Robert A. Destro, a law professor at Catholic University of America then serving as an assistant secretary of state, confirmed to The Washington Post he met with the two men — Colorado podcaster Joe Oltmann and Michigan lawyer Matthew DePerno — in the midst of the tumultuous day.
The two men have previously claimed to have huddled on Jan. 6 with State Department leaders, who Oltmann has said were sympathetic to the claims that a “coup” was underway to steal the presidency from Trump. They have not identified with whom they met. Destro’s acknowledgment is the first independent confirmation that they successfully gained the high-level audience. It is unclear whether the meeting led to any action.
Oltmann and DePerno played important behind-the-scenes roles in crafting the baseless allegations that the election was stolen from Trump, a review of emails and public statements from Trump allies shows. The State Department meeting provides new evidence of the success that activists spreading false claims about the election had in gaining access to top administration officials. Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows was in close contact with activists pushing false fraud narratives, as were high-level officials at the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
“The Attack: Before, During and After”
Little is known about the origins of the session at the State Department. The department is responsible for international diplomacy, and former officials said meetings that revolve around domestic elections would be highly unusual.
In response to questions from The Post, Destro confirmed in an email that he met with Oltmann and DePerno, now the Republican nominee for attorney general in Michigan. But Destro declined to answer other questions, including what was discussed that day, whether other officials took part and whether anyone took action as a result.
“I met with hundreds of American citizens and foreign nationals during my time at State, all of whom had foreign-focused issues to discuss,” wrote Destro, who served as the assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor from September 2019 to the end of Trump’s term. “I won’t talk about any of the details of those meetings, either.”
Before joining the State Department, Destro was a law professor who specialized in religious liberty and had served as an adviser to religious organizations. He has appeared on a podcast hosted by Tony Perkins, president of the socially conservative Family Research Council.
Oltmann and DePerno did not respond to questions about the meeting.
As part of his candidacy to become Michigan’s top law enforcement officer, DePerno described the meeting on a questionnaire from a pro-Trump interest group. “On January 6, 2021, I was in the State Department briefing Mike Pompeo’s staff on how the election was stolen,” DePerno wrote. He added in parenthesis: “NOTE to reader: don’t tell the Feds!”
In various podcasts and on social media, Oltmann has also described the meeting, suggesting he had a series of high-level meetings with officials at the State Department and asserting that they were impressed by information he presented that he claimed proved the election was stolen. He has been coy about naming the officials.
“I was actually in the State Department meeting with leadership,” he said in one podcast appearance on Jan. 11, 2021. He said he had not “been cleared” to name the officials with whom he met but added: “I met with leadership at every level. Every level. Bar none.”
Oltmann also described being taken to a secure area of the building that was “cherry wood lined” with “pictures of past presidents and people who have served.” The description appears to match the area of the State Department’s seventh floor known as Mahogany Row, where the offices of the secretary and his top aides are located. The assistant secretary position then-held by Destro does not typically have an office on Mahogany Row.
In a social media post, Oltmann wrote that he had met with “the right people” at the State Department, and, in another podcast appearance, he described how department officials reacted with shock to the information he shared.
“They said, ‘If this is true, this is a coup,’ ” Oltmann recounted. “I said, ‘Well, that’s exactly, that’s what I would call it.’ ”
A spokesman for then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to comment about the meeting, including whether the secretary attended the session or had been aware of it. Pompeo’s public schedule indicates that he was attending meetings in Washington that day.
A Trump loyalist, Pompeo expressed sympathy for the then-president’s refusal to concede the election before Jan. 6. Asked by reporters a week after the election whether the department was engaging in a “smooth transition” to Joe Biden’s administration, Pompeo responded that there would be “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration, all right” — a remark that some of his aides later characterized as a joke.
Pompeo clings to Trump’s legacy with an eye toward inheriting the MAGA base
But Pompeo was also one of the first Trump Cabinet members to forcefully denounce the Jan. 6 attack, tweeting at 6:16 that evening that the storming of the Capitol had been “unacceptable.”
