Last September, Donald Trump released a statement through his Save America website. “It is my great honor to endorse a true warrior,” he proclaimed, “a patriot who has fought for our country, who was willing to say what few others had the courage to say, who has my Complete and Total Endorsement.”
Former US presidents usually reserve their most gushing praise – replete with Capital Letters – for global allies or people they are promoting for high office. A candidate for the US Senate, perhaps, or someone vying to become governor of one of the biggest states.
Trump by contrast was heaping plaudits on an individual running for an elected post that a year ago most people had never heard of, let alone cared about. He was endorsing Mark Finchem, a Republican lawmaker from Tucson, in his bid to become Arizona’s secretary of state.
Until Trump’s endorsement, Finchem, like the relatively obscure position for which he is now standing, was scarcely known outside politically informed Arizona circles. Today he is a celebrity on the “Save America” circuit, one of a coterie of local politicians who have been thrown into the national spotlight by Trump as he lays the foundations for a possible ground attack on democracy in the 2024 presidential election.
The role of secretary of state is critical to the smooth workings and integrity of elections in many states, Arizona included. The post holder is the chief election officer, with powers to certify election results, vet the legal status of candidates and approve infrastructure such as voting machines.
In short, they are in charge of conducting and counting the vote.
About three weeks after Trump lost the 2020 presidential election – and on the same day that Joe Biden’s 10,457-vote victory in Arizona was certified – Finchem hosted Rudy Giuliani at a downtown Phoenix hotel. Giuliani, then Trump’s personal lawyer, announced a new theory for why the result should be overturned: that Biden had relied on fraudulent votes from among the 5 million undocumented immigrants living in the state – a striking number given that Arizona only has a total of 7 million residents.
Two weeks after that, Finchem was among 30 Republican lawmakers in Arizona who signed a joint resolution. It called on Congress to block the state’s 11 electoral college votes for Biden and instead accept “the alternate 11 electoral votes for Donald J Trump”.
Finchem was present in Washington on 6 January 2021, the day that hundreds of angry Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, resulting in the deaths of five people with 140 police officers injured. He had come to speak at a planned “Stop the Steal” rally, later cancelled, to spread the “big lie” that the election had been rigged.
Communications between Finchem and the organizers of the “Stop the Steal” rally earned the lawmaker a knock on the door from the January 6 committee this week. The powerful congressional investigation into the insurrection issued a subpoena for him to appear before the panel and to hand over documents relating to the effort to subvert democracy.
Finchem will have to answer to the committee for what he did in the wake of the 2020 election, or face legal consequences. But there’s a more disconcerting question thrown up by his candidacy for secretary of state: were he to win the position, would he be willing and able to overturn the result of the 2024 presidential election in Arizona, potentially paving the way for a political coup?
“Someone who wants to dismantle, disrupt and completely destroy democracy is running to be our state’s top election officer,” said Reginald Bolding, the Democratic minority leader in the Arizona House who is running against Finchem in the secretary of state race. “That should terrify not just Arizona, but the entire nation.”
Trump has so far endorsed three secretary of state candidates in this year’s election cycle, and Finchem is arguably the most controversial of the bunch. (The other two are Jody Hice in Georgia and Kristina Karamo in Michigan.)
Originally from Kalamazoo in Michigan, he spent 21 years as a public safety officer before retiring to Tucson and setting up his own small business. In 2014 he was elected to the Arizona legislature, representing Oro Valley.
Even before Finchem was inaugurated as a lawmaker, he was stirring up controversy. On the campaign trail in 2014, he announced that he was “an Oath Keeper committed to the exercise of limited, constitutional governance”.
The Oath Keepers are a militia group with a list of 25,000 current or past members, many from military or law enforcement backgrounds. They have been heavily implicated in the January 6 insurrection.
The founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, and nine co-defendants are facing trial for seditious conspiracy based on allegations that they meticulously planned an armed attack on the heart of American democracy.
Finchem entered the Arizona legislature in January 2015 and soon was carving out a colourful reputation. With his bushy moustache, cowboy hat and boots, and offbeat political views, his hometown news outlet Tucson Weekly dubbed him “one of the nuttier lawmakers” in the state.
