President Donald Trump’s barrage of challenges to the reputation, structures and traditions of elections is conjuring up a contentious and potentially constitutionally critical three-month period for America’s democracy.
Trump is casting false accusations of massive fraud in mail-in voting, though has now reversed his position on the practice in must-win Florida, leaving the absurd impression it’s only fair in states with Republican governors.
“I’m doing our country a big favor by bringing it up, and you know, from a common sense standpoint, if you look at it just out of common sense and pure basic beautiful intelligence – you know it can’t work,” Trump said Wednesday.
Trump has baselessly claimed that the result of the November 3 vote will not be known for “years” – apparently seeking to discredit in advance an election that polls suggest he is currently losing to Democrat Joe Biden.
His campaign has now also initiated a new attempt to wring advantage from the customary arrangements for three presidential debates. It wants a fourth encounter added and for the clashes to start before the scheduled date of September 29, to take into account early voting that starts in some key states six weeks before the election.
“Move the First Debate up,” Trump tweeted on Thursday morning.
This request makes a fair point and is well within traditional parameters of jockeying for position over debates conducted by past presidential campaigns. But Trump’s comment in his tweet that the debates are a “public service” is undermined by his campaign’s evidence-free claims that Biden is running away from debating him at all. And the campaign also submitted a list of potential moderators, including Fox News hosts, conservative commentators who’ve given him easy interviews, and opinion journalists who have published work supportive of his presidency.
Now the President says he may deliver his speech to the virtual Republican National Convention from the South Lawn of the White House, obliterating the tradition of presidents seeking to safeguard their office from politicization.
Some of these steps, like trying to shape the conditions of mail-in voting, are not necessarily sinister and fall more into the category of legal challenges frequently made by both parties to win advantage within the structure of elections. But others come across as the actions of a campaign that believes its own claims it is winning.
Demanding more debates – as Trump is doing – is a time-honored tactic of a trailing candidate needing a game-changer. The upshot of Trump’s complaints on mail-in voting often appears to be an attempt to limit the number of people can vote – when they may fear showing up to a polling place during a pandemic exacerbated by his own mistakes. There is also a key attempt by the Trump campaign to lay the groundwork for legal and political challenges that could discredit Biden’s victory if he wins and to give Trump’s ego an out if voters reject him.
None of this is surprising. After all, the President made inaccurate claims of massive voter fraud in the popular vote in the election that he won in 2016.
The evidence in the impeachment trial strongly suggested that the President used his power in an attempt to coerce a foreign power into interfering in the election based on false claims of corruption against Biden.
And as President, Trump has relentlessly attacked institutions that have held him to account and countered his false narratives, including the courts, the press, US intelligence agencies and independent government watchdogs. Casting doubt on election institutions is consistent with his normal behavior.
For his entire life in business before he entered politics, Trump bent rules, laws, traditions and ethics. His willingness to do so now signals that he is prepared to do anything within his power to win the election. And it suggests that he’s also willing to drag the country through a corrosive period of legal and political brinkmanship if the election is close.
If he loses power in such circumstances, Trump’s tactics could sow a sense of grievance and disenfranchisement among his voters that would shatter his successors’ attempts to forge unity and could damage US democracy for years ahead.
A politically motivated reversal
The President introduced a new caveat to his opposition to mail-in voting on Wednesday that may reflect concern among Republicans that he risks suppressing his own vote in several tight swing states.
If the system is up and running in a state with a Republican, and presumably pro-Trump governor, it’s fine. Elsewhere, it’s mired in fraud.
“In Florida, they’ve done a very good job with it. In Nevada, it would be a disaster. In New York, it’s been a disaster. In many other places, it’s been a total catastrophe,” Trump claimed on Wednesday in one of those rare flashes of candor that perfectly reveals his true motives.
Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey walked a fine line when he met Trump at the White House.
“In Arizona, we’re going to do it right. It will be free and fair. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to cheat. And it will be easy to vote,” he said, noting that 78% of Grand Canyon Staters already voted by mail.
But he also warned: “This is no time to experiment. This is a time to go with the tried and true, and in Arizona, our system works very well.”
The President has made multiple false claims about fraud in mail-in voting. He has warned that the process is vulnerable to forgery and that ballots will be illegally printed and fraudulently signed and that foreign powers will find it easy to inject millions of false voting papers into the system.
US intelligence officials last week discounted the possibility that foreign nations could flood the election with fake ballots.
There is little evidence that mail-in voting is any more susceptible to fraud than any other kind of voting. And irregularities remain exceedingly rare in US elections, according to multiple academic studies.
Trump also makes a flawed distinction between absentee ballots and mail-in ballots. And he claimed on “Fox and Friends” Wednesday for instance that in Nevada “anybody that ever walked” will get a ballot. That’s not true – the state plans to send out ballots to all active registered voters who can only be adult citizens of the United States. The President is making claims of fraud in New York primary elections in which counting has been slow. But there’s no evidence there’s cheating.
Like all the conspiracy theories that he’s advanced in office, it doesn’t matter from his point of view if he is being truthful. Trump’s goal is to create uncertainty and doubt among voters about the election in order to advance his political goals and destroy any objective view of reality.
If the President was really concerned about the efficiency of the election machinery, he could do something about it. Instead, it has been congressional Democrats along with a few Republicans who have pushed to increase funding for the election in stimulus bills.
The President has tweeted that there is no way that the Post Office could “handle the Traffic of Mail-In Votes without preparation.”
But the agency said in a statement on Monday that it had “ample” capacity to meet projected election demand.
The appointment of a Trump loyalist, Louis DeJoy, to head the agency was a warning flare for Democrats. A slowing of delivery times by new procedures has sparked so far unproven accusations of a deliberate effort to delay the distribution of mail-in ballots. And Trump has resisted efforts to offer more funding to the USPS, with which he has held a long-term grudge.
Trump, as he trails Biden in most polls, has a strong incentive to maximize the televised chances for him to goad his opponent into a disastrous mistake. His campaign on Wednesday asked the Commission on Presidential Debates for a fourth encounter – in a legitimate attempt to press for changes.
But its motives are questionable since pro-Trump figures on conservative media have launched a baseless campaign to portray Biden as running away from debates.
“Joe Biden will be there. We await Donald Trump’s decision – and perhaps the president should put as much time into managing COVID as does into this,” Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement on Wednesday.
Campaigns often squabble about moderators. But the Trump campaign is again pushing boundaries.
On Wednesday, the President’s camp released a list of suggested moderators including down-the-line journalists such as Norah O’Donnell and Major Garrett of CBS. But it also featured several Fox anchors known for friendly treatment of the President, such as Maria Bartiromo and radio host Hugh Hewitt, who just penned a strongly pro-Trump op-ed in The Washington Post.
This gambit prepared the way to falsely paint other potential mainstream moderators who have exposed Trump’s lies as biased – and to therefore lessen the possibility the President will be held accountable in debates.
Once, again, as with the campaign against mail-in voting, and the potential use of the people’s house – the White House – as a political backdrop, the Trump campaign appears to be pushing for advantage outside reasonable limits.
There is a clear attempt to erode the arrangements that have guaranteed a peaceful transfer of power for generations, and to offer him a way out should his own hyperbolic predictions of success not materialize.