The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack has expressed interest in the origin and weaponization of false claims that elections machines were hacked.
Trump’s outside supporters sought out potential allies across the government, including officials whose normal portfolios did not include elections. At the Justice Department, for instance, Trump allies worked closely with a mid-level official named Jeffrey Bossert Clark who was otherwise responsible for environmental civil litigation. Clark has said his communications were lawful.
The State Department’s designated point person on a White House deputies group that dealt with the possibility of foreign interference in the 2020 election was then-Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun.
In an interview, Biegun said that by Jan. 6, top government officials were convinced that theories such as those circulated by Oltmann and DePerno that held that foreign forces had hacked voting machines were “just complete and utter nonsense.”
“The information that has been at least disclosed by advocates of this theory has absolutely zero correlation with anything that was available to senior government officials, who had access to every bit of information within the United States government,” Biegun said.
Biegun said that, because of the coronavirus pandemic and street closures in Washington as a result of the events at the Capitol, he was one of the few employees working at the State Department on Jan. 6. He said he was not aware of Oltmann and DePerno’s meeting.
Virginia Bennett, a former career Foreign Service officer who was Destro’s predecessor as acting assistant secretary at the start of the Trump administration, said the job generally involves meeting with foreigners, as well as American activists involved in human rights advocacy overseas. But, she said, it would be atypical for the assistant secretary to hold meetings about U.S. elections.
“I cannot understand why anyone who was examining U.S. election practices and who was not foreign would have had a meeting at the State Department,” she said. “The Department of State has no authority from statute or other mandate over U.S. elections. Period. End of sentence.
“I don’t understand how anybody could have thought that was a good idea,” she added.
The department previously faced scrutiny when two State Department officials in the Obama administration met with former British spy Christopher Steele in October 2016 to discuss his opposition research alleging ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Steele’s work came on behalf of a subcontractor for the Clinton campaign, and his claims were ultimately not substantiated.
In that case, the Justice Department inspector general later found that one of the State Department officials quickly detailed the meeting to the department’s liaison to the FBI, which has responsibility for investigating foreign interference in elections, including flagging a piece of information provided by Steele that she knew to be incorrect.
How Oltmann and DePerno reached Destro is not clear. But the path the two men took to the inner sanctum of the State Department provides insight into how Trump’s desperate desire for evidence to prop up his false claims helped elevate previously unknown characters into national prominence when they asserted evidence of a stolen election.
A Kalamazoo-area attorney, DePerno had run once unsuccessfully for local office when he filed a lawsuit in November 2020 that argued a quickly corrected election night tabulation error in Michigan’s Antrim County provided evidence of a vast conspiracy to hack voting machines made by the company Dominion Voting Systems.
In December 2020, a judge agreed to give DePerno’s team access to voting machines for review. They produced a report that argued the machines showed signs of manipulation. Experts quickly denounced the report as riddled with errors — a finding later confirmed by a Republican-led state legislative committee in Michigan, and DePerno’s lawsuit was dismissed. But as Jan. 6 approached, Trump, his attorney Rudy Giuliani and others used the document to argue the election was rigged.
Giuliani asked Michigan prosecutor to give voting machines to Trump team
Oltmann was a businessman and activist little-known outside of Colorado when he stepped forward on his daily podcast with a wild claim days after the election. He alleged that weeks earlier, he had infiltrated a secret meeting of “antifa journalists” and overheard a man identify himself as Eric “the Dominion guy” and then tell the others: “Don’t worry about the election. Trump is not going to win. I made f—ing sure of that.”
