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Broke and disillusioned, Couy Griffin keeps fighting for Trump

Alice Fordham
County Commissioner Couy Griffin in his office in Alamogordo

For years, Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin has been Donald Trump's most flamboyant supporter in New Mexico, creating spectacles and controversy in equal measure.

The former Disneyland rodeo cowboy once rode down New York's Sixth Avenue wearing the furs of bobcats and coyotes he trapped and skinned, brandishing an American flag. He broadcast from the January 6, 2021 takeover of the US Capitol looking like the Cowboy Church pastor he used to be, in a tie and cowboy hat. He has made baldly racist and violent statements.

Now, Griffin is spearheading a legally dubious audit of the 2020 election in Otero County. He perpetuates the former president's false claim that the 2020 elections were fraudulent. "I do believe our elections were stolen," he said. But the project seems confusing at first glance, given that Trump won in Otero County.

And yet, Griffin said in an interview that the audit is strategic, designed to forge a path so other counties in New Mexico audit their elections, a gambit that echoes a nationwide push by Republican officials to sow doubt about election results by pushing for audits.

"It's not like I'm trying to overturn an election that we lost," he said. "But the need for the audit isn't necessarily here in Otero County. The need for the audit in New Mexico was more in the likes of Bernalillo County, and Sandoval County and Doña Ana County," referring to areas where President Joe Biden won the 2020 vote.

"What I'm trying to do through this audit," he said, "is I'd like to create a blueprint for other counties to be able to follow as well."

Griffin and his two fellow commissioners voted to conduct the audit despite concerns about its legality noted by County Attorney R.B. Nichols, and awarded a nearly $50,000 contract to audit about 24,000 votes to Echomail, which was among the companies who audited the 2020 vote in Maricopa County, AZ. (Those findings were comprehensively rejected by the Maricopa County Elections Department.)

The process, now underway, faces several challenges. It is being investigated by State Auditor Brian Colón after complaints prompted concerns about the procurement process. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said dozens of people have complained about volunteers associated with the audit going door-to-door and asking residents about their vote.

But in a recent interview in Alamogordo, Griffin was determined to keep fighting for Trump, despite the audit's problems, plus the charges he faces for his role in the Capitol attack, financial difficulties and a profound disappointment in the former president himself.

Wearing a Cowboys for Trump shirt, and sitting in the office he shares with the heads of a deer and an elk, Griffin discussed the roots of his brand of populist politics. He grew up in Reserve, in western New Mexico, where his father ran a sawmill.

"I was raised in the shadow of a great man," he said. A disdain for central government set in early, when conservation laws affected the family business.

"Due to the effects of the Mexican spotted owl, our access to timber on the federal lands was restricted," he said. "And it forced us to go out of business and it's been something that I've never forgotten because it was so unfair and unjust."

He saw the sawmill's work as "curating" the forest.

"We would cut trees that had been blown over by the wind, we would cut trees that have been killed by forest fires," he said. "When they shut our sawmill down, it just leaves all of that useless material, if you will, in our forests which creates more fire hazards."

Since then, Griffin has led an itinerant life. He was a rodeo cowboy at Disneyland Paris and a pastor at the Cowboy Church in Alamogordo. In what he described as a mission, he traveled on horseback from San Francisco to New York, and then across Europe and the Mediterranean to Jerusalem, arriving in 2008 after more than two years on the road.

And it was a challenging venture into the barbecue restaurant business that he said pushed him into politics.

"Just struggling every day with new regulations, new laws, new taxes," he said. "I wanted to go from just being a voice to having a vote."

The folksy origin story might have helped his successful 2018 run for county commissioner but once in office Griffin amplified violence and bigotry. He said people wanting to sing the song popularly known as the Black national anthem should go back to Africa. He said the only good Democrat was a dead Democrat. And he boasted about his participation in the January 6 storming of the Capitol.

"I was never involved in anything violent on that day, and there was never anything violently done around me," he said when asked about the incident.

On January 17 last year, the Justice Department released a statement saying that Griffin was being charged with 'knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful entry' adding that he had said in a video, later removed, that, "we could have a Second Amendment rally on those same steps that we had that rally yesterday. You know, and if we do, then it’s gonna be a sad day, because there’s gonna be blood running out of that building." He is awaiting trial.

While he did face criticism, including from fellow Republicans, in the aftermath of the events at the Capitol, Griffin survived an effort to recall him from his position, when a petition did not garner enough signatures.

And since he is still in office, he was able to push for the audit. "I don't think there's any more productive way to spend tax dollars than to make sure our elections aren't compromised," he told an Otero County Commission meeting in January.

Otero County Clerk Robyn Holmes disagrees.

"There's no absolutely no reason for this," she said. "There have already been three audits," including one by the Secretary of State's office and another by an independent contractor.

Griffin has suggested that voting machines provided by Dominion Voting Systems across New Mexico could have been hacked. Holmes said this is baseless and runs the risk of eroding trust in democratic systems.

"When they come up with these conspiracy theories, it really confuses the voters, and we have a hard enough time getting our voters out to vote as it is," she said. "When they put this thought into people's minds, that somehow our machines are not calculating the votes correctly, then these people will not want to vote."

This Otero County election review is part of a nationwide trend. Last year, one report (produced jointly by the Brennan Center for Justice, the R Street think tank and nonprofit Protect Democracy) looked at five states where partisan reviews of elections are being pursued.

It concluded that if elections continued to be litigated and relitigated, without evidence of fraud, there is a serious threat voters will refuse to accept votes they do not like, and that the, "peaceful transfer of power, a hallmark of our democracy, could be at risk."

Liz Howard, Senior Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that contractors hired to do these audits frequently have little to no experience in election administration.

"The reports that we've subsequently seen put out by these people have been riddled with falsehoods," she said. "And they're trying to spin routine election administration processes as somehow improper."

"To the extent that their goal is to actually have a negative impact on voter confidence," she added, "we are very concerned about the election in 2022, and obviously in 2024."

For all his bombast and showmanship, Griffin's fortunes and conviction seem to be waning. Despite his Cowboys for Trump shirt, he said all but one of the fellow cowboys drifted away after January 6 last year. And he is disillusioned with Trump himself, citing an issue that brings him back to his earliest grievances: forest management.

He had hoped the president would address some problems with the forest near the town of Cloudcroft, which is at risk for fire. He raised this the first time the president called him.

"I asked him, Mr. President, do you know where Cloudcroft, New Mexico is?" Griffin recalled. "And he kind of laughed and said no. And I said, well, you're gonna know exactly where it's at whenever the forest catches on fire around there, because it's gonna burn the whole town down."

But despite conversations with a Department of Agriculture official, nothing happened. "You know, here I am still in a county that still has a great fire threat," Griffin said. "And I really thought that the president was going to come through on his end, and unfortunately, he never did."

Meantime, his barbecue business never succeeded. His wife divorced him. He lives in a doublewide trailer. "It's been such a battle," he said. "And it's cost me everything - from a marriage, to finances, to friends."

Still, the audit rumbles on, and could yet have widespread implications. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said that her office was working to ensure the process does not compromise the "security and integrity" of the tabulating machines used in the elections.

She said in an online press conference that she feared, "a scenario where the tabulators would instantly become, you know, questionable, and we would have to completely take them out of service…It's just a really scary, unfortunate and nonsensical situation."

Oliver also said that if the audit did become a blueprint that other counties followed, "that would be even more concerning than the situation we're already dealing with."

Griffin's term as county commissioner is up this year, and he has said he will not run again. But despite the uproar of the last few years, he still believes he has a support base.

"They see that I'm willing to take a stand," he said.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.