PHILADELPHIA — "Bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things."
So said President Donald Trump near the end of an ugly presidential debate Tuesday night.
Trump also referenced the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a visible presence in Philadelphia, as he again refused to clearly condemn white supremacists.
The comment about "bad things" (coming soon to a Philly T-shirt near you) came as Trump sought to sow doubt about the integrity of November's election, baselessly claiming there is a threat of widespread fraud while citing two examples from Pennsylvania as evidence.
In both cases, he misled viewers or exaggerated his claims.
Philly came first.
"I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that's what has to happen. I am urging them to do it," Trump said late in the first debate between he and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. "Today there was a big problem in Philadelphia. They went in to watch, they're they're called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out, they weren't allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things."
In fact, the Trump campaign has no certified poll watchers yet in Philadelphia. And people were turned away not from traditional polling places where poll watchers are able to monitor proceedings as voters cast ballots on Election Day, but from newly opened satellite elections offices. Voters can use the satellite offices to request and return mail ballots, as they would at their regular county election offices.
Here's what The Inquirer reported hours before the debate:
There were several reasons — none is corruption — why elections staff did not allow members of the public to arbitrarily enter their offices. The Trump campaign has no poll watchers approved to work in Philadelphia at the moment. There are no actual polling places open in the city right now. And elections officials are following coronavirus safety regulations, such as those limiting the number of people indoors. ... Poll watchers don't have the same rights at such locations as they do at traditional polling places on Election Day, officials said.
"We don't give someone a poll watcher certificate to ... watch somebody fill out their ballot at their kitchen table," said Al Schmidt, a Republican and one of the city commissioners, who run elections."
The criticism of Philadelphia was part of an extended attack on mail voting, an attack almost entirely consisting of lies, distortions and exaggerations. Election fraud of all kinds, including through mail voting, is exceedingly rare — far below even 1% of votes cast in states that already vote almost entirely by mail, according to multiple studies.
As part of the same critique of mail voting, Trump also pointed to an issue the Justice Department emphasized in highly unusual fashion last week in Northeastern Pennsylvania, where officials found nine military mail-in ballots in the trash in Luzerne County. Seven were cast for Trump, while the other two were resealed in envelopes and investigators don't know their votes.
"They found ballots in a wastepaper basket three days ago... they all had the name 'Trump' on them," the president said Tuesday night. "You think that's good?"
Left unmentioned was that Luzerne County is a Republican-controlled county. Election officials in Luzerne have said the ballots were incorrectly discarded by a temporary contractor just days into the job, and that no one knew who the votes were for until the DOJ revealed that. The contractor was dismissed, workers searched through three days of trash to find the ballots, and county officials reported the incident to law enforcement.
More than 6 million votes were cast in Pennsylvania in the last presidential election, and experts expect even higher turnout this time.
Nevertheless, The White House and Trump's Justice Department have tried pushed the incident to the forefront, with federal officials taking the highly unusual step of announcing their investigation before they reach conclusions. It's also unusual, legal experts have said, to announce who the votes were for. As the Associated Press reported:
On the issue of white supremacists, when moderator Chris Wallace pressed Trump to speak out against far-right extremists, Trump asked for the name of a group. Biden named the Proud Boys.
"The Proud Boys, stand back and stand by," Trump said before immediately pivoting. "I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about Antifa and he left because this is not a right wing problem, this is a left wing problem."
FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress this month that white supremacist groups account for the majority of domestic terror threats. Wray also said Antifa, a loose far left movement, is an "ideology" more than a formal organization.
Proud Boys immediately rejoiced on the social media app Telegram. The group cropped the phrase "Stand Back, Stand By" onto their logo and the Philadelphia chapter shared an edited photo of Trump wearing a Proud Boys polo shirt, captioned with, "Stand by boys ... "
(Staff writers Jonathan Lai and Ellie Rushing contributed to this article.)
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