Oltmann went on to name a Dominion employee who he alleged had made the promise to rig the election: Director of Strategy and Security Eric Coomer. Oltmann then circulated anti-Trump writings Coomer had posted to his friends on Facebook. Coomer has denied taking part in a call like the one Oltmann described or promising that Trump would not win the election. In December 2020, Coomer filed a defamation lawsuit against Oltmann in Colorado. A judge has fined Oltmann for refusing to name the person he claims gave him access to the meeting. On Friday, Colorado District Court Judge Marie Avery Moses declined to dismiss the case, ruling that Coomer has a reasonable likelihood of prevailing.
In the heated weeks after the election, Trump supporters seized on Oltmann’s story of a supposed high-level Dominion official who had pledged to swing the election, and Oltmann’s profile quickly rose. He appeared on numerous pro-Trump national media programs and filed a sworn statement in lawsuits to overturn the election that were spearheaded by the lawyer Sidney Powell, a Trump ally. Oltmann’s claim was also cited by Powell and Giuliani during a joint news conference at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee in November 2020.
Oltmann was also a featured speaker at a rally at Washington’s Freedom Plaza on the evening of Jan. 5. During his speech, he presented a chart that he claimed proved Dominion machines had been hacked and concluded, “God will protect us, and God will make sure that President Trump is in office for another four years.”
Social media posts and emails produced in the litigation show that Oltmann and DePerno had joined forces by the morning of Jan. 6 and were working to spread their information to other Trump loyalists and, ultimately, to the president himself.
“I am publishing the Dominion audit raw data from Antrim County machines… Sitting with Matt DePerno and his information overlays this diagram.. perfectly,” Oltmann wrote in an email at 7:46 that morning to several people, including a reporter for the pro-Trump outlet Newsmax.
At 9:11 a.m., an Oltmann employee tweeted, “We are in DC and can explain exactly how Dominion fixes it. No one will pass the truth up to @POTUS Joe Oltmann and Matt DePerno can explain it all perfectly. We are in Trump Hotel. Bob Destro won’t give us an audience with anyone. Whats going on?” He added: “#WWG1WWA,” a variation on a hashtag standing for “Where We Go One We Go All,” the motto of adherents of QAnon conspiracies.
At some point after the tweet, Destro met with the two men, he told The Post.
Destro, who was confirmed to his job in 2019, was in charge of the bureau that produces an annual report on the state of human rights around the world. He was also named a special representative for Tibetan issues, a role in which he was critical of the Chinese government.
From 2004 to 2006, Destro had also served as a special counsel on election issues to the Republican secretary of state of Ohio, Ken Blackwell. But Destro’s State Department role had no responsibilities for U.S. elections.
In a post on Parler, a social media platform then popular with Trump supporters, Oltmann wrote on Jan. 6 that he had met with the “right people” at the State Department.
“They get it, and then this was shared with me there,” he wrote.
Attached was a photo of a document signed by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney, in which McInerney claimed he had evidence that results from the Georgia Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5 had been manipulated by China to allow Democrats to win. “This is 100% true. Share,” Oltmann wrote.
A Trump supporter and associate of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, McInerney had endorsed some of the most fantastical claims about the 2020 election in the weeks before Jan. 6. He said that U.S. Special Forces had violently seized computer servers in Germany where the CIA had been holding election data. And he had called on Trump to declare martial law, set up military tribunals, prevent the electoral college from meeting to confirm Biden’s victory and cancel the Inauguration.
While in Washington that week, Oltmann has said he had a series of other high-level meetings, including huddling with Trump lawyers Giuliani and John Eastman. Oltmann said in a podcast appearance last year that on the evening of Jan. 6 — after the Capitol had been stormed — he met with Giuliani at the Trump legal team’s war room at the Willard hotel. Giuliani remained interested in his information about the stolen election, Oltmann said.
“I was like, ‘Look, just put me in front of President Trump and I’ll walk through it,’ ” Oltmann recounted.
Other Trump aides intervened, Oltmann said, and a meeting planned for Jan. 7 with Trump never took place.
John Hudson, Jacqueline Alemany and Alice Crites contributed to this report.