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Trump team persists in Pa. court fights despite COVID quarantine, quitting lawyers, and courtroom losses

A day of setbacks in and out of court left the president's legal strategy to reverse the results teetering on the edge of collapse.

Gary Charlestin, of Narberth, holds a sign reading “Voters Decide” at a Nov. 4 rally in front of the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown.
Gary Charlestin, of Narberth, holds a sign reading “Voters Decide” at a Nov. 4 rally in front of the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

President Donald Trump’s effort to contest the Nov. 3 election in court suffered a series of setbacks Friday, leaving his house-of-cards legal strategy to reverse the results in Pennsylvania teetering on the edge of collapse.

The law firm leading Trump’s battles in the state, Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, abruptly withdrew its representation — a decision a campaign spokesperson dismissed as the lawyers “buckling” under attacks from “liberal mobs.”

That left Linda Kerns, a solo practitioner in Philadelphia, as the primary attorney now representing the campaign on multiple legal fronts. But her in-person appearance in a courtroom in the city was scuttled Friday after the judge announced Trump’s legal team had been exposed to the coronavirus through meetings with campaign staff.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected a request to overturn an earlier ruling on Pennsylvania’s three-day grace period for late-arriving mail ballots postmarked by Election Day — a fight Trump’s campaign has sought to take to the U.S. Supreme Court. And judges in Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties handed the campaign additional losses.

The defeats also continued to add up elsewhere, including in Michigan, where a judge dismissed campaign accusations of fraud as “incorrect” and “not credible,” and in Arizona, where Trump lawyers dropped a suit there, acknowledging the president trailed too far behind in that state’s vote tally for the legal challenge to make a difference. In Georgia, major news networks declared Biden the victor even as a state-mandated recount began.

All of that came as Joe Biden’s lead over Trump in Pennsylvania continued to widen — up to 60,000 votes — with vote counting drawing toward completion.

“All Pennsylvanians can have confidence in our election system and the accuracy of the vote,” Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Allegations of fraud and unfounded rumors of illegal activity have been repeatedly debunked.”

Despite the impediments dealt the campaign throughout Friday, spokesperson Tim Murtaugh vowed that Trump’s legal effort would forge ahead undeterred.

“The president’s team … will move forward with rock-solid attorneys to ensure free and fair elections for all Americans,” he said.

Active court battles continued on multiple fronts, including fights over late-arriving ballots, county-level disputes over individual votes, and the case on which the campaign has pinned its greatest hopes: a bid to convince a federal judge in Williamsport to bar Pennsylvania from certifying its final vote tally by the Nov. 23 deadline.

The judge in that case has scheduled hearings for next week. And, in its request to withdraw from the case filed late Thursday, attorneys for Porter Wright assured him that their decision to step aside would not interfere with that schedule.

They offered no further explanation for their departure, saying only, in a motion, that the firm had reached a mutual agreement that the campaign "will be best served if Porter Wright withdraws.”

The firm’s representation of Trump’s evidence-free claims that the election had been stolen from him through widespread and systemic fraud had made it a target for criticism in recent days.

The New York Times reported Monday that several attorneys at the Ohio-based firm had objected to the firm taking on Trump as a client, given his record of attacking the rule of law. One attorney, the newspaper said, had quit over the decision.

Then, the firm took down its Twitter account Tuesday amid a barrage of negative attention from users on the platform. It noted, in a statement, Porter Wright’s “long history of election law work” on behalf of Democratic, Republican, and independent candidates.

“At times, this calls for us to take on controversial cases,” it read. “We expect criticism in such instances, and we affirm the right of all individuals to express concern and disagreement.”

The Trump campaign was less circumspect, accusing the firm Friday of succumbing to public pressure.

“Cancel culture has finally reached the courtroom,” Murtaugh said.

It was not clear whether the firm would continue to be involved in the campaign’s other pending litigation in Pennsylvania.

For instance, Jeremy Mercer, a Pittsburgh-based lawyer for the firm, had served as the central witness in a case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court over access Trump campaign monitors had to vote counting in Philadelphia.

Ronald Hicks and Carolyn McGee — also from Porter Wright’s Pittsburgh office — remained listed as lead lawyers on the campaign’s myriad other cases before state courts. However, statements from their firm and the Trump campaign suggested they would not be involved with those either.

That left at the helm Kerns, a family law attorney who runs her own practice in Center City with the addition Friday of a new lawyer — John Scott, a Texas-based attorney and GOP lobbyist.

Kerns — a Darby native, graduate of Loyola University and cofounder of the conservative website Broad + Liberty — has been a stalwart of GOP election battles in Philadelphia for years and has been as much involved in Trump’s Pennsylvania litigation as the Porter Wright team since it began Election Day.

She had been scheduled to appear in person Friday before a Common Pleas judge in Philadelphia in a case over roughly 8,000 disputed mail ballots, but because of what Judge James Crumlish III described as the legal team’s exposure to the coronavirus, her arguments proceeded instead over Zoom. (A Trump campaign spokesperson insisted Democrat lawyers had made the request.)

Crumlish appeared skeptical of Kerns' arguments to have the votes disqualified over technical errors voters made in filling out their ballots, such as failing to write their addresses on the outer envelope, and ultimately denied her requests.

“What consideration should the court give to the thousands of electors who are unaware that the [campaign is] seeking to invalidate their votes,” he pondered. “You are seeking to disenfranchise the voters … for whatever reason.”

Kerns disputed that assessment, though when pressed earlier by the judge, she acknowledged that she was not alleging that any of the votes in question had been fraudulently submitted.

“I’m not challenging their eligibility” to vote, Kerns said. “We’re not challenging these ballots on the basis that these are not registered voters.”

That refrain has become common as each of Trump’s Pennsylvania cases has made their way in front of a judge.

Despite the president’s continued rhetoric about widespread and systemic voter fraud in the state, his campaign’s legal filings have thus far failed to lodge even a single allegation — let alone provide evidence — of one ballot being deliberately cast illegally.

Instead, their complaints have focused entirely on the process of how state and local elections administrators oversaw the casting and counting of votes.

The only specific allegations to have surfaced so far of attempts to cast an illegal ballot in Pennsylvania have been isolated and lodged by county officials who caught the perpetrators in the act.

For example, Chester County prosecutors announced Friday that they had filed charges against a 71-year-old registered Republican who cast two ballots on Election Day — one on behalf of himself, the other in the name of his son.

Donning sunglasses to hide his identity, prosecutors said, Ralph Thurman returned to his polling place in Malvern after voting once and tried to pass himself off as his son.

Poll workers recognized him and, according to the affidavit filed in his case, Thurman “hurriedly fled the building.”

Staff writer Vinny Vella contributed to this article.