that he was a whistleblower. Working as a contractor at a social security administration office, he caught his bosses creating fictitious aid recipients and pocketing payments, according to his New York lawyer, Li Jinjin, who also goes by Jim Li. The bosses promptly framed the clerk for stealing about $100,000, Li said.

“He was accused of things that a lower-level official could not do," Li said. “The prosecutors were trying to protect the bosses."

In 2019, the judge granted political asylum to the clerk, who has moved and remains under federal protection because of harassment that has included photos of him and his home, complete with his address, being published in Chinese-language media, Li said.

Li, a tough 65-year-old, once served as a police officer in Wuhan. While studying for a Ph.D. in Beijing, he went to jail for participating in the Tiananmen Square protests. The lawyer said Fox Hunt prosecutions often grow out of regional feuds, snaring relatively minor figures.

“These are products of local political conflicts," Li said. “They pursue them as fugitives because the central government sets a goal. And the provincial government wants to achieve the goal for political needs."

In the spring of 2017, the plan was ready.

Hu stayed in Wuhan, a remote puppet master running the show. But he sent in a closer: a specialist who had the risky task of bringing back the target. U.S. prosecutors identify her as Tu Lan, 50, a prosecutor for the Hanyang District of Wuhan. She would lead the repatriation team, but because she didn't speak English, Johnny would stick close and be her intermediary with Mike, as the team called the American private detective.

The other specialist on the team was Li Minjun, now 65, a doctor who had worked for the Ministry of Public Security, U.S. officials said. Her assignment: to escort an elderly man across the world against his will in order to ambush his son.

The father's age has not been disclosed, but Hu felt he was frail enough to put a physician at his side for the more than 15-hour flight. The plan was to bring the father unannounced to the house in New Jersey — human bait to lure his son out of hiding, Hu told McMahon in an email in March.

“We just want to recomm[e]nd you trace him to find [his son's] address," Hu wrote to the detective.

Later, the family would accuse Chinese officials of kidnapping the father. Prosecutors say the team forced him to make the trip.

The father had orders to tell his son how much the family would suffer if the son didn't obey. Hu hoped the shock would cause the wanted man, Xu Jin, to surrender on the spot, investigators say.

Cases around the world show that such strong-arm methods are typical. Often, victims accompany captors without a struggle because they fear retaliation against relatives. One businessman on Fox Hunt's list who lived in Canada flew back to surrender in Shandong province in 2016 after police there arrested his ex-wife, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

First, Hu's team had to get the father into the United States. Departing passengers at U.S. airports rarely encounter border enforcement other than TSA personnel. But it's harder to enter the country with a captive in tow. Johnny helped coach the elderly man on responses to standard questions asked by border inspectors at Newark Liberty International Airport, a vulnerable moment of the plan.

“Have you all decided how to beat this questions[?]" Johnny asked his bosses in a text on April 1.

Text messages show Johnny was in Wuhan getting the hang of his newest cloak-and-dagger role: overseeing operatives he had hired in the Chinese community in New York. Johnny deployed an accomplice to beef up the stakeout team with instructions to “conduct surveillance there for 5 days. 12 hours on the first day, 10 hours on the second day, and 8 hours on the last three days. … The compensation is 1800USD."

Johnny ordered a recruit in Queens, a driver and logistics man, to keep his mouth shut around the visiting big shots.

“Do not ask them what they come here for," he wrote. “This thing is carried out secretly. … Just follow instructions when working for the Chinese government."

On April 3, Johnny and Tu, the head of the repatriation team, landed in Newark and checked into a hotel. Johnny met McMahon at the Panera the next day and gave him a $5,000 cash retainer. Hu emailed the detective photos of the father and the wanted couple.

The moment of truth came on April 5. That evening, Johnny drove back to the airport to pick up the father and the police doctor, who made it through customs without a hitch. Meanwhile, McMahon sat outside the Short Hills house, exchanging texts with Johnny as the plan kicked into action. Less than an hour later, Johnny dropped the human bait at the relatives' front door.

The relatives called the son. The next day, the wanted man did exactly as Hu had envisioned: He picked up his father. The surveillance team followed them back to the wanted man's home about half an hour away. They'd found their target.

