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Trump Launches Broad Legal Gambit Paired With Moves To Raise Public Doubts On Results

Supporters of President Trump try to enter a room where Michigan absentee ballots are being counted Wednesday at TCF Center in Detroit.
Seth Herald
AFP via Getty Images
Supporters of President Trump try to enter a room where Michigan absentee ballots are being counted Wednesday at TCF Center in Detroit.

Updated at 10:17 p.m. ET

President Trump's campaign has unleashed a multipronged legal offensive directed at states where vote counting continued Thursday based on unsupported allegations about fraud and irregularities in the election.

Attorneys for the Trump campaign sought intervention from the U.S. Supreme Court and also filed suit in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada seeking remedies they hoped would help their prospects in those places. In some instances, that included requests for counting to cease altogether or at least pause for a time.

In Wisconsin, the campaign said Wednesday it would request a recount after unofficial tallies showed Democrat Joe Biden leading Trump by about 20,000 votes. The Trump campaign alleged, with little evidence, irregularities in the vote. A recount can't begin until the state officially certifies the results, which are due by Dec. 1.

In particular, Republicans have complained their observers are not being granted access close enough to observe vote counting and filed a flurry of lawsuits around the issue. In Nevada, a lawsuit also objected to the state's decision this year to send absentee ballots to all active voters.

Trump made his objective clear with posts on Twitter, including one that sought to "STOP THE COUNT."

Twitter flagged some of Trump's activity on Thursday because it said the posts violated its rules about spreading misleading information connected with the election.

The president issued an old-fashioned statement via e-mail later in the afternoon in all capital letters that wasn't subject to those terms of service and also shifted his position: "IF YOU COUNT THE LEGAL VOTES, I EASILY WIN THE ELECTION! IF YOU COUNT THE ILLEGAL AND LATE VOTES, THEY CAN STEAL THE ELECTION FROM US!" Trump wrote.

Learn more here about the states that remain undecided.

Little evidence for claims

Neither local government officials, international observers, news organizations or others have made any credible reports about widespread irregularities with voting practices through the election. Separately, some U.S. national security officials took victory laps claiming credit for what they called the relative smoothness and freedom of the process from cyber-harassment.

Mostly baseless allegations about fraud, however, have been a leitmotif of Trump and his camp since his inauguration. They continued through the campaign and now after Election Day in a bid to raise doubts about the validity of the results.

Officials in Nevada and Georgia gave updates on their progress counting large numbers of ballots that arrived within the limits set by those states' laws. If one or both of those states awarded their electoral votes to Biden, it would push the Democrat's tally to the 270 necessary to win the presidency, according to the count of Electoral College votes maintained by The Associated Press.

Trump's objective was to slow the process as much as possible in the key states and, meanwhile, to continue casting doubt on the results. Trump supporters appeared to plan rallies in Philadelphia, Detroit, Phoenix and Atlanta branded as "Protect the Vote," premised upon opposing some kind of malfeasance in those places.

The campaign celebrated a ruling from a Pennsylvania court that allowed campaign observers closer access to the vote-counting process there.

"It guarantees we are going to be able to watch the ballots being counted in a corrupt place known for its shenanigans. We will make sure we can review all the things they have done to date," deputy campaign manager Justin Clark said on a call with reporters Thursday.

"Our observers are gonna be 6 feet behind every person who's counting these votes," campaign adviser Corey Lewandowski told reporters in Philadelphia.

The campaign later filed a federal lawsuit seeking to strengthen its position because city officials weren't cooperating in the way the campaign wants. That lawsuit was quickly thrown out by a federal judge.

Initial indications did not suggest whether the U.S. Justice Department might become involved in the lawsuits, which so far have been between the campaign and defendants in various states.

Attorney General William Barr had vowed in general terms before Election Day that the Justice Department would do what was required to ensure the appropriate conduct of the election.

Spokeswoman Kerri Kupec also didn't rule out action if it appears warranted on claims about alleged fraud.

"The Department of Justice pursues all actionable information it receives and, as is always the case, encourages anyone who suspects a federal crime to report it to their local FBI office," she said.

Bob Bauer, a legal adviser to Biden's campaign, called the Trump legal challenges "meritless" on Thursday. "We see through them, so do the courts and so do election officials," Bauer said.

Judges reject Trump challenges

A Georgia judge summarily dismissed a Trump campaign lawsuit on Thursday afternoon that alleged ballots received after a 7 p.m. Election Day deadline were mixed in with legitimate ballots, according to The Current, a nonprofit newsroom in Georgia that partners with NPR member station Georgia Public Broadcasting.

"The court finds that there is no evidence that the ballots referenced in the petition were received after 7:00 p.m. on [Election Day], thereby making those ballots invalid," Judge James F. Bass wrote.

Later Thursday, a Michigan Court of Claims judge ruled against a challenge filed by Trump's campaign as to how absentee ballot counting was handled, reported Rick Pluta of NPR member Michigan Public Radio Network and Abigail Censky of member station WKAR in East Lansing, Mich.

Trump's campaign alleged it was not getting enough access for its poll challengers in counting sites. Judge Cynthia Stephens said the Trump campaign failed to make its case, and that it's too late to grant the remedy requested.

"On this factual record, I have no basis to find that there's a substantial likelihood of success on the merits as relates to this defendant, nor am I convinced that there is a clear legal duty on behalf of anyone who is properly before this court to manage this issue," Stephens said.

The legal merits of Trump's various other challenges appeared thin to many legal analysts.

"It does seem like they're throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks, which I tell my law students is never a good strategy," said Joshua Douglas, a professor at the University of Kentucky who specializes in election law.

"You need to have actual legal arguments with real evidence," Douglas continued. "Again, I think probably the political goal here is to sow discord, to undermine the legitimacy of the election. Trump has been doing this for years, and now it's come to a head."

Laws in the states involved always contemplated counting all valid ballots, and this year's unusual election meant not only record turnout but an unusual surge in mailed ballots.

In Pennsylvania, the Republican-controlled Legislature specifically did not permit the counting of many mailed ballots until after the tally was complete of in-person votes this week. Pennsylvania may need several more days to report its full results.

Election results in the United States have almost never been clear on the evening of Election Day. Projections or early declarations familiar from TV coverage before the pandemic often were the result of news organizations' analysis, as opposed to official totals by state officials.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, told NPR's Here & Now on Thursday that she thought Americans should be patient but also confident in the final result.

"I think especially as we see other disruptions occurring in other states where counts are still ongoing, that we can really come together and recognize that the patriotic thing to do at this moment in time is to respect the integrity of our elections," Benson said.

"Respect the will of the people and ensure and have faith that every valid vote will count and that every voice will be heard."

NPR's Brakkton Booker, Pam Fessler, Carrie Johnson, Tamara Keith and Alina Selyukh contributed to this report.

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Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.