Kansas AG aides attended ‘war games’ summit where group planned response to Biden win

More than 30 staffers in attorneys general offices around the country gathered in Atlanta for the September 2020 event

By: - September 8, 2021 9:00 am

Two staff members in Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office traveled in September 2020 to Atlanta for an event with the Rule of Law Defense Fund. The event included a discussion of “war games” to be utilized if Joe Biden won the presidential election. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Two top aides in Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office traveled last year to a summit where staffers of conservative attorneys general participated in “war games” to plan how they might respond to the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

Records obtained by Kansas Reflector show the two aides — Clint Blaes and Jeff Chanay — were approved to travel to Atlanta for a summit of senior staff members of attorneys general offices put on by the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a group associated with the Republican Attorneys General Association. The group paid for the two aides’ expenses.

And while the travel authorization records from Schmidt’s office referred to the event as training, records obtained by a former Democratic candidate for attorney general in Missouri show the September event included a “huddle” referred to as “war games,” where attendees planned how they might respond if Donald Trump lost re-election. It’s not clear what discussions Blaes and Chanay participated in.

“32 AG Staff Members are huddled in Atlanta for a series of conversations planning for what could come if we lose the White House,” said Adam Piper, then the RLDF’s executive director, in an email addressed to “generals” on Sept. 24, 2020.

The Rule of Law Defense Fund was established in 2014 as a “forum for conservative attorneys general and their staff to study, discuss and engage on important legal policy issues affecting the states.” The organization has been criticized for its role in the runup to the Jan. 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, the first time the building has been stormed since the War of 1812.

In a robocall, the organization gave out details on the timing and location of the march protesters took from the White House to the Capitol.

Schmidt distanced himself from those robocalls in the aftermath of the attack and condemned the riot. His spokesman, John Milburn, told the Kansas Reflector in January he had not participated in any decision-making with the group since August of 2020 when he stopped serving on its board. In an email last week, Milburn said Schmidt told the organization he was disappointed in the robocall.

In response to a Kansas Open Records Act request, Schmidt’s office provided a handful of emails showing two staffers were approved to attend the September event. While RLDF funded all their expenses, Schmidt’s office found their attendance would serve “a legitimate state purpose and interest,” meaning that if RLDF didn’t fund the trip, Schmidt’s office would have, according to an email from Chanay.

Chanay, chief deputy attorney general, and Blaes, director of communications, also were allowed to consider those days in Atlanta as working days and were not required to use vacation time for them.

Milburn described RLDF in exactly the words the organization uses on its website — but left out “conservative.”

“The purpose of the staff meeting in September was to discuss potential legal responses of state attorneys general offices to regulations or similar federal government actions that were likely to occur in a potential Biden administration, just as state attorneys general were active in defending the authority of states against unlawful federal power-grabs during the Obama-Biden administration,” Milburn said.

Kathleen Clark, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said the wording of emails provided in response to the Missouri records request — describing war games as exercises in how to respond to the election if President Joe Biden won — raise questions about the accuracy of Milburn’s description.

Regardless, she said, the major issue is that RLDF is a “fundamentally partisan” organization.

“The whole point is that when government officials are acting in their official capacity, like the folks at the Missouri or Kansas attorney general’s office who, on government time, were attending this summit — they’re not supposed to be thinking about whether we lose the White House in the sense of President Trump or we Republicans or, for that matter, we Democrats,” Clark said.

Milburn didn’t respond to a follow-up email asking whether the “war games” exercise included any planning concerning how to contest the election.

The RLDF did not respond to a request for comment.

Elad Gross, a former Democratic candidate for attorney general in Missouri, acquired thousands of pages of documents related to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s participation in the RLDF through a Missouri Sunshine Law request.

An identical request from Schmidt’s office in Kansas turned up far less communication.

In response to his Sunshine request, Gross received an initial 90 pages of communications between Schmitt’s office and RLDF. Records showed more than 30 representatives from attorneys general offices met in Atlanta for “war games,” which Piper wrote would “hopefully … not have to be utilized in November.”

Gross said Schmitt’s office in Missouri is still supplying records, so there’s more analysis to be done.

“There’s no question that there was a pretty obvious coordinated effort between these different offices to challenge the election,” Gross said.

Both Schmitt and Schmidt joined a lawsuit by attorneys general seeking to overturn President Biden’s victory. It was quickly dismissed.

Kansas Reflector filed open records requests in March and May and asked for updates via email over the summer. KORA requires that public agencies provide an explanation and an estimate of how much time the records will take to produce if officials expect it to take longer than three days.

The 15 pages of records were supplied last week.

Max Kautsch, an open records attorney in Lawrence, called it “unfortunate” that the office fails to give requesters an approximate time at which their records requests will be fulfilled, as required by law.

“I don’t understand why the attorney general’s office cannot more promptly respond to KORA requests,” Kautsch said.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.