But Hu's hopes for a lightning-bolt triumph evaporated. Instead of submitting, the family contacted law enforcement and the FBI got involved, a move the Fox Hunt team quickly detected. On April 7, Johnny sent a text to the prosecutor saying Hu wanted her “and the doctor to come back as soon as possible" to “evade actions by U.S. law enforcement," the criminal complaint says. Both women hurriedly caught flights back to China.

The team didn't give up just because FBI agents were onto them. With the specialists safe, Hu continued the stakeout with his U.S. operatives. Joining Hu at the command post back in Wuhan, Tu gave orders to stay ready.

“The key is the status of [the father]," she texted Johnny on April 9. “The main purpose is to let him persuade [his son] to surrender."

But two days later, Johnny sent McMahon a text saying he'd been told to return to Wuhan.

“Let me know if I need to go to China lol," McMahon responded.

“They definitely grant u a nice trip if they can get [the target] back to China haha," Johnny replied.

The gambit had failed. The father was allowed to go home. On April 12, Johnny went to Newark Airport separately from the elderly man and checked in on the same flight to Shanghai. His handlers in Wuhan told him to ensure the father met the doctor when he landed, and to treat him “with good intention" because of his age.

Before boarding, though, Johnny had a scare. CBP officers intercepted and questioned him. They showed him photos of Tu, his traveling companion a week earlier, and asked about her. He claimed she was a friend of his uncle and he had been her tour guide. The inspectors photographed the night vision goggles they found in his luggage, then let him go.

Johnny sent a frantic message to the accomplice who lived in Queens.

“Delete all of our chat record after reading this," he wrote. “There are some problems. Someone in the U.S. will be looking for you. … Be careful of everything. If there is anything, use other phones to call. Your cell phone may be tracked."

McMahon received no such warning, his lawyer said. The detective has kept his emails and texts from the case, a sign that he had no knowledge of the attempted repatriation, Lustberg said. McMahon also didn't know that the family had contacted the FBI, according to his lawyer, who said the texts about China were just “banter."

U.S. officials are skeptical. They noted that McMahon emailed himself a newspaper article on April 6, the day before the team leader fled back to China, with the headline “Interpol Launches Global Dragnet for 100 Chinese Fugitives." The story had photos of the wanted couple and information about the Chinese government's fugitive-apprehension programs.

“Accordingly, I believe that McMahon was aware that" the couple “were Operation Fox Hunt targets," an FBI agent wrote in the criminal complaint.

On April 23, Hu sent McMahon an email thanking him for finding the address of a woman in northern California, Lustberg said. She was the adult daughter of the couple in New Jersey. Instead of giving up, Hu's team was already attacking on a new front.

The federal charges against the cop from Wuhan focus on the operation in New Jersey. But ProPublica has learned that Hu roamed the country for several years, his activities alternately covert and overt, unmolested by law enforcement as he pursued at least two additional targets.

“Xi Jinping has brought a sense of urgency to the process," said Frank Montoya Jr., a former FBI counterintelligence chief. “There is a boldness, a brazenness, in the way they are treating us. They don't think there will be a consequence."

Hu has visited this country at least eight times. In addition to three trips in 2016 described in court papers, he was here in 2015 — nominally to attend a training program at the University of New Haven.

In a photo in Chinese media, Hu holds a certificate next to Henry C. Lee, a Chinese American forensic scientist known for his participation in cases such as the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Until recently, Lee directed an eponymous institute at the university that offers programs for visiting Chinese law enforcement officials and researchers.

The caption did not mention a date or place, but a university spokesperson confirmed that the photo was taken on campus. An organization called the U.S.-China Business Training Center arranged Hu's visit and issued the certificate, said the spokesperson, Doug Whiting, in an email. Whiting had no other information on Hu's visit.

“Rosters are not kept or maintained, nor are any kind of formal or informal records of the programs offered," Whiting wrote. “All visitors presumably had been approved for visas by U.S. Customs and therefore no additional background checks were necessary. ... It's impossible to know specifically what program, or when, Mr. Hu Ji attended."

That is surprising because of the widespread infiltration of U.S. universities by Chinese spies. Officials at the U.S.-China Business Training Center, which lists offices in California and China, did not respond to requests for comment.

