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Two retired War College professors say Doug Mastriano is unfit to be governor

William Bender
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — Tami Davis Biddle, the former chair of the faculty council at the U.S. Army War College, wrote in a Harrisburg newspaper recently that Doug Mastriano doesn't "deserve our trust or support."

Rick Coplen, another retired professor at the War College in south-central Pennsylvania — where Mastriano studied and taught — says the Republican gubernatorial candidate and his fellow election deniers pose an "existential threat" to American democracy.

"The guy is not fit for office," Coplen said.

James Gregory, a graduate history student at the University of Oklahoma, has been calling attention for nearly two years to what he describes as questionable conclusions and outright "fabrications" in Mastriano's published work on World War I.

"He's literally changing history," Gregory said last week, echoing the concerns of other researchers who have long criticized Mastriano's research on Sgt. Alvin York. Those concerns are now gaining traction.

And Jeffrey Brown, the University of New Brunswick professor who advised Mastriano on his doctoral dissertation before parting ways, warns that the retired Army colonel is a "dangerous" religious zealot with a "post-fact" worldview.

The Canadian university recently announced that, as a result of questions surrounding Mastriano's Ph.D., it is reviewing its internal processes for awarding doctorates.

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The four scholars told The Inquirer they are speaking publicly about Mastriano either due to what they see as an emerging pattern of academic falsehoods, or fears that he will interfere with future elections if he becomes governor.

"The fact that there are colleagues and associates of Mastriano's that are speaking up now, under ordinary circumstances would be highly unusual," said Brown, the UNB history professor. "But these circumstances, I think, are far from ordinary."

Mastriano, a right-wing state senator who espouses a Christian nationalist ideology, played a prominent role in Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and spread false information about the vote totals, some of which remains online today.

On Jan. 6, 2021, Mastriano bused more than 100 protesters to the "Stop the Steal" rally in Washington that devolved into the attack on the Capitol. He prayed on a Zoom call the week before that he and other MAGA adherents would be able to "seize the power" and keep Trump in office.

More recently, Mastriano has threatened to use the governor's office to decertify voting machines, force voters to reregister, and even make "corrections" to election results in Pennsylvania, likely a key swing state in 2024.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano talks to supporters during the Save America rally with former President Donald Trump at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 3, 2022. (Yong Kim/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

For Biddle, who retired last year after teaching for 20 years at the U.S. Army War College, watching Mastriano and other retired military officers attempt to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power was "the most painful thing I experienced in my professional career," she recently wrote in the Patriot-News.

Biddle also criticized U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, a retired brigadier general in the Army National Guard who tried to overturn the 2020 election and is seeking a sixth term in his Harrisburg-area district.

"The officer corps is sworn to defend the Constitution rather than any one person or president," Biddle wrote. "None of its members is entitled to toy with insurrection, treat Jan. 6 as legitimate protest, or follow election deniers who would undercut our most important political institutions."

Biddle told The Inquirer via email that she was dismayed to see Mastriano and Perry continue to meddle with the U.S. electoral system.

"As they push their personal agendas they are also pushing the nation to abandon the most important principles supporting and upholding our democracy and our representative government," Biddle said. "It's craven and reckless behavior."

Biddle said she felt a moral and ethical obligation to speak out.

"I didn't want to look back on this moment in time and regret a decision to stay silent," she said.

"Doug Mastriano is part of this whole effort to, quite frankly, undermine and destroy our democracy," Coplen said in an interview.

Coplen served in combat in Panama with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division and in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia. He describes himself as a left-of-center Democrat, and he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination this year in Perry's congressional district.

"But this is much more than that," Coplen said, referring to traditional partisan politics. "This is fundamental stuff about the strength of our democracy and our country."

Neither Perry nor Mastriano responded to a request for comment.

Perry, one of Trump's most loyal allies in Congress, had tried to have an ally installed atop the Justice Department who would back Trump's false claims about the election. Even after the Capitol riot, Perry sought to have Congress throw out Pennsylvania's nearly 7 million votes.

Later, he inquired about a potential pardon from Trump, according to testimony provided under oath by a former White House aide to Congress' Jan. 6 committee. Perry has called that statement a "soulless lie" but has refused requests to testify.

Mastriano was involved in Trump's failed effort to seat fake electors from Pennsylvania, and also staged a hearing in Gettysburg to spread conspiracies about the election. Trump himself called into the hearing and falsely claimed, "We won Pennsylvania by a lot."

During this year's gubernatorial race, Mastriano has continued to propagate the lie of a stolen election. In March, for instance, he spoke at a "voter integrity conference" where attendees signed a petition to decertify Pennsylvania's 2020 election result. He claimed that "behind my back the swamp rose up" to prevent him from pursuing voter fraud claims.

Another speaker at that event, Mike Lindell, the My Pillow founder, falsely claimed that Pennsylvania recorded more votes in 2020 than the number of registered voters — drawing applause from the crowd.

Dozens of state and federal judges, including Republicans, have dismissed lawsuits filed by Trump and his allies challenging the election results. William Barr, his attorney general at the time, said in June that he told the president the claims were "bull—."

With the Nov. 8 election drawing near, Democrat Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general, has a double-digit lead in most polls, while Mastriano has run a shoestring campaign and recently called for “40 days of fasting and prayer.” A conservative group that was running attack ads against Shapiro that were benefiting Mastriano recently pulled the ads.

Mastriano, who has surrounded himself with fringe religious figures and conspiracy theorists, seems to have abandoned any attempts to broaden his support beyond fervent supporters. On Friday, he appeared at a rally in Erie with Jack Posobiec, an alt-right activist known for spreading the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which posited that high-ranking Democrats were involved in a child-trafficking ring that operated out of the basement of a Washington pizzeria. (It does not have a basement.)

Meanwhile, Mastriano is embroiled in a growing controversy across the Canadian border, as the University of New Brunswick confronts allegations that he fabricated information in his doctoral dissertation about York, the World War I Army sergeant.

Brown, the history professor who had advised Mastriano on the project in 2012 and 2013, said he never signed off on the dissertation due to a wide range of concerns. He just learned last month, after UNB made the dissertation public, that his name was included on the final copy.

"I've been really embarrassed that UNB gave this guy a Ph.D., and my colleagues pushed it through," Brown told The Inquirer.

The university said in a statement following a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. report on the dissertation that it would hire independent experts to "review its internal processes and procedures to ensure our systems and policies around the awarding of PhDs remain of the highest standard."

Gregory, the University of Oklahoma graduate student who in early 2021 flagged problems in Mastriano's book on York, said he recently reviewed the dissertation and documented nearly 200 new problems, including cases in which Mastriano misrepresented source material cited in footnotes. He said it indicates a pattern of "academic fraud," rather than just sloppy work.

"There are cases where he's just lying. He's making it up," said Gregory, who first learned of the inaccuracies when he cited Mastriano's book for his own work. "You could claim it's shoddy or an accident — but not 213 times. They are deliberate."

A university spokesperson said in a statement Saturday: "We want to assure individuals with concerns that allegations of this nature are taken seriously and investigated accordingly. UNB has a clear policy for dealing with any allegations of research misconduct, which we follow in all cases."

Richard Yeomans, who is pursing a Ph.D. in history at UNB, said he and about a dozen other grad students are seeking answers from the university leadership. If the standards were lowered to enable Mastriano to obtain a doctorate, will future employers look unfavorably on other students with Ph.D.s from the university? A local newspaper recently asked that exact question.

"It's bad," Yeomans said. "It undermines the discipline. Not just the university, but the discipline of history."