President Trump went on to first reveal the investigation in an interview with Fox News Radio, where he, without evidence, argued that it bolsters his baseless claims of widespread fraud in mail-in voting.
"They were Trump ballots -- eight ballots in an office yesterday in -- but in a certain state and they were -- they had Trump written on it, and they were thrown in a garbage can. This is what’s going to happen," Trump said in the interview. "This is what’s going to happen, and we’re investigating that."
But a press release from the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, which announced the investigation in a press release later in the day, made no explicit mention of "fraud." The office said it "began an inquiry into reports of potential issues with a small number of mail-in ballots at the Luzerne County Board of Elections," and discovered nine ballots in a dumpster which were cast for Trump.
The office later corrected that number to seven and said two others were resealed inside their proper envelope. The investigation remains ongoing, but the U.S. attorney's office in a letter to the Luzerne County Board of Elections raised the specter that the improperly opened envelopes could possibly be the result of an administrative error.
"Our investigation has revealed that all or nearly all envelopes received in the elections office were opened as a matter of course," U.S. attorney David Freed said. "It was explained to investigators the envelopes used for official overseas, military, absentee and mail-in ballot requests are so similar, that the staff believed that adhering to the protocol of preserving envelopes unopened would cause them to miss such ballot requests."
According to the Pennsylvania Election Code, ballot envelopes cannot be opened until the canvass is under way, and it is incumbent on counties to properly store and maintain the security of returned ballots.
The series of events raised alarm among critics of the White House who accused the Justice Department of using an ongoing investigation to politically boost President Trump.
"This is an ongoing investigation where there is no public interest reason to override the usual policy of not commenting -- and especially not to say for whom the ballots were cast. An unprecedented in kind contribution to the president's campaign," Matthew Miller, the former director of the Justice Department's public affairs office, said on Twitter.
A DOJ official told ABC News that the department was in touch with the White House on Thursday about the investigation as reporters were continuing to seek information on what the president was referring to in his interview with Fox News.
Prior to the news release from the U.S. attorneys office, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany previewed in her press briefing that more information on the investigation would be forthcoming. Barr was made aware of the investigation after a number of local media outlets in Pennsylvania began reaching out to the U.S. attorney's office for more information and they sought guidance from Main Justice over how to respond, the official said.
"I can confirm for you that Trump ballots, ballots for the president were found in Pennsylvania," McEnany said. "I believe you should be getting more information on that shortly. Here in the last 24 hours, they were found cast aside."
Shortly after the announcement from the U.S. attorneys office, the White House and President Trump's campaign latched onto the investigation as proof behind the susceptibility of mail-in voting to rampant fraud.
"Democrats are trying to steal the election," Matt Wolking, the deputy director of communications and rapid response with the Trump campaign, tweeted falsely.