As ongoing vote tabulation in several key battleground states continues to slowly narrow President Donald Trump’s path to reelection, the New York Times reported late Wednesday that the Justice Department has told federal prosecutors that U.S. law permits armed federal agents to enter ballot-counting locations to investigate alleged “fraud,” heightening fears of possible intimidation efforts by the Trump administration.
News of the Justice Department’s early Wednesday email came after Trump spent much of that day lying about vote-counting procedures and peddling baseless claims of suspicious activity as he watched his slim leads in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania vanish.
The Times noted that the Justice Department’s email, authored by Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, “created the specter of the federal government intimidating local election officials or otherwise intervening in vote tallying amid calls by President Trump to end the tabulating in states where he was trailing in the presidential race.”
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While U.S. law bars the stationing of armed officials “at any place where a general or special election is held,” Donoghue claimed in his email that the statute “does not prevent armed federal law enforcement persons from responding to, investigat[ing], or prevent[ing] federal crimes at closed polling places or at other locations where votes are being counted.”
State officials and civil rights advocates were quick to denounce the Justice Department’s interpretation of the law as both false and dangerous while also suggesting the post-Election Day email may have been aimed at mollifying the president, who falsely declared victory early Wednesday morning with millions of ballots left to count.
State officials have authority over anyone trying to enter locations where ballots are being counted. Anything else is a radical reinterpretation of the law. States can handle elections, and we will ensure the people decide the outcome.https://t.co/etz70G3foQ
— Maura Healey (@MassAGO) November 5, 2020
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, decried the “scare tactics from DOJ,” noting on Twitter that “federal armed agents can’t interfere in vote count, enter polling places, or take ballots.”
“Let’s be clear: this is posturing,” said Gupta, who served as acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama. “You can imagine Trump calling [Attorney General William] Barr at midnight freaking out after Fox called Arizona saying do something for me, and Barr willingly obliging. Time for a new DOJ.”
As the Times pointed out, Barr “spent the months leading up to Election Day echoing the president’s dark warnings, claiming without evidence that the wave of mail-in ballots would lead to an unprecedented amount of voter fraud. He cited one example of 1,700 falsified ballots that the Washington Post found to be false. A department spokeswoman blamed an inaccurate memo from an aide.”
Not at all clear why DOJ decided to send this email in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. But without more context, this is disturbing.
Justice Dept.: Armed Agents Are Allowed to Oversee Ballot-Counting Venues – The New York Times https://t.co/juRCyhoONT
— Carissa Byrne Hessick (@CBHessick) November 5, 2020
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the top law enforcement official of a key state that remains up for grabs, told MSNBC late Wednesday that he is aware of the Justice Department’s email and prepared to deal with its potential consequences.
“It is yet another one of the issues we planned for,” said Shapiro. “Nothing is going to stop the counting of these legal ballots in Pennsylvania.”
If armed federal officials show up at Pennsylvania vote-counting locations, Shapiro said, “what happens is what has been happening since the polls closed: a strict adherence to state law.”