U.S. officials told ProPublica that they subsequently determined Hu was in New Haven in 2015. The timing coincides with his Fox Hunt activity.

In a case still cloaked in intrigue, Hu engineered the repatriation of a U.S. legal resident while she was traveling in Mexico in 2015. Chinese press and government accounts withheld the woman's full name and obscured her face in a published photo, describing her as a manager of a Wuhan investment company wanted for fraud.

Hu told Chinese newspapers that he learned she was in the United States, requested an Interpol red notice in 2013, and “started to track her" — activity that was illegal if done on U.S. soil.

“Fugitives who fled to the United States are the most difficult to catch, and it is even more difficult to catch fugitives who hold a U.S. green card," an article in the Chutian Metropolis Daily said.

Chinese accounts claim Hu “miraculously" got a break in September 2015 when he found out the woman had flown to Cancun and Mexican authorities detained her. She requested that Mexican officials deport her to the United States, so Hu and Chinese embassy officials in Mexico “raced against time," fearing U.S. diplomats could intervene, the accounts say. Hu organized a ruse with Mexican officers: They tricked the prisoner onto a plane to Shanghai by telling her it was bound for Houston, the articles say. A published photo shows Hu at an airport with two Mexican immigration officers who transported the prisoner.

Mexico kept the affair unusually quiet. There was no Mexican press coverage, no standard announcement about international cooperation in action.

Asked about the matter, FBI officials said they had not identified the woman and were investigating. But ProPublica has identified her based on information from knowledgeable officials, detailed summaries of Chinese court documents, and other sources.

She is 50-year-old Suying Wang. In 2012, she came to the United States, where she married a U.S. citizen. Records show he is the president of a small business in Houston that has an affiliate in Mexico City. They lived in a condominium complex in Houston. Her former husband, who has since divorced her, declined to comment when reached by telephone.

As for Wang's arrest in 2015, ProPublica confirmed elements of the Chinese accounts, but discovered other details that change the story. In reality, Chinese operatives did surveillance of three fugitives in Merida, Mexico, a city about 190 miles from Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. At the Chinese embassy's request, Mexican immigration officers then arrested Wang and two others wanted for unrelated economic crimes, the officials said. Because Mexico does not have the death penalty, Chinese diplomats signed a pledge stating that Wang did not face execution in China, according to the officials, who requested anonymity.

Mexico deported Wang on Sept. 23, 2015. Photos obtained by ProPublica confirm Hu's involvement. They show the prisoner in transit in the custody of Chinese officers. Those officers also appear in a published photo of Hu and Mexican officers at an airport, and in another in which Wang's face is obscured.

Despite the Interpol notice and her Chinese citizenship, the deportation — and the reported deception used to get her on the plane — raise questions. International refugee law bars governments from returning foreigners to countries where they face a well-founded fear of persecution. China is a notorious violator of human rights. And Mexican authorities had a clear alternative: They could have sent the U.S. resident to the United States, a close ally.

The other two targets were also sent back to China, but it is unclear if they were U.S. residents as well. The episode reflects China's growing clout south of the border. One of Hu's superiors, a Wuhan deputy police chief named Xia Jianzhong, later visited Mexico to thank immigration chiefs for their help.

A spokesperson at the Mexican embassy in Washington declined to comment on the case.

In Wuhan, a court sentenced Wang to five years in prison, a sentence reduced to three years on appeal. The rather light punishment, combined with the scope and expense of the operation, underscores that one of the main goals of Operation Fox Hunt is instilling fear in the diaspora.

Hunters from Wuhan have worked other cases in Houston. While pursuing one man between 2016 and 2018, they caused his brother-in-law in Wuhan to lose his job and forced him to visit a prosecutor's office for months; they made his business partner's wife go to the United States and hire private detectives to investigate him; they tortured and jailed his brother and harassed their elderly mother, according to the wanted man's lawyer, Gao Guang Jun. Parts of the ordeal were also documented in the report by Human Rights Watch in 2017.

“It was a huge attack on the family," Gao said. “The whole family is broken."

Hu's name did not surface in that case, though his team may have been involved. But starting in 2015, he led the attack on the family of the former accountant in Houston. ProPublica has identified him as Zhu Haiping — the uncle and brother, respectively, of Johnny and Jason Zhu in New York.

