The Trump campaign on Thursday accused the Democrats of "trying to steal the election" after seven military ballots cast in favor of the president were found "discarded" in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania — despite no immediate allegations of any malfeasance.
"BREAKING: FBI finds military mail-in ballots discarded in Pennsylvania. 100% of them were cast for President Trump. Democrats are trying to steal the election," Matt Wolking, deputy communications director for the Trump campaign, tweeted Thursday afternoon, linking to a press release from David Freed, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
Freed said his office had begun "an inquiry into reports of potential issues with a small number of mail-in ballots at the Luzerne County Board of Elections."
"At this point we can confirm that a small number of military ballots were discarded. Investigators have recovered nine ballots at this time. Some of those ballots can be attributed to specific voters and some cannot. All nine ballots were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump," the statement said.
Freed's office put out a revised statement hours after the first saying the number of Trump ballots was actually seven.
"Two of the discarded ballots had been resealed inside their appropriate envelopes by Luzerne elections staff prior to recovery by the FBI and the contents of those 2 ballots are unknown," the updated statement said.
Both statements were highly unusual as U.S. Attorneys typically do not publicly announce they've opened an inquiry. The U.S. Attorney's office declined to give further comment about the probe, except to say the general election ballots were improperly opened by county staff.
The second statement noted that Freed's office had been investigating the case with the FBI since Monday at the request of Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis.
Salavantis is a Republican, and Trump won the county by almost 20 points in 2016. Salavantis was told about the find last week by the county's elections director, the county solicitor said in a statement.
While the nature of the inquiry, including whether there's a criminal component, is unclear, the Justice Department's 2017 guidelines for “Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses” says that, “Because the federal prosecutor’s function in the area of election fraud is not primarily preventative, any criminal investigation by the Department must be conducted in a way that minimizes the likelihood that the investigation itself may become a factor in the election."
In the evening, DOJ released a letter Freed sent to the county board of elections, reporting his initial findings — including that at least part of the problem appeared to be bureaucratic.
"The FBI has recovered a number of documents relating to military ballots that had been improperly opened by your elections staff, and had the ballots removed and discarded, or removed and placed separately from the envelope containing confidential voter information and attestation," the letter said.
It noted, "the appropriate method for processing received military ballots is to securely store the ballot, unopened" until Election Day, but that some elections staffers said they had opened that ballots by mistake because the envelopes look similar to those used for absentee ballot requests.
"Our interviews further revealed that this issue was a problem in the primary election — therefore a known issue — and that the problem has not been corrected," the letter said.
The president seemed to be aware of the investigation hours before the press release and touted it during an interview on Brian Kilmeade's radio show.
“These ballots are a horror show. They found six ballots in an office yesterday in a garbage can. They were Trump ballots. Eight ballots in an office yesterday in a certain state and they had 'Trump' written on it, and they were thrown in a garbage can. This is what’s going to happen,” he said.
Asked then what the president was referring to, the White House referred NBC News to a report in the Washington Examiner about police in Greenville, Wisconsin, finding three trays of mail, including absentee ballots, in a ditch.
The paper reported that the mail was returned to the U.S. Postal Service and that the incident is being investigated.
By the afternoon, the White House appeared to have a coordinated rollout of the information coming from the Justice Department.
At a White House briefing, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump "wants to get rid of mass mail-out voting" because "it's a system that's subject to fraud. In fact, in the last 24 hours, police in Greenville, Wisconsin, found mail in a ditch and it included absentee ballots. And also, I can confirm for you that Trump ballots, ballots for the president were found in Pennsylvania and I believe you should get be getting more information on that shortly, here in the last 24 hours, they were found cast aside."
Shortly after the briefing, both the campaign's Wolking and White House spokesman Judd Deere tweeted out the release from the U.S. Attorney's office, with Deere commenting, "This is concerning to say the least."
McEnany joined in on social media about two hours later.
Trump also spoke more about it a short time later on the White House lawn, where he used the Pennsylvania inquiry and the Wisconsin report to argue it's "a whole big scam."
"You know they found, I understand, eight ballots in a wastepaper basket in some location. And they found — it was reported in one of the newspapers — that they found a lot of ballots in a river. They throw them out if they have the name Trump on it, I guess," he said, misstating the details of both.
"We want to make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be. I don’t think that it can be with this whole situation, unsolicited ballots they’re unsolicited – millions being sent to everybody and we’ll see," Trump said.