The specter of voting fraud in the 2020 election, perpetuated by President Donald Trump's baseless claims the vote was rigged against him, tracked throughout the halls and on the front steps of the Montana State Capitol as the 2021 Legislature convened.
Twice during the first week the president's loyalists converged outside the building, waving homemade signs proclaiming "Stop the Steal" and Trump 2020 flags more than two months after the election as some Republican lawmakers stood alongside in support.
Among the GOP legislators sworn in Monday is one who believes Trump's "battle" isn't done yet.
During Montana Republican state Auditor Troy Downing’s swearing-in ceremony Monday, a reverend claimed falsely in the invocation the presidential election was stolen "in many states." Downing later denounced the remarks.
To those who watch these kinds of things closely, the insurrection in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday was not an isolated incident, but the product of a movement that has made its presence known in Montana the first several days of the legislative session and has grown in size and intensity over the last year.
Under the dome
At least one Montana lawmaker has ties to several people who trespassed in the halls of the U.S. Capitol during the siege Wednesday.
Sen. Theresa Manzella is a Hamilton Republican who spent three terms in the state House of Representatives before being elected to the state Senate in 2020. In a phone interview with the Montana State News Bureau on Thursday, Manzella said her associates were detained by law enforcement for questioning and released after they had been inside the U.S. Capitol during the insurrection that left five dead, including a Capitol police officer.
Manzella's "people" were at the U.S. Capitol for the "Stop the Steal" protest. They were awaiting Congress' vote on the Arizona results, she said, when the sea of protesters began lapping at the building.
"It was extremely disheartening that the 12th Amendment process that was taking place was interrupted by the violence and we did have people who were there and they indicated that they had been there two days prior to the event and there was absolutely no discussion they had heard of any sort of violence," she said.
Manzella said Thursday she still believes there is "overwhelming evidence" that the election was stolen from Trump, though courts have repeatedly rejected those claims for lack of evidence. But after the halls of Congress were desecrated Wednesday, Manzella said she wished the demonstration hadn't spawned the invasion.
"It just didn't need to happen," she said. "None of it."
On Monday in Helena, several of Manzella's supporters, distinguishable from the others by their fluorescent shirts and vests, gathered in front of the state Capitol to protest public health mandates and the presidential election result. An hour later, that same crowd gathered in the state Senate gallery and watched as the newly-elected senators, Manzella among them, leaned down and signed their oaths of office.
"We're watching," one man bellowed down at the lawmakers from the gallery. Manzella said those in the state Senate gallery Monday were not the same as those in the U.S. Capitol two days later.
Asked a day after the U.S. Capitol was breached if the eruption in Washington, D.C., and subsequent certification of the 2020 election results spoke to the divide in the GOP, Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, said, without irony, "The coup is complete."
Gunderson believed it to be his duty to the Constitution to let no claim of voter fraud go unchecked by Congress. The way Gunderson explained it, he wants to see for himself there wasn't fraud before he believes it so. If a congressional commission won't have an open audit, Gunderson feels like he doesn't have the answers.
"I question everything," he said.
On Dec. 18, Gunderson tagged each Republican U.S. senator in a series of tweets and urged them, "Senators, Stand Your Ground and object to the fraudulent 'results' of the 2020 election!" Montana's junior U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who furthered false claims of fraud changing the outcome of the election, was among the nearly dozen GOP senators who were going to object to electors from certain states because a commission they called for had not formed to review claims of fraud. Daines reversed course after the Capitol was sieged.
Paving the path to D.C.
Travis McAdam, program director for the Montana Human Rights Network, said Wednesday's insurrection did not happen randomly or without precursors.
"When you think back to those early months of the pandemic when we started to see the big rallies here in Montana and around the country protesting health directives," McAdam said, "those types of events, you had this precedent set of angry crowds gathering outside capitols or courthouses. … You had all of these events happening, in some ways it felt like they were happening every day and it normalized this idea that somehow part of American democracy is mobs of sometimes armed people outside government buildings."
In July, the Gallatin County Board of Health postponed a meeting scheduled to vote on a local mask ordinance when more than 100 people pushed into the room and refused to socially distance. At one point, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported, people yelled the public health process was "rigged," and another person said, “The Constitution says we have the right to assemble. It doesn’t say we have the right to assemble 6 feet apart.”
McAdam pointed to Idaho, where Ammon Bundy's Peoples' Rights group in early December stormed a county health building and spurred officials to abruptly end a meeting "in the interest of public safety," according to the Associated Press. In many ways, the path to Wednesday's insurrection stretches back to the rise of the militia movement in the 1990s, he said.
"I think the overall point of what happened yesterday was horrifying and sad and scary but it didn't come out of nowhere," McAdam said. "There were these warning signs that really had been building for over a year that came to a head and exploded in the Capitol (Wednesday)."