Zhu Haiping, now 58, spent 18 years on the run, accused of stealing almost $2 million while he was deputy finance director of an aviation agency in Wuhan. Hu's task force located him in Houston, where he was a legal resident, and hounded him. Urged by his family to surrender, he “said he would return many times, but he never finalized a date," according to an article in the magazine of the Communist Party's anti-corruption unit.

Finally, Hu's team unleashed an “emotional bomb," the article says. They sent the wanted man a video of his friends, his former home and Wuhan delicacies set to music.

“He started to tear up, and the mere remaining suspicion at the bottom of his heart had gone," the article says.

In July 2016, Zhu “was returned" to China, according to U.S. court papers. The details of the repatriation are unknown, but it is hard to believe he surrendered because of an appeal to sentiment.

Hu's ability to cross U.S. borders repeatedly during his hunts is startling. Although he kept his mission secret, he identified himself as a police officer for the Wuhan Public Security Bureau on his application for a U.S. tourist visa in the New Jersey case. In March 2016, a Chinese newspaper article even mentioned his investigation of the former Wuhan development official in New Jersey, calling the wanted man one of Fox Hunt's top targets. But Hu had no known problems at U.S. airports when he traveled back and forth.

Asked if that was a breakdown in border security, federal officials said visa screening consists mainly of checking U.S. databases, which in this case apparently did not include information from the Chinese press. The chances of detection were low because of the large number of visa applicants reviewed by U.S. consulates in China, they said, and consular officials and border officers were not as aware of Fox Hunt then as they are today.

Hu's point man in California was Rong Jing.

Rong, a married businessman, lived in Rancho Cucamonga, an arid city south of the San Gabriel Mountains and about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Like the operatives in New York, he was an immigrant with permanent resident status. But Rong, now 39, described himself as a bounty hunter for the Chinese government, court documents said. He apparently liked the work and liked to talk about it. His bragging would give investigators a primer on the reach and relentlessness of Fox Hunt networks.

Just weeks after aborting the scheme involving the father in New Jersey, Hu turned up the heat on the wanted couple. He zeroed in on their daughter in northern California. She had arrived in the United States as a child, studying at a private boarding school years before her parents fled China. She had earned an advanced degree at Stanford, gotten married and made a life for herself far from her parents and their problems with the Chinese courts.

None of that mattered to the hunters from Wuhan. The daughter became their new weapon.

In May 2017, Rong hired a private investigator to stalk her. Unfortunately for him, the investigator was a confidential informant for the FBI. U.S. officials did not disclose if or how they maneuvered the informant into place. Since starting the investigation in New Jersey in early April, agents had been mapping the travel and contacts of the Fox Hunt team, and Hu had spent time in California, according to interviews and court records.

More generally, the FBI had been watching private investigators — especially in areas with large Asian communities — because of the role they had increasingly played in Fox Hunt. Rong does not speak English, so it is likely that the investigator he hired speaks Mandarin.

The bottom line: The FBI now had a man inside Hu's operation.

On May 22, Rong met for four hours with the investigator-informant at a restaurant in Los Angeles. In a recorded conversation, Rong offered the detective $4,000 to investigate and videotape the daughter. If the team succeeded with the repatriation, he and the detective could split any reward money, Rong said.

Rong said the bosses in Wuhan hadn't told him “what to do with" the daughter. It was possible they could ask him “to catch" her, he said. Rong and the detective might have to act as proxies for Chinese officers who “wouldn't feel comfortable to arrest her" in the United States, he said.

If there are “things they wouldn't feel comfortable to do," Rong said, “we need to be there on their behalf."

Rong asked whether the detective had a problem with removing someone from the country. “Say, if he wants us to bring him/her over, can you bring him/her over? Would this bring about any legal issues?"

Once the detective had shot video of the daughter, his next job would be to contact her parents and persuade them to return to China, Rong said. For the next few weeks, the private investigator went through the motions of shadowing the daughter, supervised by the FBI.

Reporting to Rong on July 14, the detective discussed photos he had provided of the daughter and her home. Then he asked: “You don't think they'll do any harm to her, do you?"

