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CNN  — 

On Tuesday, in front of a crowd of conservative students, President Donald Trump went off-script to decry the push for more mail-in balloting in the 2020 election.

Here’s the key bit of what he said:

“No, mail-in ballots is a disaster for our country. It’s going to end up in a big – you know. Look, just – just forget about all of this stuff. Forget about speeches and teleprompters and all of that. They send out millions of ballots. Who’s getting them? How are they delivered? Who’s not getting them? Think of it. It’s going to be fraud all over the place. And if you look right now – if you look right now, look at all of the disputes they’re having on mail-in ballots….

…With mail-in ballots, you introduce something in the middle of an election year, and you have something where it’s very complex – you have no time to fix this very complex process. It’s very complex. This will be, in my opinion, the most corrupt election in the history of our country. And we cannot let this happen. They want it to happen so badly.”

Let’s start with this: There’s very, very little evidence in past elections that there is widespread election fraud – in either in-person voting or in mail-in balloting.

Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt tracked US elections from 2000 to 2014 in search of voter fraud, or, as he put it, a “specific, credible allegation that someone may have pretended to be someone else at the polls.”

How many examples did he find? Exactly 31 – out of more than 1 billion instances. Thirty-one! (That’s an infinitesimally small number.) That’s not to say that each of those 31 instances of attempted voter fraud isn’t worth an investigation. We don’t want any voter fraud. But it is to say that 31 instances out of more than 1 billion is nothing anywhere close to widespread voter fraud.

The Levitt study is far from the only one to draw such a conclusion. A five-year study on voter fraud commissioned by George W. Bush – a Republican – found that same conclusion as Levitt. Wrote The New York Times at the time: “The Justice Department has turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.”

As Fox News’ Chris Wallace put it last month: “I’ve done some deep dive into it, there really is no record of massive fraud or even serious fraud from mail-in voting.”

(Also, not for nothing: The last time there was a documented cast of mail-in or absentee ballot fraud was in a Republican primary in North Carolina in 2018.)

What Trump is saying is simply not borne out by established facts. So, why is he saying it?

Simple! Because he sees all of the polling out right now – and he knows that he has a very real chance of losing the November 2020 election to former Vice President Joe Biden. And that realization runs directly into Trump’s long-nurtured self-image as a 100% winner at all times.

And so, faced with an immoveable object and an unstoppable force, Trump cries foul. Or, more accurately, he cries “rigged” or “bias” or “corrupt.”

All Trump is doing with comments like the ones he made Tuesday night – and that he has said/tweeted repeatedly in recent months – is laying the foundation to say that if he loses the election to Biden, that it was also a sham and a hoax and he was cheated and he didn’t really lose and the “deep state” did it and they couldn’t beat him fair and square and a thousand other things.

Which would allow Trump to a) never have to admit he actually lost and b) preserve the possibility of running again in 2024. (And, yes, that is absolutely something that would be on the table if he loses to Biden this fall.)

Will it work? For his base, which it appears is all Trump cares about, the answer is likely “yes.” Now, that base isn’t big enough to alone win him a second term. But it is big enough to allow Trump to live in a post-November alternate reality where he didn’t lose but was cheated out of a second term by those scheming Democrats.

That sort of perception would deeply complicate the peaceful transition of power that America has long prided itself on. If you think Trump cares about that, you’re fooling yourself.