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Trump campaign vows to halt Pa. vote count in a wave of legal challenges

The onslaught brought into focus a broader GOP strategy to rely on courts in Pennsylvania and other swing states pivotal to the president’s chances.

Rudy Giuliani speaks at a news conference about President Donald Trump’s legal challenges to the election in Pennsylvania at Atlantic Aviation in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020.
Rudy Giuliani speaks at a news conference about President Donald Trump’s legal challenges to the election in Pennsylvania at Atlantic Aviation in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

President Donald Trump’s campaign vowed Wednesday to halt Pennsylvania’s election count with a barrage of lawsuits that it contended — without evidence — were needed to stop the state from “baking in a backdoor victory for Joe Biden with late, illegal ballots.”

Repeating the president’s claim that Democrats were “scheming to disenfranchise and dilute” GOP voters, Trump’s team unleashed a pack of new filings on state and federal courts disputing issues that included the state’s decision to count late-arriving mail ballots and how much access Republican monitors had to watch the counting process.

The onslaught — along with similar suits filed in Michigan, Nevada, and Georgia, as well as a demand for a vote-recount in Wisconsin — reflected a broader Republican strategy to rely on the courts and litigation to contest the election in states pivotal to the president’s chances of a second term.

“Bad things are happening in Pennsylvania," the Trump campaign said in a statement. "President Trump and his team are fighting to put a stop to it.”

Through Wednesday night, there had been no reports of widespread voter fraud or irregularities with Pennsylvania’s count, though the results here still remained too close to call.

And yet, at a freewheeling news conference outside the Philadelphia airport, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and the president’s son Eric declared that he won the state and made a series of false and at times almost incoherent claims in an effort to cast doubt on the integrity of the city’s vote.

Without offering proof, Eric Trump said that ballots had been discovered in drainage ditches and that Philadelphia polling locations were decorated with Biden campaign posters on Election Day. Giuliani alleged that the “Democratic crooked machine of Philadelphia” had counted votes that Republican canvassing monitors could not ensure were legally cast.

“They could be from Mars,” he said of the ballots. “Joe Biden could have voted 50 times, as far as we know, or 5,000 times. The ballots could be from Camden.”

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, dismissed those claims. He called the legal filings a “disgraceful” effort to disenfranchise voters, and he vowed the count would continue.

“Pennsylvania is going to count every vote and make sure that everyone has their voice heard,” he said, adding that election officials "should be free to do their jobs without evidence or attacks.”

With more than 6 million ballots counted and nearly 90 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania tallied by Wednesday evening, Trump led by about 192,000 votes. But that lead had steadily shrunk from Tuesday amid projections that Biden would win the majority of the hundreds of thousands of ballots left to be counted.

Behind the scenes, Republicans and Democrats set in for court battles that could stretch for days — if not longer — with both campaigns seeking donations for legal funds dubbed the “Biden Fight Fund” and, in Trump’s case, “Stop the Steal.”

Though he did not specifically address the Pennsylvania court challenges during a speech Wednesday, Biden maintained that “no one’s going to take our democracy away from us — not now, not ever.”

And as tallies nationally continued to put Biden at a small but not definitive advantage Wednesday, it was far from clear that even if Trump prevailed in Pennsylvania courts his legal maneuvering would affect enough votes to win the state and, ultimately, reelection.

Among the campaign’s new legal efforts was a bid urging the U.S. Supreme Court to act on a lingering legal dispute over late-arriving mail ballots in the state.

Pennsylvania Republicans have urged the justices to overturn a ruling last month by the state’s highest court that allowed counties to count ballots received up until 5 p.m. Friday, as long as they were postmarked by Election Day.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to strike down that extended deadline last week. But in doing so, several of the court’s conservative justices signaled that they might be open to taking up the issue in the future.

The justices raised concerns that in approving the three-day extension, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had usurped the powers and intent of the Republican-controlled state Legislature.

In court filings, Trump campaign lawyers told the justices that the time to intervene was now.

“Given last night’s results, the vote in Pennsylvania may well determine the next president of the United States,” they wrote. “And this court, not the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, should have the final say.”

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat whose office represents the state in that case, told CNN the filing read “more like political document than a legal one.”

» READ MORE: Full Pennsylvania election results

Trump’s team also asked the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court for better access for Republican observers monitoring ongoing vote counting in Philadelphia. Though campaign staffers said in a news release they would seek an injunction to stop the statewide vote count until that issue could be resolved, as of Wednesday evening, none of their legal filings appeared to actually make that request.

On Tuesday, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Stella Tsai had ruled that the city’s Board of Elections had complied with state law regarding access for partisan canvassing monitors.

Trump campaign lawyers have complained, in Philadelphia and other counties, that they have been kept too far away from the counting to observe potential problems with ballots.

At the campaign’s news conference Wednesday, Trump surrogate Pam Bondi, the former attorney general of Florida, also alleged GOP monitors had also been subjected to intimidation — a claim she based on waist-high metal barriers observers were required to stand behind and a “huge badge” she said a deputy in the City Commissioner’s Office was wearing when he interacted with them.

In another new challenge, Trump campaign lawyers accused Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, a Wolf appointee, of illegally extending by three days deadlines governing when first-time voters, who are required to show ID, had to do so in submitting their mail ballots. They asked Commonwealth Court to throw out ballots statewide that may have been counted as a result of that extra time.

Boockvar’s office had not filed a response to the suit by Wednesday night.

The court had offered no indication of if or how swiftly it intends to hold hearings or rule in that case or on any of Trump’s other challenges Wednesday.

But, if a hearing on an earlier suit filed in Philadelphia federal court is any indication, their complaints may not receive a warm welcome by the judiciary.

Presiding over a challenge to Montgomery County’s practice of giving voters an opportunity to correct such errors as missing signatures or secrecy envelopes, U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage appeared skeptical of Republican claims that the policy violated state election law.

A George W. Bush appointee, Savage questioned whether the suit was ultimately a GOP attempt to prevent certain voters from having their ballots counted.

“How does this affect the integrity of the election?” he repeatedly asked lawyer Thomas E. Breth, representing Kathy Barnette, a GOP congressional candidate and a plaintiff in the suit.

In all, Montgomery County officials said that only 98 deficient mail ballots out of more than 400,000 cast in the county were corrected by voters.

The county has extended the same opportunity to fix ballots in danger of being disqualified to Democrat and Republican voters in past elections, county chief operating officer Lee Soltysiak said

Still, GOP lawyers have raised similar concerns about so-called cured ballots statewide in a separate suit also before the Commonwealth Court.

Arguing before Savage on Wednesday, Breth likened the issue to the “hanging chads” and “dimpled ballots” that mired the 2000 presidential election.

“These ballots may very well determine the result of the election,” he said.

Attorneys for the Democratic National Committee, who have joined in the case both in Philadelphia and at the state level, pushed back.

“It would appear based on the timing of this suit,” DNC lawyer Terence Grugan said, “that this is not a good-faith effort to enforce the election code, but an effort to disenfranchise voters.”

Staff writers Julie Shaw, William Bender and Chris Brennan contributed to this article.