Rong's reply wasn't entirely reassuring. If the detective got in trouble, they would both be in trouble, he said.

“If there was an accident," he said, “in truth you [could claim that you] were just … investigating her."

At other moments, Rong sounded less menacing. She was “simply a daughter," he said, emphasizing that the parents were the main targets.

Unlike the New York operatives, Rong wasn't wary of the detective. His recorded conversations painted an inside picture of Operation Fox Hunt.

The Communist Party footed the bill. Rong did freelance missions exclusively for Wuhan, receiving a fee for each repatriation. He talked about teams of visiting “lobbyists." They were salaried “civil servants" of the Chinese government who traveled on work visas under multiple identities. Their job was “persuading people" to return to China, he said.

The account fits with information uncovered in other cases. The clandestine hunts follow a pattern: Investigators like Hu create networks and swoop into the country at key moments, insulated by layers of forced recruits, hired civilians, private detectives, even street criminals. The pursuits last for years, sometimes even after U.S. law enforcement intervenes.

Rong and the private detective met again, but the project in California fizzled out. The case went quiet until November, when the FBI had another breakthrough.

Although Hu had warned Johnny to stay in China after he flew back with the elderly father, the young man returned to the United States on Nov. 9. FBI agents interviewed Johnny and he confessed, giving up details of the operation during two interviews, court papers say. The agents let him go and he returned to China the next year. FBI officials did not explain their decision, but agents often delay arrests while they build cases.

The pressure on the family in New Jersey continued. In April 2018, Xinba Construction Group, a company based in Wuhan, sued the couple in New Jersey state court. The lawsuit accused the former official of extorting bribes while in powerful posts in Wuhan, delaying projects and causing the company to lose $10 million. In a countersuit denying the allegations, the defendants alleged that the company had teamed up with Chinese authorities to retaliate for the former official's opposition to a contentious toll-collection contract.

Chinese companies and security forces often coordinate criminal and civil actions against Fox Hunt targets, experts said. The Wall Street Journal wrote about the practice, including the Xinba lawsuit against the couple, last year.

Lawyers for both sides did not respond to requests for comment. The lawsuit is still in the discovery phase. In February, federal prosecutors involved in the Fox Hunt criminal case in New York filed a motion to intervene and request a stay in the Xinba suit.

The next salvo from Hu's team was more primitive. Between April and July of 2018, an unknown conspirator harassed the daughter in California, sending derogatory messages about her family to her Facebook friends.

In New Jersey that September, two young men showed up at the wanted couple's house. The intruders banged on one door, tried to open another, peered through windows, and left threatening notes.

“If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right," one note said. “That's the end of this matter!"

Surveillance video and fingerprints led investigators to Zheng Congying, now 25, of Brooklyn. Investigators believe he was hired muscle. He has pleaded not guilty. His attorney declined to comment.

Seven months after the threats, someone sent the wanted couple a package containing a compact disc. It recalled Hu's “emotional bomb" in Houston. Over a song in Mandarin, a video showed images of their relatives in China, including the elderly father whom Hu's team had brought to New Jersey. The father sat next to a desk where a book by President Xi, “The Governance of China," was prominently displayed.

“I believe that this shot was deliberately staged to make [the son] aware that the PRC government played a role in taking this picture and creating this video," an FBI agent wrote in the complaint. He described the photo as a form of implicit coercion demonstrating “the government's control over [the son's] aged parents."

In the video, the wanted man's sister implored him to come back. She said their parents were sick, isolated and distraught.

“When parents are alive, you can still call someplace a home," she said in the video. “When parents are gone, you can only prepare for your own tomb."

The lengthy investigation gave insight into a secret world at a crucial time.

“The timing of the investigation ties nicely with our understanding of when Fox Hunt came to be more broadly understood outside of China," said Benavides, the chief of the FBI's China counterintelligence branch. “This investigation absolutely helped the FBI understand how Fox Hunt operatives work, what the plans and intentions are and how aggressive they would be in this arena."

