WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — President Donald Trump’s campaign on Tuesday sought to add some star power to its flailing legal effort to contest the election results, deploying former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to this small central Pennsylvania city to argue that the state’s election tallies should be thrown out because they’re tainted by fraud.
Arriving to cheers from a band of Trump supporters gathered in a mall parking lot across the street, Giuliani strode into the modest, four-story federal courthouse for hearing on a bid by Pennsylvania officials to dismiss a lawsuit the Trump campaign filed last week to try to block certification of President-elect Joe Biden as the winner of the state’s 20 electoral votes.
“The best description of this situation is it’s a widespread, nationwide voter fraud,” Giuliani said during a half-hour-long opening statement at the court session. “This is a part of the reason I’m here, Your Honor, because it is not an isolated case.”
Taking the helm of the Trump campaign’s legal team after days of chaos and tumult, the former mayor put forward a double-barreled argument: that the election in Pennsylvania was deeply flawed because hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots were processed with inadequate access by Republican observers, and because some counties allowed voters to fix or “cure” mail-in ballots that didn’t follow state requirements.
Giuliani argued that the Democratic machine in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, as well as other cities, took advantage of the flood of mail-in votes to count ballots that should have been disqualified.
“It’s almost like putting them in the candy store,” Giuliani said. He said the effort required excluding Republicans and other observers during the vote-counting process, so they and others were put far away.
“It has been not violated in this case — it’s been trashed. It’s been stepped all over. It’s been disregarded here and in some other places in an eerily similar pattern,” Giuliani added. “The places it happened just happened to be big cities controlled by Democrats.”
Giuliani showed the court images of election-observing arrangements in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He complained that in many cases observers were kept so far away that they couldn’t see anything on the ballots.
“We’re not bringing up a frivolous argument here, Your Honor,” Giuliani insisted to U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Brann. “This happened. This is happening in all these places.”
Daniel Donovan, an attorney for Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, said the campaign and the voters have a forum to litigate their objections, but not in a federal court.
“They do have an avenue. If there are challenges from voters or campaigns, there’s a path, but it’s state court, not federal court,” Donovan said in his rebuttal to Giuliani.
One of those state courts, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, weighed on one of those issues while Tuesday’s federal court hearing was in progress. The state court ruled, 5-2, that Philadelphia’s accommodations for observers did not violate state law because it only entitles them to be present in the room where ballots are counted and not to see them closely enough to read them.
Donovan also argued that the suit was fatally flawed because the campaign and the two Pennsylvania voters who are also plaintiffs in the case lacked the “particularized injury” to pursue a federal court case. Donovan repeatedly cited a ruling from a Trump-appointed federal judge in Pittsburgh last month that the campaign lacked standing to challenge the use of drop boxes to collect absentee ballots.
While Giuliani portrayed mail-in voting as a boon for Democrats, Donovan noted that the changes to Pennsylvania law broadening access to absentee ballots passed the Republican-controlled legislature before being signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.
Brann is an appointee of President Barack Obama, but was selected by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). The judge was courteous to Giuliani, referring to him at least once as “Mayor.”
Giuliani’s presence amped up the drama of the hearing and briefly displaced the predominant narrative that the president’s legal challenges have thus far been almost completely unsuccessful. However, it was less clear whether his presence would bolster the campaign’s legal record.
When Brann asked technical legal questions about whether “strict scrutiny” or “rational basis” tests applied to the case, Giuliani struggled to answer. At times, his arguments sounded more like legal commentary from a TV talk show than what lawyers typically argue about in court.
Giuliani referred to alleged fraud or irregularities in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nevada, although the relevance of those to the pending suit in Pennsylvania was unclear. He also struggled to explain how Boockvar was legally responsible for the treatment of observers in some counties or how various counties handled flawed ballots. Giuliani eventually said she was a proper defendant because nonbinding guidance she issued to county election officials caused “mass confusion.”
Brann’s first question after initial presentations from lawyers on various sides of the case suggested the Trump campaign faces long odds in its question to block certification of the statewide results based on alleged exclusion of observers in some Pennsylvania cities.
“At bottom, you’re asking this court to invalidate more than 6.8 million votes, thereby disenfranchising every single voter in the commonwealth. Can you tell me how this result can possibly be justified?” the judge asked.
Although the suit does ask to block certification of the statewide results, Giuliani focused on the 680,000 votes he said were counted in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh while Republican observers were excluded or were too far away to see the ballots.
“The remedy … is draconian because the conduct was egregious,” Giuliani said. “As far as we’re concerned, Your Honor, those ballots could have been for Mickey Mouse.”
Despite opening his remarks with sweeping claims of fraud, Giuliani acknowledged later in the session that the complaint in the case didn’t directly allege fraud.
Another ominous sign for the Trump campaign: Brann canceled an evidentiary hearing he had set for Thursday where the Trump lawyers could have called witnesses to complain about the access issues.
A lawyer for several counties that were sued in the case, Mark Aronchick, warned that such a hearing could become a “circus.” He was evidently disdainful of Giuliani’s arguments, particularly the call to throw out nearly 700,000 ballots.
“The idea that you’re being asked to do that, I don’t use this word very much … it is disgraceful,” Aronchick said.
The Trump campaign and its opponents also debated the significance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore to the current fight. Giuliani said that different treatment of voters’ absentee ballots in different parts of the state violated the central tenet of the 2000 ruling, while Trump opponents insisted that was a misreading of the decision.
A lawyer for civil rights groups, Uzoma Nkwonta, said that allowing a federal suit every time two parts of a state handled elections somewhat differently would lead to a quagmire of litigation.
“The court never endorsed the idea that every single county has to provide identical voting procedures,” Nkwonta said. “It’s unclear what jurisdiction’s election code would survive under such a rule.”
The court hearing on Tuesday ran to more than five hours, including a delay of about 50 minutes because of technical issues with phone lines set up for the public to listen in.
During the session, Giuliani acknowledged some confusion on Trump’s legal team for the case in recent days, particularly over the wording of an amended complaint filed in the suit on Sunday. Giuliani said the miscommunication resulted in part from an effort that some Trump opponents have made to urge law firms and lawyers representing the president’s campaign to drop out.
At least two law firms have bailed out on Trump cases, including one that was handling the Pennsylvania suit.
Brann said he found such tactics “regrettable.”
“I don’t know what’s going on in this country. These individuals have a right to legal representation of their choice,” said the judge, who added earlier in the hearing that he once worked on election-related matters.
The hearing in this city of about 28,000 residents, about an hour and a half drive north of the capital, Harrisburg, drew a raucous crowd of Trump supporters, who chanted, prayed and sang before and during the court session.
Cries of “Stop the steal!” ”Dead people can’t vote!” and “Four more years!” went on for hours, occasionally punctuated by honking horns from passersby in this solidly red county, where voters went for Trump over Biden, 70 percent to 29 percent.
As Giuliani left the courthouse on Tuesday night, he insisted that an adverse ruling from Brann wouldn’t doom the president’s legal efforts.
“Obviously, if we lose it, we’ll appeal it,” the former mayor told reporters. “There are seven other cases.”
Giuliani also insisted that there was plenty of time for the various challenges to play out, much as they did in 2000.
“We’re still well within the Gore schedule,” he said.
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