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From ‘well qualified’ to ‘an embarrassment’: Robin Vos’ 180-degree reversal on Michael Gableman

MOUNT PLEASANT — Robin Vos appears to have made a complete 180-degree turn on Michael Gableman. In July 2021, Vos called Gableman “well qualified.” On Tuesday, Vos called Gableman “an embarrassment” and indicated he wants to fire Gableman.

Vos more or less single-handedly created the Office of the Special Counsel and picked Gableman to lead it, with a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The goal of the OSC? To investigate “potential irregularities and/or illegalities” in the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin.

Vos and Gableman agree there were “problems” with the operation of the 2020 election, but they disagree about what to do next.

Gableman has repeatedly asserted that retroactively decertifying the election is possible and should be considered. Vos has been steadfast in saying that decertification is not possible.

Vos initially expressed confidence in Gableman to uncover wrongdoing if there was any. Gableman now says “Vos never wanted a real investigation into the 2020 election in Wisconsin.”

Less than a week before Tuesday’s Election Day, Gableman endorsed Adam Steen, the Republican challenger to Vos.

Michael Gableman in support of Steen

Michael Gableman chats with supporters during a watch party in support of unsuccessful candidates Adam Steen and Jay Stone Tuesday night in Burlington.

After declaring victory Tuesday night, Vos said the former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice he hired is “an embarrassment to the state.” Vos said he plans to meet with the Republican Assembly caucus Aug. 16 to discuss next steps, which may include ending Gableman’s contract.

Robin Vos downing champagne

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos drinks champagne in celebration after claiming victory in the closest election win of his lengthy career in state politics Tuesday night at Staybridge Suites, 7430 Washington Ave., Mount Pleasant, while his friend state Sen. Van Wanggaard looks on.

Gableman asserts that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Donald Trump, even though neither he nor anyone else has uncovered substantial evidence of widespread instances of votes being cast by those who legally could not vote.

Even with the increased attention, the number of election fraud cases prosecuted in Wisconsin and nationwide are in line with the numbers from previous presidential elections.

How Vos’ opinion of Gableman has shifted in 13 months, in quotes

June 26, 2021: Vos announces at an annual GOP convention in Wisconsin Dells that Gableman will lead the probe.

July 27: Vos says, “We have people who are very well qualified to do this work” of probing the 2020 election. “Let’s give them the time to actually accomplish what we’ve asked for.”

July 30: “Justice Gableman will have the resources and ability to determine the need for any future adjustments,” Vos says in a statement, indicating Gableman’s wide breadth of freedom to investigate as he chooses.

Sept. 28: Vos says: “I am supremely confident that at the end of the day, Justice Gableman will produce a report that will show that there are issues with the 2020 election, where potentially changes could be made to make it better ... The goal has nothing to do with overturning the election. It’s to make sure we have every opportunity to make sure that the results that occurred in 2020 were accurate.”

Steve Bannon headshot

Bannon 

April 7, 2022: Gableman begins to publicly display distrust in Vos. In an appearance on the “War Room” podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, former chief strategist to Trump, Gableman encourages Bannon’s listeners to contact Vos’ office and pressure him to keep supporting and funding the election probe.

“I can’t think of anything more important (than) to thank Speaker Vos for starting up what became the Office for Special Counsel. And to show our appreciation to Speaker Vos for my continuation I would ask your audience to call Speaker Vos’ office,” Gableman told Bannon’s audience. “There must be more investigation. We haven’t even had the benefit of having any of the wrongdoers comply with our subpoenas. They gave us some stuff initially, but it was pablum, virtually all stuff that they had publicly released before.”

May 11: The investigative side of the OSC is paused. It is to remain open likely only as long as litigation the office is involved in weaves through the courts.

Late Tuesday night: Vos told WISN-TV, “I hired him (Gableman) on recommendations, thinking we were going to have someone who was a good, articulate, independent voice … We asked (of Gableman) two simple things — don’t get involved in politics, and please try to make sure you focus on the investigation, not being on TV. He couldn’t help himself but to try to inject his own opinions into this race.”

Also Tuesday night, an Associated Press reporter asked Vos if he regretted hiring Gableman. After a pause, Vos replied, “I’m going to have to think about that.”

The timeline itself

When the OSC was launched in spring 2021, Vos expected its work to be done by October of that year. The OSC remains open today, although its investigative work is reportedly concluded. Gableman’s original contract was slated to begin July 1, 2021, and end Oct. 1, 2021.

Aug. 25, 2021: Vos says Gableman will conduct a “swift, complete and thorough investigation.”

Oct. 19: Vos tells Wisconsin Public Radio that the investigation will likely be wrapped by the end of 2021.

Oct. 26: A week after saying the OSC would likely be done by the end of 2021, Vos says “it might have to go longer.”

March 8, 2022: A new contract extends the review through April.

April 25: Without using Vos’ name, Trump puts on pressure to keep the OSC open in a public statement. “Anyone calling themselves a Republican in Wisconsin should support the continued investigation without interference,” the former president says in a statement.

April 26: Vos said the OSC will continue.

May 11: The investigative side of the OSC is paused, but the OSC is not closed. Gableman’s pay is slashed from $11,000 per month to $5,500 per month. The OSC is to remain open, Vos says, as numerous pieces of litigation continue. At least five lawsuits related to the OSC are still active today.

