As President Trump seemed headed for defeat in the vote count Friday, and some Republicans began to distance themselves from his increasingly desperate claims of fraud, some of his long-standing allies were scrambling to give him cover for his effort to undermine the legitimacy of the election.
Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas, in particular, went on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program Thursday night to promote baseless conspiracy theories about Republican observers being excluded from the rooms where the votes were being counted.
Cruz made the claim that in Philadelphia elections officials were “not allowing election observers in” and that they were “throwing the observers out.”
But the Trump campaign’s own lawyers acknowledged, in a hearing, that there have been Republican observers in the room at all times since mail ballots began to be opened and counted at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
“Their counsel admitted at the hearing, after questions from the court, that they had several representatives in the room,” said the Philadelphia City Commissioners in a statement. The commissioners, two Democrats and one Republican who oversee voting in the city, said there were between 15 and 19 Republican observers present all day on Thursday.
Yet Cruz used his platform to spread inflammatory misinformation on Hannity’s show. “I am angry and I think the American people are angry because by throwing the observers out, by clouding the vote counting in a shroud of darkness, they are setting the stage to potentially steal an election,” Cruz said. “It is lawless and they need to follow the law.”
A Cruz spokeswoman did not respond to a question about whether the Texas Republican plans to correct his accusation, which came on the same night that two men were arrested outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center with illegal firearms. The men were connected to a silver Hummer from Virginia that bore stickers promoting QAnon, the web of paranoid conspiracy theories whose followers mostly support President Trump.
Graham made similar false statements on Hannity’s show as well. “Why are they shutting people out? Because they don’t want people to see what they’re doing,” Graham said.
Graham also endorsed a suggestion by Hannity that the Republicans who control the Pennsylvania state legislature could “invalidate” the popular vote in the state and send a slate of Trump backers to the Electoral College, a potential Constitutional nightmare.
“Everything should be on the table,” Graham said.
On another Fox program, host Tucker Carlson and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., took a rambling tour through a series of inaccurate and misleading statements regarding the vote. Carlson began by blaming the media for undermining trust in the election, rather than the president who has said over and over that the public should not trust the election results.
“Americans need to have confidence that their elections have integrity. And that means things like poll watchers. Poll watchers from both parties need to be present as ballots are being counted,” Hawley said.
There were poll watchers present.
“That means states need to give an accounting of how many absentee ballots they have left,” Hawley said.
Pennsylvania has kept a constantly updated count of how many mail and absentee ballots have been counted and how many are left to count.
“When you see some states going to court to try to stop poll watchers, people just observing the ballot counts, I mean that is deeply, deeply disturbing,” Hawley said.
That was another false claim. He was referring to the city of Philadelphia’s appeal against a ruling that partisan observers should be allowed to oversee the work of election officials from as close as six feet away. There was never an allegation in the suit that poll watchers were being barred from the room.
The Trump campaign’s lawsuit had alleged that their observers, who were in the room with unobstructed views, wanted to get closer so they could challenge individual mail ballots if there was no signature on the outer envelope, or if the voter had written the wrong date on the envelope.
The city’s appeal argued that state law does not permit those kinds of challenges, a decision the state legislature made in recognition that allowing challenges to individual ballots would slow down the processing of a historic number of mail ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Challenging the eligibility of voters to cast mail ballots had to be done when they were requested, Tammy Bruce, a former Arizona elections official, told Yahoo News.
Observers in the room are entitled to see that mail ballots are being examined for signatures, that the mail ballots were properly placed inside a privacy envelope, and monitor for anything else of concern, such as the destruction or discarding of ballots.
A Hawley spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., also amplified the notion that something untoward was happening, tweeting that “the situation in Philadelphia limiting poll watchers’ access is concerning.”
On Friday afternoon, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — who on Thursday had called for the arrest of election workers in Pennsylvania — claimed that poll watchers had been “physically excluded” from overseeing vote counting.
He pointed specifically to Detroit, where there were complaints about elections officials covering the windows of a counting room.
“You have a precinct where you don’t let anyone in. They’re boarded up,” Gingrich claimed. “I would take every precinct that blocked poll watchers and not count their votes.”
But a Detroit city attorney said the windows were blocked because ballots were being counted closely enough that members of the public could take photos that might disclose the privacy of voters’ ballots.
There were “hundreds of challengers from both parties … inside the central counting board all afternoon and all evening,” said Detroit attorney Lawrence Garcia.
When Yahoo News asked Gingrich what proof he had of observers being “physically excluded” from vote-counting centers, a Gingrich spokesman essentially admitted there was none. “With regard to the people being kept from watching ballots being counted, we now have a better understanding of the situations in Philadelphia and Detroit,” said Louie Brogdon, editorial director of Gingrich 360, a consulting and media production firm.
“When Speaker Gingrich made his earlier comment, he was speaking on the best information he had at the time,” Brogdon said.
Fox News host Bret Baier — who has consistently said this week that Trump and his allies have failed to produce any evidence of cheating — asked Gingrich about the president’s unsupported claims: “Doesn’t that hurt the system overall … to say it without showing what that is?” Baier asked.
“Well I think it hurts,” Gingrich said, “but I think it also hurts when you have that level of fraud.” He offered no evidence of fraud.
And in Nevada, Trump adviser Matt Schlapp made similar baseless claims.
“We don’t have basic protocols for democracy in place,” Schlapp said, a claim contradicted by the robust systems that elections officials do have in place to count ballots with accuracy and security.
And in citing the testimony of one Republican observer who said he was asked to leave the counting room in Clark County early on Wednesday morning, Schlapp revealed he had no understanding of the process.
“We have not been allowed in Clark County for a single moment to watch and observe the counting of ballots,” Schlapp said. But he was contradicted by the legal testimony of the very observer on which the Trump campaign based its complaint, who said he was able to observe the counting room but was asked to move away from the observation area to the press area because he wished to take photos.
The reason for preventing observers from taking photos is to protect the privacy of voters.
There have been isolated reports of poll watchers on Election Day being turned away from polling places when they tried to observe in person voting. One incident in Philadelphia was reported to have been a mistake, and the poll watcher was admitted after the confusion was rectified.
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