A Republican firm run by a top aide to President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign appears to have helped send unmarked text messages on Thursday that urged supporters in Philadelphia to converge outside a building where local election officials counted votes.
"ALERT: Radical Liberals & Dems are trying to steal this election from Trump!" began the short text, sent in the hours before former vice President Joe Biden took the lead in the state. "We need YOU! Show your support at the corner of 12th St. & Arch St. in Philadelphia."
The messages were sent from phone numbers that had been leased by Opn Sesame, a company that offers texting services to Republican candidates and causes, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss the messages. Opn Sesame is run by Gary Coby, the digital director for Trump's 2020 campaign, and it has worked for years on behalf of a number of key GOP clients, including the Republican National Committee. It is unclear which of Opn Sesame's clients actually sent the message, and the company does not disclose its full list of users.
The texts sent Thursday did not mention Opn Sesame, the president, his campaign or any other sender, leaving people who received the messages no clear way to tell who was targeting them with information that sought to cast doubt on the 2020 election. Nor did the texts communicate a clear way for smartphone owners to opt out of receiving them in the future.
But the messages foreshadowed how Trump and his allies might use the vast troves of data they have collected over the previous four years to target sympathetic voters in a bid to disrupt a smooth transition of power.
RoboKiller, a call-blocking smartphone app, first noticed the text campaign and traced it to at least 13 phone numbers that had been leased from Twilio, a company that helps corporate and political organizations reach their customers and voters en masse. Twilio declined to detail who was behind the election messaging effort, but it did acknowledge Thursday that it had "shut down" the 13 numbers because they did not include an explicit notice to recipients about their rights to opt out.
Twilio added in a statement it would be "cautious about restoring messaging functionality" in the future, given the "sensitive election environment."
Reached Thursday night, Coby declined to comment. A spokesman for the Trump campaign also declined to comment.
The text messages reflect the Trump campaign's heightened efforts to harness digital channels, and sow distrust about the 2020 election's results, as Biden approaches the threshold needed to win the race. The campaign has sent millions of emails and texts in recent days that similarly claim without evidence that Democrats are trying to steal the election, including a new blast of text messages late Thursday asking for donations to help Trump initiate legal challenges in key battleground states, according to RoboKiller.
The tactics illustrate potential vulnerabilities in the country's communications systems, exposing the extent to which a wide array of sophisticated actors can use tools, including text messages, to spread falsehoods or stoke fear with little public oversight. Earlier this week, Americans nationwide were bombarded with unidentifiable robocalls telling them to "stay home," a campaign some feared might deter people from casting their votes. On Election Day, officials in Michigan warned local voters about another slew of robocalls and texts that seemed to discourage voting.
The texts that targeted the Philadelphia area on Thursday referred to an intersection - next to the Pennsylvania Convention Center - that has emerged as a staging ground for dueling protests over ballot tabulation.
Eric Trump and other top campaign officials appeared there on Wednesday to air unsubstantiated claims of election fraud in the state. A press conference held at the same location on Thursday touted a minor legal victory involving local poll watchers, part of a number of legal actions the campaign has pursued nationwide in an attempt to either halt vote counting or throw out ballots it believes to be fraudulent. The campaign has offered no evidence of irregularities, and two of the legal challenges, one in Georgia and the other in Michigan, were quickly dismissed.
At Thursday's news conference, Corey Lewandowski, the campaign's senior advisor, and Pam Bondi, a top Trump surrogate and the former attorney general of Florida, baselessly asserted that Democrats were seeking to conceal the process and demanded that an attorney for the city provide an immediate response rather than taking time to evaluate a court order. Nearby, Trump's supporters gathered with signs and called for an end to the vote count, while Biden's backers urged election officials to continue with their work. By the evening, Trump's lead in the state had narrowed as Pennsylvania processed mail-in ballots, which election officials previously warned would take days to tabulate because the GOP-controlled legislature did not authorize an earlier processing of the materials.
Coby, whose LinkedIn page lists him as the chief executive officer of Opn Sesame since 2017, led digital advertising for the RNC in 2016 and helmed digital efforts for Trump's reelection campaign this cycle.
Payments to Opn Sesame do not appear in the Trump campaign's filings with the Federal Election Commission. But a complaint filed this summer by the Campaign Legal Center, an ethics watchdog group, alleged that Trump's team was using conduits set up and run by Brad Parscale, the former campaign manager, to pay subcontractors. Among those subcontractors, according to the complaint, is Opn Sesame.
The company offers a peer-to-peer texting platform, which arms GOP campaign volunteers with the tools to send text messages to supporters. It has few other publicly disclosed clients beyond the RNC. The party reported payments of roughly $4 million to Opn Sesame this over the course of the 2020 election, mainly for "list acquisition," according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The texts to Philadelphia numbers only instructed people to show up at the site where ballot tabulation was occurring. By baselessly raising the specter of electoral theft, however, they fit a pattern of messaging by the president, his children, top campaign aides and their allies in right-wing media. The rallying cry they settled on was #stopthesteal, which they pushed on Twitter, Facebook and other social media in an effort to spark nationwide street protests over counts that showed Trump trailing Biden.
The efforts, via text and online channels, were aimed specifically at vote-counting centers. A Facebook group called "STOP THE STEAL" - sponsored by the co-founder of Women for Trump, among others - promoted a slew of events aimed at delegitimizing the count.