Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s top election official, faced an onslaught of threats after the 2020 presidential election for refusing to overturn results that showed Joe Biden had won the state. In those hectic weeks, she says she also received an especially disturbing piece of information: President Donald Trump suggested in a White House meeting that she should be arrested for treason and executed.
Benson, a Democrat, revealed the alleged remark for the first time in an interview with NBC News. She said she learned of it from a source familiar with Trump’s White House meeting.
“It was surreal and I felt sad,” Benson said, recalling her reaction.
“It certainly amplified the heightened sense of anxiety, stress, and uncertainty of that time — which I still feel in many ways — because it showed there was no bottom to how far he (Trump) and his supporters were willing to stoop to overturn or discredit a legitimate election.”
Reached for comment, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said: “I have it on good authority that Secretary Benson knowingly lied throughout her interview with NBC News.”
Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, is now locked in an election fight with a Republican candidate who parrots Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election. In speeches and on her podcast, Kristina Karamo has said the election was “rigged and stolen” and “Secretary of State Benson should go to jail.”
A community college instructor, Karamo has secured the endorsement of the state GOP party and, more pivotally, Trump himself.
“She is strong on crime, including the massive crime of election fraud,” Trump said in his endorsement.
The secretary of state race in Michigan is among several featuring GOP candidates who have pushed the false claim that the 2020 election was marred by widespread fraud.
This November, voters in 24 states will decide who should run their elections. Candidates who deny the 2020 election results are on the ballot in 14 states, including the key battlegrounds of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, and Nevada, according to an NBC News review.
Until the last election, the majority of people who held the position of a state secretary of state largely operated outside the spotlight. Their primary role — to ensure elections run smoothly and securely — was seen as nonpartisan.
“We need people to call balls and strikes,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law. “But if you have an umpire who doesn’t believe baseball exists, that’s a problem.”
Since leaving office, Trump has continued to spread lies about the 2020 election despite audits in 39 states and more than 60 courts confirming the results.
The messaging appears to be having an effect on the American public. NBC News’ most recent polling suggests that about 38 percent of voters across the country still believe the election was stolen.
“The Big Lie is not just spreading, but it’s deepening its hold on the American people,” Benson said.
Experts say the proliferation of candidates pushing false claims about the previous election raises serious concerns about how they might handle such claims in the future if elected.
“A lot of elections are close. And when you have close elections, you need to have confidence that someone will count the votes and say, you know what, here’s who won,” said Waldman. “If we can’t have that confidence, it’s very hard to have a real democracy.”
The fanning of election falsehoods hit close to home for Benson.
On the first Saturday in December 2020, weeks after the election, she was looking forward to a quiet night with her family. They planned to hang Christmas decorations, then watch “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
But just as her 4-year-old son was settling in for the movie, a crowd of armed protesters showed up outside her home chanting “traitor” and “murderer” for her insistence on certifying Biden’s electoral victory, according to videos posted on social media.
Benson — who out of college got a job at the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Alabama, investigating hate groups — said she’s not the type of person to shrink away in the face of threats from regular people or high-powered politicians.
“I think that’s my job as a leader in Michigan right now, as a leader in this moment,” Benson said. “To demonstrate the importance of standing up to hate, standing up to hateful threats and violent threats. And saying, ‘Nope, not today, not against me, not against our democracy.’”
“And marching forward,” she added.