As Election Day turned into election week early Wednesday morning, Donald Trump had a simple message for his closest political and legal advisers as they began charting a plan to challenge and temporarily halt ballot counts in several key states: give them a court fight that “they’ll never forget.”
The president’s remarks, relayed by two people familiar with them, came on the morning after an inconclusive election night, but one that seemed trending Joe Biden’s way. And for Team Trump, it was meant as a clarion call to use every possible legal resource and bit of political organizing to help re-tip the balance of the scale.
Trump told his advisers that, even if Biden were to claw the presidency away from him, he wanted them to “go down fighting” harder than they ever had before, one of the sources with direct knowledge said. By Wednesday afternoon, some semblance of that approach began to materialize.
In Detroit, pro-Trump protests showed up at a ballot counting site demanding access to the officials and insisting that the counting be ended. In Arizona, one of Trump’s closest congressional allies, Rep. Paul Gosar, put out a “call to action” for “red blooded American patriots” to attend a rally to “protect our president” at the Maricopa County election center. In Nevada, a Trump supporter interrupted a registrar of voters press conference by declaring “the Biden crime family steals this election.” And throughout the day, the Trump campaign peppered donors and supporters with text messages and emails asking for money to help fund—what it erroneously called—an attempt by Democrats to “steal” the election.
“They came down the escalator and came in and started banging on the door, ‘stop the count, stop the count.’ This was a clearly coordinated effort by people wearing official GOP credentials to stop the counting of absentee votes in the city of Detroit,” Jordan Acker, a volunteer poll challenger for the Michigan Democratic Party and an attorney, told The Daily Beast of the Detroit protest. “It was a totally coordinated effort to stop Detroiters from having their voices heard.”
The Michigan Republican Party did not return a request for comment.
Trump’s legal team—including George W. Bush campaign veteran Mark “Thor” Hearne—asked a court in Michigan to halt absentee ballot counts because it alleged its observers had not been granted full access to the tally, and were not permitted to watch video footage of “remote and unattended dropboxes.” It brought a similar suit in Pennsylvania, fighting to stop the tabulation on the grounds that its overseers had not been allowed within 25 feet of the counting effort.
Further, it filed to enter an ongoing Supreme Court case, hoping to convince jurists on the highest bench to overturn a state policy that would allow counties to count votes postmarked on Election Day and received as late as Friday.
Jay Sekulow, a personal attorney and confidant of Trump’s, is overseeing the Supreme Court effort.
And in the afternoon, members of Trump’s family and another one of his personal lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, were heading to Philadelphia for a “press conference,” but they made a late diversion and chose to host it at a nearby airport.
During the presser, Giuliani declared the city’s count “totally illegitimate,” citing fabricated data, contextual-less anecdotes, and manufactured rumors of illegal voters.
The effort to swarm the sites and demand access to the vote counting operations had clear echoes to what Republicans did in Florida in 2000, when a group of young operatives famously caused a scene in Florida that became known as the Brooks Brothers Riots. Those operatives insisted that they were merely pushing for transparency to ensure a valid recourt. Officials on the ground in Miami-Dade said they felt it was an intimidation tactic.
At least one of the infamous Brooks Brothers rioters is a top ally of President Donald Trump. In an interview, Matt Schlapp declined to say if he was involved in any current effort. But he defended what was transpiring in Detroit, where pro-Trump rallies demannded that workers “stop the count” on grounds that it was a matter of election integrity.
“I can just reiterate that it is perfectly appropriate for voters to highlight any voting irregularity to the officials whose job it is to make sure there is no irregularity,” said Schlapp. “And if citizens want to get involved in that process, i think that’s a positive thing, not a negative.”
But others involved in that episode said the parallels don’t actually hold up well. For starters, Biden is currently leading in Michigan, making it unclear why the Trump side would want counting stopped. Doug Heye, another member of the 2000 crew, noted: “We wanted every vote counted and counted publicly.”
Those inconsistencies didn’t seem to bother the Trump team. Even before the clock struck noon on Wednesday, top players on the president’s campaign were already starting to bet everything on an armada of lawyers. Publicly, the campaign put on a determined, cocky face, with Trump’s campaign manager Bill Stepien and other aides assuring reporters that they were all still confident that, as the week progressed, the final ballot counts in the critical battleground states would hand them a clean, decisive victory.
However, before the morning even ended, three senior officials on the reelection effort were already telling The Daily Beast that they were confident the president’s best, if not only, hope in locking Biden out of the White House would be if the attorneys were able to successfully intervene in enough states.
“Lawyer city,” Joe Grogan, formerly a top domestic policy adviser to President Trump, said, describing the situation on Wednesday afternoon. “It’s going to be really ugly.”
--with reporting by Matt Taylor