How the debunked conspiracy film “2000 Mules” became Texas Republican orthodoxy

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (left) and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller speak at the state GOP convention in Dallas on May 14, 2016. (Bob Daemmrich, Bob Daemmrich)

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Top Texas Republicans have been key promoters of “2000 Mules,” a debunked film by GOP political operative Dinesh D’Souza that falsely claims there was significant voter fraud during the 2020 presidential election.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, which oversees investigations into voter fraud, screened the movie this summer, according to a recent Associated Press story that detailed ongoing dysfunction and politicization in Paxton’s office.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and three other Houston-area legislators sponsored a watch party at a local church in June, according to the church's website.

And Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who has a history of spreading political falsehoods on social media, recently cited the film as part of the reason he continues to believe the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

In June — at the same time that millions of Americans were tuning into the first Congressional hearing on the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — Miller was scheduled as a special guest speaker at a screening of “2000 Mules” by the Dallas Jewish Conservatives, according to the group’s website.

Also featured at the event was Sidney Powell, a Dallas lawyer and Trump ally who currently faces a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit by a voting machine company that she and other conspiracists have targeted. The State Bar of Texas has also pursued disciplinary action against Powell for filing a lawsuit speculating that fraud was committed.

The State Bar pursued similar action against Paxton.

Twelve days after that event with Miller and Powell, the Republican Party of Texas screened “2000 Mules” three times during its annual convention, at which Patrick vowed to significantly increase criminal penalties for illegal voting and delegates codified their denial of the 2020 election results into the party’s official platform.

[Fed up and fired up: Texas Republicans meet in a climate of mistrust, conspiracy and victimhood]

The film's claims are directly contradicted by rulings in at least 50 lawsuits brought by Trump and his allies challenging the outcome of the election. Republican-appointed judges presided over nearly half of those lawsuit dismissals, according to one analysis. And Trump’s closest confidantes — including his daughter Ivanka and former U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who Trump appointed — have repeatedly thrown cold water on his unsubstantiated claims and conspiracies of widespread voter fraud.

Neither Patrick, Paxton nor Miller could be reached for comment this week, and their campaigns did not respond to emailed questions. Miller’s Democratic challenger in the race for agriculture commissioner, Susan Hays, said the film was one of many ongoing “attacks on our democracy” and called Miller “unethical and un-American” for promoting it.

The GOP’s continued embrace of the film has concerned election experts such as Paul Gronke, director of the Elections and Voting Information Center at Reed College. Gronke noted that the film’s findings have been routinely debunked — including by Barr, who mocked the film as “indefensible” and laughed at it earlier this year.

“It is a sad situation when political leaders, rather than competing for the votes of citizens with good policies, instead promote misinformation and false claims about the elections as part of a crass political strategy because they think that making voting harder and more complicated will lower turnout and help their side,” Gronke said. “And the deepest irony of all of this is that historically, voters who use absentee voting and voting by mail have leaned Republican.”

Voting rights groups similarly say they fear the film will fuel chaos in the upcoming midterm elections and could be a pretext for more restrictive voting laws in the future.

Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of the Texas chapter of the watchdog group Common Cause, said the showing of the film by Paxton’s office is particularly concerning because of Paxton’s longstanding embrace of unfounded voter fraud conspiracies — and his role in prosecuting electoral crimes, which are exceedingly rare. (Since 2005, the Texas Attorney General’s website says the office has prosecuted 155 people for 534 election fraud offenses — good for about 0.0048% of the 11.1 million Texas votes cast in the 2020 presidential contest alone, and not even a rounding error’s worth of all votes cast in the state over the last 17 years.)

“Paxton hosting a watch party for this completely debunked work of fiction is next-level disinformation,” Gutierrez said. “It’s not like (Paxton) is a person who has no impact on elections — he is constantly doing things to impact elections. … It’s all kinds of alarming and sets off all the red flags.”

D’Souza, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to campaign finance fraud and was later pardoned by Trump, gets top billing on the film. But activists from True the Vote, a Houston-based vote-monitoring organization that has pushed election conspiracies, are listed as executive producers on the film, which borrows heavily from their discredited research.

True the Vote has previously been accused of swindling donors and has close ties to Paxton — who reportedly declined to release records about the group or say if he investigated complaints against it when journalists inquired earlier this year.

Paxton, who is being sued by whistleblowers in his office and is currently under investigation for felony securities fraud, also advocated for True the Vote’s founder in 2016 when the Texas Supreme Court looked into claims that her previous nonprofit was acting overtly political, Reveal News reported.

The film has other ties to the Lone Star State: Irving-based Salem Media Group also has producer credits and is its main distributor. Salem, a massive Christian broadcaster that has for decades had deep ties to fundamentalist Christian groups and conservative politicians, in May bragged that “2000 Mules” was “the most successful political documentary in a decade.” Salem said the film was seen by more than 1 million people and grossed more than $10 million in revenue in its first two months.

Last month, Salem lowered its third-quarter revenue expectations after D’Souza’s book of the same name was recalled. “Somehow a significant error got missed by the publisher,” D’Souza explained on Twitter.

In June, “2000 Mules” was reportedly shown at Cottonwood Creek Church in Allen, where outgoing Republican state Rep. Scott Sanford is the executive pastor. The Bryan/College Station Tea Party also screened the film at the headquarters of the Bryan County Republican Party, according to the group’s website.

In May, the Coastal Bend Republican Coalition in Corpus Christi hosted a watch party, citing a glowing review of the film from the Epoch Times, a website with ties to a far-right Chinese spiritual movement that has promoted apocalyptic, QAnon and anti-vaccine conspiracies. D’Souza has written more than 50 articles for the Epoch Times.

Disclosure: Common Cause and State Bar of Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.