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Lawrence Tabas insists he has no intention of disenfranchising the voters of Pennsylvania.
Tabas, the state’s Republican Party chairman, said he isn’t planning a scheme where the GOP-led State Assembly – not voters – would choose Pennsylvania’s 20 electors.
He hasn’t discussed such a strategy with other Republican leaders or the Trump campaign.
But he understands why readers of The Atlantic might come to the conclusion that he has.
Tabas was one of several sources in a 9,800-word story by Atlantic staff writer Barton Gellman published last week on the magazine’s website. The story explores potential 2020 election chaos and the possibility that President Donald Trump could cling to power by preventing “the formation of a consensus about whether there is any outcome at all.”
The story says Tabas is one of at least three prominent Pennsylvania Republicans discussing the possibility that the GOP-led legislature could choose the electors for the presidential race if the state’s election results remain in doubt after more than a month.
Tabas said he’s never endorsed such a plan. Gellman, he said, is the one who brought it up.
“I’m not even thinking about that,” Tabas told National Review. “My thoughts are getting voters to the polls and winning election through the votes.”
He said his conversation with Gellman was twisted and taken out of context, “another example, in my opinion, of a very dishonest media doing what it does best.”
“This writer had a theme he wanted to promote, which, of course, was not disclosed to me.”
Gellman stands by his reporting. He told National Review it is true he was the one who broached the subject with Tabas of having the legislature directly appoint electors, but he denied taking Tabas out of context. He said he never reported that Tabas was actually planning to appoint electors, only that he’s discussed the possibility with the Trump campaign.
Tabas may be attempting to clarify his position, or “adding things maybe he wished he’d said,” Gellman wrote in his Twitter message.
Major national news outlets have seized on The Atlantic’s reporting to ratchet up alarm that Trump may not leave office peacefully if he loses his reelection bid.
Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman cited Gellman’s reporting in Pennsylvania in a piece arguing that Trump is relying on the Supreme Court to steal the 2020 election.
A Politico story said Pennsylvania Democrats are concerned the GOP-controlled legislature might appoint pro-Trump electors regardless of the outcome of the election, “all under the guise of massive voter fraud.”
Citing The Atlantic, Axios called a Pennsylvania elector swap “the apocalypse scenario.”
But Tabas said there is no plan to swap electors.
Tabas said he was contacted July 22 by Gellman, who wanted to talk about ballot security and canvassing for a story about potential voting disputes.
Tabas is introduced about three-quarters of the way through the story when Gellman discusses the so-called “safe harbor” deadline, the date on the election calendar — December 8th this year — when the 538 men and women who make up the Electoral College must be appointed. They officially meet six days later to cast their votes for the presidency.
“According to sources in the Republican Party at the state and national levels, the Trump campaign is discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority,” Gellman writes. “With a justification based on claims of rampant fraud, Trump would ask state legislators to set aside the popular vote and exercise their power to choose a slate of electors directly.”
Gellman writes that Tabas is one of three Republican leaders in Pennsylvania who told him they had “already discussed the direct appointment of electors among themselves.” One of the Republicans, he writes, said he’d also discussed it with Trump’s national campaign.
“I’ve mentioned it to them, and I hope they’re thinking about it too,” Tabas is quoted as saying in the story.
Tabas doesn’t dispute the quote. He disputes the context.
When he said “I’ve mentioned it to them,” he said he wasn’t talking about having the legislature choose electors. Rather, he said, he was responding to Gellman, who asked if he knew what the “safe harbor” deadline was and if Trump’s campaign was aware of it.
“As I recall, he said ‘Does the Trump campaign know what the date is, and are they paying attention to it?’ Something like that,” Tabas said.
Gellman also quotes Tabas as saying “I just don’t think this is the right time for me to be discussing those strategies and approaches, but [direct appointment of electors] is one of the options. It is one of the available legal options set forth in the Constitution.”
Tabas said Gellman asked him, as an election-law attorney, if he knew how electors would be selected if Pennsylvania doesn’t finish tallying its votes by the “safe harbor” deadline.