Costs

The actual cost to taxpayers for the OSC when all is said and done will likely be at least double the original estimate.

Sept. 1, 2021: A copy of the OSC contract shows a budget of $676,000.

May 31, 2022: Newly released invoices show the state had already spent $896,500 on the probe.

July 28 and Aug. 2: In two separate instances, two Dane County judges order the state (and thus taxpayers) to cover attorney fees to the watchdog group American Oversight, which had to fight for OSC records to be released, $98,000 and $160,000. These payments would then push the cumulative taxpayer costs over $1.15 million.

On Trump

Vos stepped up his efforts to have the 2020 election investigated after Trump attacked Vos and other Wisconsin Republican leaders by name.

Despite aiming to curry favor with the former president last year, Vos was openly not been the biggest Trump fan before he was elected president.

August 2016: Vos said it was a “sad day in America” when Trump won the GOP nomination for president, although Vos continued to support Trump over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

July 23-25, 2021: Trump said in a statement “Wisconsin Republican leaders Robin Vos, (Senate President) Chris Kapenga, and (Senate Majority Leader) Devin LeMahieu, are working hard to cover up election corruption, in Wisconsin ... Don’t fall for their lies! These REPUBLICAN ‘leaders’ need to step up and support the people who elected them by providing them a full forensic investigation. If they don’t, I have little doubt that they will be primaried (sic) and quickly run out of office.”

Vos and LeMahieu responded soon after by saying Trump was “misinformed.”

(All of the Republican incumbents who were challenged in Tuesday’s primary won their elections, although Steen, who Trump endorsed, came within three percentage points of beating Vos.)

Trump and Vos on plane

This photo of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, left, and former President Donald Trump was shared on social media by Vos and others after Vos' meeting with Trump on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021.

Aug. 21: Vos travels to meet with Trump personally. They pose together for a photo on Trump’s private jet. Afterward, Vos said in a statement: “It was an honor to be invited to travel by private plane with President Trump and top staff to attend his rally in Alabama. I provided him details about our robust efforts in Wisconsin to restore full integrity and trust in elections.”

July 18, 2022: Trump begins going on the attack. “The Democrats would like to sincerely thank Robin, and all his fellow RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), for letting them get away with ‘murder.’ A Rigged & Stolen Election!”

July 19: Twenty-one days before Election Day, Vos tells WISN-TV political reporter Matt Smith, “I think we all know Donald Trump is Donald Trump. There’s very little we can do to try to control or predict what he will do.”

July 29: Vos tells The Journal Times: “The single thing that Donald Trump is obsessed with is the 2020 election. I have been consistent for a year, saying we constitutionally cannot decertify the election. Now, when people are threatened by someone who has a loud microphone, a lot of times they buckle, right? I am proud that I have stood for what I believe in and what I know to be true in the face of withering criticism from President Trump. Now, he hasn’t criticized me for the fact that we’ve cut taxes or that I’m pro-life or that I’ve worked harder than most people for his election in 2020. He just wants me to do something I cannot do.”

Tuesday: Vos told the Associated Press that his win in the primary over Steen proved that lawmakers “don’t have to be a lapdog to whatever Donald Trump says.”

Gableman’s there-and-back-again on partisanship

While the OSC has long been viewed as a partisan endeavor — supported really only by those on the right, and not universally — Gableman has abandoned all semblance of being nonpartisan. Before being hired, he gave voice to Trump’s baseless claims that he actually won the 2020 election, but then Gableman claimed to be a nonpartisan actor, before giving up on trying to appear balanced.

Gableman served one 10-year term on the state Supreme Court, running as a Republican-backed conservative in 2008, and did not seek reelection in 2018.

Nov. 7, 2020: Months prior to the creation of the OSC and four days after the presidential election, Gableman attended a pro-Trump rally and said, “I don’t think anyone here can think of anything more systematically unjust than a stolen election.” That day he also said, “Our elected leaders, your elected leaders, have allowed unelected bureaucrats at the Wisconsin Elections Commission to steal our vote.”

He defended his comments to WISN-TV in an interview that aired Aug. 1, 2021, arguing he didn’t say the election was stolen. He did, however, acknowledge that “most of the attendees” at the rally did believe the election was stolen and he did not refute that unfounded claim. Gableman, as recently as Monday, now says outright the election was “stolen” because drop boxes were used to collect absentee ballots in 2020. “I believe they facilitated fraud and a stolen election.”

There remains no evidence regarding how many ballots delivered via drop box were in favor of Biden vs. how many were in favor of Trump.

Aug. 1, 2021: During the interview with WISN-TV, Gableman also said, “I firmly believe that this is not a partisan issue, that everybody should be interested in making sure that going forward, our voting and ballot system is transparent and honest.”

Monday: In the latest of his appearances on Bannon’s podcast, Gableman lambasted “leftists” and “so-called Republicans” for not supporting the position that the 2020 election was fraudulent. Gableman has continued saying that decertification is “lawful,” but he told Bannon that moving forward on that is a “political decision.”

Actual election law experts and the legislature’s own attorneys have repeatedly said decertification is a legal impossibility. In October 2021, Gableman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — before he blacklisted the outlet — that he did “not have a comprehensive understanding or even any understanding of how elections work.”

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