Bolding, who entered the legislature at the same time as Finchem, remembers being called into his office soon after they both started. “He wanted to show me a map of how Isis and other terrorist groups were pouring over the border with Mexico to invade the United States,” Bolding told the Guardian.
One of the first measures sponsored by Finchem reduced state taxes on gold coins on the basis that they were “legal tender”. He then introduced legislation that would have imposed a “code of ethics” on teachers – a “gag law” as some decried it – that would have restricted learning in class.
The nine-point code was later revealed to have been cut and pasted from a campaign calling itself “Stop K-12 Indoctrination” backed by the far-right Muslim-bashing David Horowitz Freedom Center.
“In essence he wanted a pledge of fealty from teachers that they wouldn’t discuss ‘anti-American’ subjects,” said Jake Dean, who has reported on Finchem for the Tucson Weekly.
It was not until Trump began to fire up his supporters with his big lie about the 2020 election that Finchem truly found his political voice. The state lawmaker was a key advocate of the self-proclaimed “audit” of votes in Maricopa county carried out by Cyber Ninjas, the Florida-based company that spent six months scavenging for proof of election fraud and failed to produce any.
To this day no credible evidence of major fraud in the 2020 election has been presented, yet Finchem continues to beat that drum. Last month he told a Trump rally in Florence, Arizona: “We know it, and they know it. Donald Trump won.”
In his latest ruse, Finchem this month introduced a new bill, HCR2033, which seeks to decertify the 2020 election results in Arizona’s three largest counties. There is no legal mechanism for decertifying election results after the event.
As the August primary election to choose the Republican and Democratic candidates for secretary of state draws closer, attention is likely to fall increasingly on Finchem’s appearance in Washington on the day of the insurrection. Allegations that he played a role in inciting the Capitol attacks led to an unsuccessful attempt to have him recalled from the legislature, as well as a motion by Arizona Democrats to have him expelled from the chamber.
“The consensus in our caucus was that individuals who participated in the January 6 insurrection do not belong serving as members of the legislature,” Bolding said.
Finchem has responded to claims that he helped organize the insurrection by threatening to sue. Through lawyers he has denied that he played any role in the violent assault on the Capitol building, saying that he “never directly witnessed the Capitol breach, and that he was in fact warned away from the Capitol when the breach began”.
In his telling of events, he was in Washington that day to deliver to Mike Pence an “evidence book” of purported fraud in the Arizona election and to ask the then vice-president to delay certification of Biden’s victory. For Finchem, January 6 remains a “patriotic event” dedicated to the exercise of free speech; if there were any criminality it was all the responsibility of anti-fascist and Black Lives Matter activists.
The Guardian reached out to Finchem to invite him to explain his presence and actions in Washington on January 6, but he did not respond.
He has repeatedly insisted that he never came within 500 yards of the Capitol building. But photos and video footage captured by Getty Images and examined by the Arizona Mirror show him walking through the crowd of Trump supporters in front of the east steps of the Capitol after the insurrection was already under way.
At 3.14pm on January 6, more than two hours after the outer police barrier protecting the Capitol was overcome by insurrectionists, Finchem posted a photograph on Twitter that he has since taken down. It is not known who took the photo, but it shows rioters close to the east steps of the building above the words: “What happens when the People feel they have been ignored, and Congress refuses to acknowledge rampant fraud. #stopthesteal.”
Finchem’s campaign to become the next secretary of state of Arizona is going well. Last year his campaign raised $660,000, Politico reported – more than three times Bolding’s haul.
Bolding sees that as indicative of a fundamental problem. On the right, individuals and groups have spotted an opportunity in the secretary of state positions and are avidly targeting them; on the left there is little sign of equivalent energy or awareness.
“The public in general may not understand what’s at stake here. All Democrats, all Americans, should be concerned about this and what it could do to the 2024 presidential election,” he said.
Dean agrees that there is a perilous void in public knowledge. “What’s so insidious about the Trump plan is that it is focusing on state-level races where voters know very little about what the secretary of state does. That’s a danger, as it gives Finchem a realistic path in which he could win – and Finchem will do what Trump wants.”