Tabas said he told Gellman he expected it would fall to the state’s congressional delegation, which is divided evenly between nine Republicans and nine Democrats. In that scenario, he was of the belief that Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, would break the tie, he said.
It was Gellman who raised the possibility the state legislature could pick the electors, he said.
“He brought it up,” Tabas said.
In his response to National Review, Gellman said it is clear that in Tabas’s quote – “I’ve mentioned it to them, and I hope they’re thinking about it too” – he was referring to directly appointing electors, and not simply acknowledging that he and the Trump campaign are aware of the “safe harbor” deadline.
“There is no doubt in context that ‘it’ in his quote referred to that,” Gellman said via Twitter.
“I didn’t say he’s ‘planning’ to appoint electors,” Gellman wrote. “I said he told me he’d discussed the possibility with the Trump campaign and told me that doing so is one of the options, and in the context of that discussion he said he hopes for a quick count but worries it will stretch out and people will lose faith in its integrity (and thereby, implicitly, raise questions about how to decide the winner).”
“I stand by all that and I stand by the fairness of the quotation in context.”
When he talked to Gellman in late July, Tabas said, Pennsylvania Republicans were still digesting the June primary election results, which had been delayed for weeks in some cases by slow mail-in ballot counting. This is the first year Pennsylvania is allowing voting by mail.
Although Tabas is concerned about Pennsylvania election supervisors being overwhelmed with mail-in ballots in November, he said that in July he and his colleagues weren’t even thinking about a “safe harbor” deadline strategy, and they still aren’t. Even if they were, he said, it’s preposterous to think that he would lay out the strategy for a reporter and then tell the reporter that it wasn’t “the right time for me to be discussing those strategies.”
“If I and the Trump campaign were actually discussing a strategy to somehow get the legislature to directly appoint electors, I would never in a billion years ever mention it,” he said. “Why would we tell our competitors, and tell a member of the press, our political strategy so they can print it in the paper and tell the whole world?”
Tabas said he’s not even sure what would happen if Pennsylvania’s votes aren’t all counted by the “safe harbor” deadline. It could go to the congressional delegation, it could go to the state legislature, or “the court could order people to just keep on counting,” he said. It would be up to the courts to decide how to proceed, not political parties.
“There are multiple options here,” he said. “It is not clear.”
Tabas denies he’s had conversations with other Republican leaders or Trump campaign staffers about having the state legislature appoint electors.
In a prepared statement, Jake Corman, Pennsylvania’s state senate majority leader, called the concerns laid out by The Atlantic “pure conjecture.” Corman also was named in the story.
“I have had zero contact with the Trump campaign or others about changing Pennsylvania’s long-standing tradition of appointing electors consistent with the popular vote,” Corman said.
“The General Assembly is obligated to follow the law, and the law is the Election Code, which clearly defines how electors are chosen and does not involve the Legislature.”
A story in Politico on Friday said Pennsylvania Democrats are concerned the GOP-controlled legislature might appoint pro-Trump electors regardless of the outcome of the election, “all under the guise of massive voter fraud.”
Mike Straub, a spokesman for Pennsylvania House speaker Bryan Cutler, said “there has not been a discussion by the speaker of the House or among House leaders to go that way.”
Straub said he believes the media controversy has been prompted by a recent state supreme court decision that extends the deadline to count mail-in ballots until three days after Election Day.
“That, I think, caused folks to have more concerns about well, if it’s that close and we don’t have a certified election, what would the next step be?” Straub said.
Despite polls showing Trump behind in Pennsylvania, Tabas said he believes the president will win a clear majority in the Keystone State. Tabas said it’s simply not true that he is advocating for suppressing the will of the people.
He said he’s received threats since The Atlantic published its story.
“I’ve been getting coordinated calls and emails, and they’ve been calling people I work with accusing me of somehow wanting to thwart the will of the voters,” Tabas said. “I want all the votes to be counted.”