MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A newly released audio recording offers a behind-the-scenes look at how former President Donald Trump's campaign team in a pivotal battleground state knew they had been outflanked by Democrats in the 2020 presidential election. But even as they acknowledged defeat, they pivoted to allegations of widespread fraud that were ultimately debunked - repeatedly - by elections officials and the courts.
The audio from Nov. 5, 2020, two days after the election, is surfacing as Trump again seeks the White House while continuing to lie about the legitimacy of the outcome and Democrat Joe Biden's win.
The Wisconsin political operatives in the strategy session even praised Democratic turnout efforts in the state's largest counties and appeared to joke about their efforts to engage Black voters, according to the recording obtained Thursday by The Associated Press. The audio centers on Andrew Iverson, who was the head of Trump's campaign in the state.
"Here's the deal: Comms is going to continue to fan the flame and get the word out about Democrats trying to steal this election. We'll do whatever they need. Just be on standby if there's any stunts we need to pull," Iverson said.
Iverson is now the Midwest regional director for the Republican National Committee. He deferred questions about the meeting to the RNC, whose spokesperson, Keith Schipper, declined comment because he had not heard the recording.
The former campaign official and Republican operative who provided a copy of the recording to the AP was in the meeting and recorded it. The operative is not authorized to speak publicly about what was discussed and did not want to be identified out of concern for personal and professional retaliation, but said they came forward because Trump is mounting a third attempt for the White House.
In response to questions about the audio, Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung said: "The 2024 campaign is focused on competing in every state and winning in a dominating fashion. That is why President Trump is leading by wide margins in poll after poll."
Wisconsin was a big part of Trump's victory in 2016, when he smashed through the Democrats' so-called "Blue Wall" in the upper Midwest, and his campaign fought hard to keep the swing state in his column four years later before his loss to Biden.
Biden defeated Trump by nearly 21,000 votes in Wisconsin in 2020, a result that has withstood independent and partisan audits and reviews, as well as lawsuits and recounts in the state's two largest and Democratic-leaning counties.
Yet, two days after the election, there was no discussion of Trump having won the state during the meeting of Republican campaign operatives.
Instead, parts of the meeting focus on discussions about packing up campaign offices and writing final reports about how the campaign unfolded. At one point on the recording, Iverson is heard praising the GOP's efforts while admitting the margin of Trump's defeat in the state.
"At the end of the day, this operation received more votes than any other Republican in Wisconsin history," Iverson said. "Say what you want, our operation turned out Republican or DJT supporters. Democrats have got 20,000 more than us, out of Dane County and other shenanigans in Milwaukee, Green Bay and Dane. There's a lot that people can learn from this campaign."
The meeting showcases another juxtaposition of what Republican officials knew about the election results and what Trump and his closest allies were saying publicly as they pushed the lie of a stolen election. Trump was told by his own attorney general there was no sign of widespread fraud, and many within his own administration told the former president there was no substance to various claims of fraud or manipulation - advice Trump repeatedly ignored.
In the weeks after the election, Trump and his allies would file dozens of lawsuits, convene fake electors and pressure election officials in an attempt to overturn the will of the voters and keep Trump in office.
It's unclear whether the staff in Wisconsin coordinated their message directly with campaign officials in Washington.
Parts of the Nov. 5 meeting also center on Republican outreach efforts to the state's Black community.
At one point, the operatives laugh over needing "more Black voices for Trump." Iverson also references their efforts to engage with Black voters.
"We ever talk to Black people before? I don't think so," he said, eliciting laughter from others in the room.
Another speaker on the recording with Iverson is identified by the source as GOP operative Clayton Henson. At the time, Henson was a regional director for the RNC in charge of Wisconsin and other Midwestern states. They give a postmortem of sorts on the election, praising Republican turnout and campaign efforts while acknowledging the Democrats' robust turn-out-the-vote campaign.
Henson specifically references Democratic turnout in Dane County, which includes Madison, the state capital, and is a liberal stronghold in the state. A record-high 80% of the voting-age population cast ballots in 2020 in the county, which Biden won with 76% of the vote.
"Hats off to them for what they did in Dane County. You have to respect that," Henson said. "There's going to be another election in a couple years. So remember the lessons you learned and be ready to punch back."
Henson, reached by phone Thursday, said, "No thank you" when asked to comment about the meeting.