That aggressiveness has only escalated worldwide. In 2017, an abduction squad descended on a Chinese Canadian billionaire in Hong Kong's Four Seasons Hotel. They allegedly drugged him, rolled him out in a wheelchair, and spirited him to the mainland. When another billionaire living in New York, Guo Wengui, made allegations of high-level corruption, Chinese security chiefs traveled to confront him at his penthouse overlooking Central Park. FBI agents ordered them to back off, saying they had violated the terms of their visas.

And Beijing crossed another line in France. After “two years of unremitting efforts," Chinese authorities announced in March 2017, investigators from the Ningxia region and embassy personnel in Paris had “successfully persuaded" a fugitive to come home. Zheng Ning, a cashmere industry executive, had lived in France for three years before his mysterious disappearance.

Unlike the United States, France has an extradition treaty with China. Yet French officials say they knew nothing about the repatriation. French intelligence chiefs complained to their Chinese counterparts afterward.

“It's shocking," said Paul Charon, a China expert at the French defense ministry's Institute for Strategic Research. “It also shows a bigger phenomenon: the hardening stance of the regime in Beijing, which dares to carry out these operations overseas and mock the sovereignty of other countries."

U.S. officials acknowledge that the government was slow to respond to the threat.

“It did take us a while to catch up and realize what was happening," said Demers, who returned to the Justice Department from private practice in 2018 and was chosen to lead the new China Initiative. “With things like Fox Hunt, we realized it was not going to be enough to change behavior simply through having meetings with the Chinese. We were going to have to be more aggressive."

The FBI has tried to break through a wall of silence in immigrant communities to reach potential and known targets.

Qiu Gengmin, 59, is one of the latter. His name appeared on the Fox Hunt list six years ago as the result of an ill-fated shipbuilding deal and, he says, a vendetta by a security chief in Zhejiang province. Dogged Chinese agents have spied on him even at a Buddhist temple in Queens, he said. He has lost his money, home and wife. Authorities have harassed and jailed his relatives and friends in China.

“As long as I don't go back, they do not have personal freedom," Qiu said, hunched over a table in his lawyer's office. “They will continue to surveil them and there will be no so-called freedom. They are not allowed to take the train, they are not allowed to fly, they are not allowed to go out. They are afraid."

His story has ambiguities, however. U.S. prosecutors felt the evidence was strong enough to charge him with money laundering and conspiracy to transfer stolen property. He spent more than 20 months behind bars, pleading guilty to a federal charge of contempt. He has applied for political asylum.

About a year ago, three FBI agents interviewed Qiu as a victim, not a suspect.

“They say we need to follow up with your safety concerns," he said. “We want to protect you. … They said if there's anything, I should call them."

And last October, federal prosecutors charged eight people, including Hu, in the first U.S. case targeting Fox Hunt.

Rong Jing, the California freelancer, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent and to conduct interstate stalking. His lawyer says he went down a hazardous path of agreeing to increasingly ominous requests from the Chinese government.

“You have a number of individuals who have made a new life in America but wind up in this type of situation by doing a benign favor for an old friend from the old country," said the lawyer, Todd Spodek. “Yet over time their participation in the unlawful repatriation effort increases. As it increases, it crosses the line into criminal acts, which was not their original intention."

Another defendant pleaded guilty to the foreign agent and stalking charges. McMahon, Jason Zhu and Zheng await trial on both charges.

Six FBI agents and two police officers arrested McMahon at his home in northern New Jersey at 6 a.m. on Oct. 28. His lawyer said that the Fox Hunt team duped the detective and that there is no evidence he knew he was working for the Chinese government. His total profit for a case that has destroyed him was $5,017.98, the lawyer said.

“He never spoke to someone whom he understood, whom he knew, to be a Chinese official," Lustberg said. “Mike McMahon is a victim in this case."

Johnny Zhu, Dr. Li Minjun and Tu Lan, the prosecutor charged with leading the repatriation team, are thought to be in China. So are PRC Official-1 and another implicated official. Prosecutors did not charge or identify them, as often happens in counterintelligence cases for strategic and diplomatic reasons.

As for Hu, the fugitive hunter has become a fugitive. At last word, though, he was still a star. In 2018, his name appeared on the website of the Communist Party's anti-corruption agency. Because of his long experience on the front lines, the organizers of a national training conference had invited him to Beijing as an instructor.

The cop from Wuhan taught a session about international law enforcement cooperation.

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