Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.
GETTYSBURG — Having failed to gain traction in court, President Donald Trump’s campaign brought its case challenging Pennsylvania’s election results to a state Senate meeting Wednesday, where it repeated his unfounded claims of widespread fraud to a welcoming audience of Republican legislators.
Addressing members of the state Senate Majority Policy Committee in a proceeding that at times felt more like a pep rally — with firebrand speeches from lawmakers and whooping cheers from dozens of supporters — Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani pressed his baseless case that the election had been stolen and the truth covered up by “Big Tech” and the media.
“I know crooks really well,” he told the panel, gathered in a conference room of the Wyndham Gettysburg hotel. “You give them an inch and they take a mile. And you give them a mile and they take your whole country.”
Then, with Trump attorney Jenna Ellis holding a cell phone to a microphone, the president himself addressed the crowd from Washington.
“This election was rigged, and we can’t let that happen,” Trump said. “We can’t let that happen for our country, and this election has to be turned around because we won Pennsylvania by a lot and we won all these swing states by a lot.”
The hearing came a day after state officials certified Pennsylvania’s presidential election results, cementing President-elect Joe Biden’s win over Trump by some 81,000 votes.
Trump had been scheduled to attend the gathering, which would have been his first public appearance outside of Washington since his loss to Biden. But those plans were scuttled Wednesday morning without explanation, according to White House pool reports.
The cancelation sent state Senate staffers rushing to adjust the agenda. Even Giuliani’s attendance was briefly thrown into doubt after news broke that a presidential adviser who had been working closely with Trump’s legal team had tested positive for coronavirus.
Then, just before the former New York City mayor did begin testifying, a Pennsylvania appellate court issued an order temporarily barring the state from finalizing its election results — something Gov. Tom Wolf had done on Tuesday.
That ruling, from a Commonwealth Court judge, came in response to a lawsuit from U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly (R., Butler), one of Trump’s top boosters in Congress, who had asked the court to throw out the election results and appoint Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled legislature to choose the victor in the state.
The judge, Republican Patricia A. McCullough, has scheduled a hearing Friday for arguments on Kelly’s claim that the new law that allowed widespread mail voting in the state for the first time was enacted in violation of Pennsylvania’s constitution — despite overwhelming support from GOP lawmakers at the time.
It was unclear if the case before McCullough would survive. State officials immediately appealed to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court in a bid to overturn her order and cancel the proceedings scheduled for later in the week.
“Millions of Pennsylvanians voted and they must have their voices heard,” Wolf said in a statement. “Pennsylvania is going to fight every single attempt to disenfranchise voters.”
As a practical matter, McCullough’s ruling has little effect on the outcome of Pennsylvania’s presidential race since the governor has already appointed the electors that will give Biden the state’s 20 electoral votes.
But for the moment, it injected uncertainty into several down-ballot races that still have not been certified by the Department of State — including Kelly’s own reelection and those of many of the state senators gathered Wednesday.
Any further delay in certification could plunge the Capitol into chaos because all members of the state House of Representatives and half of the 50 state senators officially end their terms Monday. Lawmakers can’t be seated in districts where the results haven’t been officially certified.
That did not appear to trouble state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), who had organized Wednesday’s committee hearing and kicked it off with a speech in which he declared the very future of “the republic is at stake.”
“There have been many allegations of voting law violations across the state,” he said. “We are here today to try to find out what the heck happened.”
Though they didn’t attend the hearing, Senate Democrats immediately pushed back.
“If Senate Republicans want to entertain conspiracy theories from Rudy Giuliani and rally with defeated presidential candidate Donald Trump, they should do so on their own time and dime – not the taxpayers,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) said in a statement. “Our process was secure and our count is accurate.”
The Senate Majority Policy Committee has no Democratic members and no power to advance legislation. And there, Giuliani found a friendly forum for his unfounded claims that Democrats had taken advantage of the widespread use of mail ballots to turn the vote in Biden’s favor.
A parade of witnesses that had not been sworn in repeated often-aired GOP complaints about their access to observe the counting of votes and the fact that some counties, following state guidance, allowed voters to correct technical mistakes such as missing signatures or secrecy envelopes in their mail ballots.
Most of the GOP senators — including the next Senate majority leader, Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) — had supported the law that created no-excuse voting by mail last year. None, however, mentioned that or that the 2.6 million mail ballots cast statewide in 2020 helped their party expand its majority in the General Assembly.
Still, Giuliani, like Kelly, urged the panel to wrest control away from the state’s voters and appoint Pennsylvania’s electors themselves. Given that electors had already been appointed, it was unclear how they might do that.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) have said on numerous occasions that the legislature will have no role in deciding the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
On Wednesday, spokespeople for Corman and Benninghoff said the leaders’ positions had not changed.
While state Republicans who lead the House and Senate have repeatedly stated they have no evidence of fraud, they have said constituents are concerned about wrongdoing. They blame the confusion on a state Supreme Court ruling that extended the deadline to accept mail ballots by three days, as well as guidance from the Department of State allowing counties to share information with political parties about voters whose ballots had problems.
The GOP-controlled House recently passed a resolution calling for an audit and review of the 2020 presidential election. But in a rare move, the bipartisan panel tasked with carrying out the audit rejected the assignment, citing its redundancy.
Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA contributed reporting.
100% ESSENTIAL: Spotlight PA relies on funding from foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results. Give now and your contribution will be DOUBLED: spotlightpa.org/donate