As protests sprouted around the country against public health measures, militia groups found these demonstrations to be fertile recruiting grounds, McAdam said. Rallies grew and developed a flavor of the far-right, McAdam added, and before the election even took place Trump had begun pumping a preemptive conspiracy that the presidency would be stolen from him.
"Stand back and stand by," Trump said during the first presidential debate in September when asked to denounce the Proud Boys, a far-right group that has since boasted they caused "absolute terror" during the Capitol siege.
McAdam doesn't believe Wednesday's events will be the end of the line for those who take up Trump's rhetoric of voter fraud, especially after the election of a Democratic president.
"I would love to be able to say, 'Yes, they lost, they went home, we're never going to hear from those folks again,'" he said. But, "We have seen time and time again this movement doesn't die out completely. It's like all political and social movements over time, it has peaks and valleys."
Carrying Trump's dismissed claims of voter fraud and watching as his supporters act on those claims is simply the cost of doing business if a Republican wants success in the polls, political scientist and professor at Carroll College Jeremy Johnson said Thursday.
"Significant elements of the Republican Party have chosen to ignore reality on this issue, which is guided from the top with the president," Johnson said Thursday. "Over the past four years he’s been more popular than any other Republican politician, that's true in Montana and across the country. No Republican wants to be on the wrong side of Trump's Twitter account and try to win an election."
It's yet to be seen, Johnson said, if Wednesday's attack on the Capitol will change that. Johnson's comments were made before Twitter permanently suspended Trump's account Friday.
'We love you'
At the state level, former GOP legislator and Bozeman attorney Matthew Monforton called Manzella the most prominent Republican lawmaker broadcasting the voter fraud conspiracy through her use of social media. On his own social media page, Monforton on Wednesday called on lawmakers to remove Manzella from her committee assignments for to her connection to the insurrection.
"Unfortunately, there are not enough Republicans who are saying what needs to be said, that Trump's allegations of an election being stolen are complete lies," Monforton said in a phone interview.
There are, to be sure, Montana Republicans who have publicly wished Trump, who won Montana by 20 points in 2016 and 16 points in 2020, had not gone so far with his rhetoric. The state party has battled division within its own ranks, even before Trump ran for office.
"I believe the president had the opportunity to help produce a different outcome, and I'm disappointed that he didn't," said Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell.
Garner said Friday if it were him in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, he would have voted to certify the election results. As former chief of the Kalispell Police Department, Garner said his record speaks for itself regarding his attitude toward the criminal acts committed in Washington, D.C.
Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, a military veteran, condemned the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, as well as the civil unrest that marked 2020. His constitutional duty, he said, was standing opposite of the acts at the citadel of American democracy.
"The riots we saw this past summer and this week's appalling attack on the national Capitol illustrate the deep political divide we face," Bedey said Friday in a phone interview. He was out of the state Capitol and isolating after a positive COVID-19 test Thursday.
"Many Americans are frustrated. I share some of those frustrations. But as an elected official who has taken an oath to support, protect and defend the Constitution, I categorically condemn the outrage we saw in Washington. And I would expect all of my colleagues to do the same."
No Republican who spoke to the Montana State News Bureau for this story denounced Trump for his role in the Capitol invasion. Even in his video urging protesters to leave the area, Trump still told the invaders, "we love you."
Montana Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte on Thursday opened a budget presentation by calling the U.S. Capitol attack "sad" and "tragic." Asked if he believed Trump incited the violence or whether he denounced Trump's role in the siege, Gianforte said, "Civil violence is completely inappropriate. I was pleased the president said 'Go home.' There probably could have be a stronger statement made there. I’m glad it's over and I look forward to a peaceful transition of power on the 20th of this month."
As the week wore on after the U.S. Capitol breach, more and more GOP leaders at the national level publicly wound down their support for Trump, with a few calling for his removal.
State Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, however, said Thursday without a court's willingness to hear the claims of widespread voter fraud, "most of us will be led by our core beliefs."
Read also wondered whether Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot and killed by Capitol police during the meltdown, would be this generation's Crispus Attucks, known as the first American casualty in the American Revolution in 1770.
"I'm wondering if this gal who got killed may be the first victim of our next revolution, if we don't find the truth in this, why this woman was shot," Read said. "I honestly believe that Trump is not done with this battle yet. The fraud has been committed, the fraud has been proven by the experts, but no court has been willing to take it up."
Read had no answer when asked which experts had proven the fraud.
Manzella's social media posts have continued floating conspiracies fomenting distrust of the federal government — recently suggesting that the U.S. Capitol doors were deliberately left unlocked for a staged invasion, and questioning whether outside agitators, not Trump supporters, had started the mob at the Capitol — but she said Thursday she did not wish for a second civil war.
"Absolutely not," Manzella said.