The two-day conference in September 2020 was among more than 20 meetings that the Rule of Law Defense Fund held in the four months before the November election for senior aides to Republicans who were their states' chief law enforcement officials. But unlike the others, it was held in-person despite coronavirus cases surging and the vaccine still months from coming to market, and the group paid attendees' travel costs.
The Defense Fund, which is a branch of the Republican Attorneys General Association, gained notoriety for its robocall the day before the Jan. 6 insurrection, when pro-Trump demonstrators stormed the Capitol in an attempt to thwart the certification of Joe Biden's victory.
Emails from the offices of the Republican attorneys general in Kansas and Missouri show that the Defense Fund held weekly calls for senior staffers in state offices, a “virtual roundtable” with senior corporate attorneys in July and the in-person summit in September. It also held a Zoom “strategy session” eight days after the election and a Dec. 1 call to discuss immigration policy.
A Sept. 24 email from the Republican Attorneys General Association executive director, addressed to “Generals,” called the Atlanta event “WAR GAMES” and a “series of conversations planning for what could come if we lose the White House.”
“It was a fast paced, productive series of war games, which hopefully will not have to be utilized in November," then-Executive Director Adam Piper said in an email the next day, again addressed to “Generals.”
Piper resigned from the attorneys general association five days after the violence in Washington and after the Defense Fund's robocall came to light. The call did not advocate violence or suggest invading the Capitol.
Taken together, the meetings and robocalls underscore how deeply elements of the Republican Party were invested in trying to keep Trump in office or to challenge the incoming Biden administration. Seventeen Republican state attorneys general, including those from Kansas and Missouri, also joined the Texas attorney general in a separate lawsuit seeking to overturn the presidential election results based on unfounded claims of voter fraud; the Supreme Court ultimately rejected that effort.
An agenda for the Defense Fund's Atlanta summit listed three policy sessions and a set of breakout sessions over two days. An email two days before the event from the Defense Fund's executive director said, “All the policy conversations are off the record.”
While the Defense Fund also allowed people to participate virtually, the emails said more than 30 people attended in person.
In a written statement Thursday to The Associated Press, RAGA spokesperson Johnny Koremenos said the September 2020 meeting “was strictly focused on administrative law and preparing attorneys general teams for a potential Biden Administration or a second term of President Trump — common practice in an election season.”
Koremenos said GOP attorneys general have filed more than 40 lawsuits against Biden's policies since he took office in January. That continues a tactic they used during former President Barack Obama's administration — and an approach used by their Democratic counterparts regularly during Trump's four years in office.
“We’re going to continue to fight back against the most radical and irresponsible agenda America has ever seen,” Chris Nuelle, a spokesperson for Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, said Thursday in an email.
Koremenos did not answer questions asked in multiple emails about whether Defense Fund videoconferences last year addressed possible challenges to the election results.
The Defense Fund said in tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service that its mission is to share best practices among states' top lawyers, provide a forum for them to discuss state and federal policy issues, help them develop policy and “engage” federal officials “regarding the interests of the states.”
In Missouri, contacts between the Defense Fund and state Solicitor General John Sauer, who is under Schmitt’s office, became public this year through a records request from a government transparency group.
Schmitt said in January that he didn’t know about the Defense Fund robocall, and his spokesperson said Thursday that he wasn’t going to “rehash” issues raised early this year. Schmitt is running for the U.S. Senate in 2022.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt's office sent two staffers to the September “war games” summit — Chief Deputy Attorney General Jeff Chanay and Communications Director Clint Blaes. Their pre-event travel authorization forms showed that the Defense Fund would cover their expenses — as it did — and listed the purpose of their travel as “Training.”
Chanay said in an email to himself and Blaes that Schmidt had concluded the event “serves a legitimate state purpose and interest” and that the office otherwise would have covered their expenses — making it legal under Kansas law for them to accept the Defense Fund's hospitality.
Their participation was first reported this week by the Kansas Reflector, which obtained 15 pages of emails through an open records request. The Associated Press also obtained the emails through an open records request.
Another email showed that Eric Montgomery, Schmidt's chief of staff, registered for online sessions.
Schmidt, first elected in 2010, is running for Kansas governor in 2022. He served as a director of the Defense Fund but left its board in August 2020. After the Jan. 6 insurrection, he publicly condemned the violence as “sickening” and told The Topeka Capital-Journal that he hadn't known of the robocalls beforehand.
Schmidt's spokesperson, John Milburn, said in an email that the September event was to discuss possible responses to regulations or other actions from a potential Biden administration that Schmidt worried might have "devastating consequences for Kansas.”
"There was no discussion about challenging the results of an election that was still six weeks away," Milburn said.
Associated Press writers Summer Ballentine in Columbia, Missouri; Meg Kinnard in Houston; and Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, contributed to this report.
Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna