The Justice Department released—and later retracted—a statement on Thursday saying it had opened an inquiry into the discarding of nine military ballots cast for President Trump in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. The notice disappeared from the DOJ’s website hours later only to be replaced by a “revised statement,” clarifying that two of the nine ballots were in sealed envelopes.
The correction came roughly two hours after a Trump campaign spokesman, Matt Wolking, falsely claimed on Twitter that the inquiry was evidence “Democrats are trying to steal the election.” Neither the original DOJ press release nor the revised statement alleged any intentional wrongdoing on election officials’ behalf. (DOJ said it expects to share an update about the inquiry later today.)
[Update: Wolking deleted his tweets at some point Thursday night.]
The U.S. attorney’s office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, leading the inquiry alongside the FBI, declined to say what led to its initial inaccurate statement and did not respond when asked if the ballots were cast in the general or a primary election. The timing of the announcement is unusual. Justice officials typically do not publicize ongoing investigations unless and until charges are brought.
The FBI referred Gizmodo back to the DOJ.
Following his initial claim, Wolking, a former aid to Sen. Bill Cassidy, lashed out at two reporters—including this one—who noted the inquiry into “reports of potential issues with a small number of mail-in ballots” hardly qualified as proof of widespread voter fraud.
Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that mail-in voter fraud is widespread. It is not.
CNN reporter Abby Phillips noted the “small number” of ballots on Twitter, directly quoting the U.S. attorney’s office. “Investigation ongoing into what this is all about, but again, this is not evidence of widespread voter fraud.”
In response, Wolking accused Phillips of dismissing evidence of “voter suppression targeting U.S. service members,” an allegation which, again, DOJ had not made at that time.
When this reporter repeated the number of ballots involved, Wolking responded: “Another left-wing reporter rushes to downplay and dismiss voter suppression targeting Trump voters.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Wolking, who recently slammed Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican of Illinois, for disparaging QAnon—a conspiracy theory asserting Trump is secretly fighting a classified war against a global network of Satanic pedophiles—was hired by the Trump campaign in March 2019 to lead an “aggressive rapid response team, refuting attacks and exposing the fake news media.”
Trump came under fire on Wednesday for refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if the election does not end in his favor.
After a White House reporter pressed Trump on the commitment, Trump replied, “We’re going to have to see what happens,” before suggesting that certain ballots needed throwing out.
“We have to have—get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very trans—we’ll have a very peaceful,” Trump said, followed by, “There won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.”
The Trump campaign has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that absentee voting is susceptive to massive electoral fraud and that Democrats are planning to “steal” the election. FBI Director Christopher Wray, testifying before a Senate panel on Thursday, refuted the president’s claim that widespread voter fraud has ever occurred.
“We have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise,” Wray told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He added that voter fraud on a local level happens “from time to time.”
In June, a Washington Post analysis of data collected from three vote-by-mail states—Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—found election officials had only flagged 0.0025 percent of ballots for further investigation.
This is a developing story.