Never mind meddling by Russia, China or Iran. The most dangerous threat to the integrity of November’s election is coming from the man sworn to protect it, the President of the United States.
Trailing badly in the polls, overtaken by the worst health crisis in 100 years and deprived of the cruising economy he had hoped to ride to a second term, President Donald Trump is actively trying to discredit an election that could see him turned out of office – or is at least preparing the groundwork for a bitter legal battle that could drag on for weeks in the event of a close result.
“If it’s not going to be an honest and fair election, people really need to think long and hard about it,” Trump said Thursday in some of the most foreboding and loaded comments ever uttered by a leader of the world’s most powerful democracy.
Trump is spewing outrageous falsehoods about nonexistent fraud in postal balloting. By his own admission, he’s choking off US Postal Service funding to make impossible a functioning vote-by-mail system, which would spare voters scared by the pandemic he’s failed to control. He’s making malicious claims that the most corrupt election in US history is looming. And he’s goading his own senior Justice Department officials, like FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General William Barr, to validate conservative media conspiracies that he was spied upon in the “crime of the century” by the Obama administration in 2016.
Trump went even deeper into outlandish conspiracy theories on Thursday when he amplified racially motivated whispers on the right that Democratic presumptive vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris is not qualified to serve – recalling the poison of the birtherism slurs he aimed at former President Barack Obama, with which he ignited his political rise.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden summed up all of these Trump attacks when he said, reacting to earlier comments in which the President had trashed postal balloting: “Pure Trump. He doesn’t want an election.”
It makes discomforting, but perfect, sense that a President who was impeached for abusing his power by trying to coerce a foreign nation, Ukraine, into interfering in the election to damage his opponent would do anything within – and beyond – his legitimate powers to save his skin in an election. Confident of impunity, Trump is now behaving in exactly the power-grabbing manner that was predicted when he was acquitted in his Senate trial.
Even before he was President, Trump and his campaign expected to benefit in 2016 from a Russian election interference scheme – which he publicly encouraged by asking Moscow’s hackers to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails, according to former special counsel Robert Mueller.
American democracy at stake
Trump’s full-bore effort to convince Americans that an election he may lose is corrupt is far more sinister than simply preparing a potentially face-saving exit from the White House.
The President’s voters and his conservative media enablers have shown that when it is coming from him, they are not too concerned about assaults on America’s constitutional norms and the institutions that hold presidents to account. That means Trump’s anti-democratic tendencies will not necessarily rebound against him with constituencies that voted for a strongman four years ago.
But Trump’s wild lies about election fraud are another example of how he prioritizes his personal advantage ahead of national interests and the health of the political system. Guaranteeing elections – the bedrock of a free society – and the institutions that support them is a fundamental duty of any president, bound up in the oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. The same goes for ensuring a peaceful transition of power – even if he loses, however personally sickening to Trump that may be.
Freedom erodes quickly when leaders with unaccountable power begin to discredit the mechanics of free and fair elections. While his US political rivals are far from having to worry about knocks on the door in the middle of the night, Trump is adopting the rhetoric of the autocrats he idolizes. Already, the period before and after the November 3 election is looking like one of the most perilous in recent US history.
If he loses the election but claims it was rigged, Trump will delegitimize the result among millions of voters who backed him but might accept a loss if he graciously conceded, as is expected of every beaten presidential candidate who puts nation above self.
The appearance of a tainted election would certainly shatter hopes that a Biden administration might harbor of uniting a deeply divided nation and of summoning national resolve to finally prevail over a pandemic that Trump mismanaged and ignored.
It would also sow distrust of elections on the right, potentially for decades, further fueling conspiratorial fringe groups like QAnon. A sense that Trump was trying to destroy a legitimate Democratic presidency would also exacerbate liberal fury, pouring gasoline on the current national political inferno.
A disputed election in 2020 would be far more corrosive to democracy even than the bitterly fought aftermath of the George W. Bush vs. Al Gore duel that was eventually decided by the Supreme Court in 2000. On that occasion, despite the resentment and huge stakes, it could be fairly argued that both candidates were democrats committed to the preservation of the US political system. That is a hard case to make 20 years later.
The President’s constant trashing of the US electoral system also has another menacing side effect: It throws open the door to the Russian election interference that Trump has refused to admit happened on his behalf in 2016 and that US intelligence agencies assess is happening again, with other US foes like China and Iran also mulling their own preferences for the next president. The influence and disinformation aspects of Moscow’s meddling operation in 2016 aimed to exploit and widen angry divides that already existed in American politics. The more the President creates discord and distrust in the electoral system, the easier that job becomes.
Senior intelligence and law enforcement officials are not worried that the President’s incessant warnings that foreign powers could flood the country with fake ballots are realistic. But they do fear that his rhetoric could provide fertile ground for their propagandists and misinformation farms, CNN reported last month.
“They can’t physically do anything about (mail-in ballots) but (they can) create social media narratives to create levels of doubt and play into the debate,” a law enforcement official said. “We are alert for the fact they may take doubts about mail-in ballots and exploit that online,” the official said.
Trump is frustrated conspiracies about 2016 are not prompting action
Trump’s aides and defenders have often suggested that critics who worry whether he will peacefully leave power or who fear he is trying to interfere in the election are paranoid and have a political agenda.
But the President – in one of the periodic lightning bolts of damning truth (like when he told NBC he had fired former FBI Director James Comey because of the Russia investigation) – exposed the extent of his own malfeasance in an interview with Fox Business News on Thursday.
He said that if the post office didn’t get the $25 billion in funding Democrats want to allocate in a stalled stimulus plan, it will not be able to handle a huge influx of mailed-in ballots in November. Trump, of course, is blocking that funding, though later, in a confusing monologue at the White House, he appeared to suggest he would not veto a putative bill that included it.
“They want $25 billion, billion, for the post office. Now they need that money in order to make the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump said on Fox Business, repeating his false claims that mail-in voting would be “fraudulent.”
“But if they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because you – they’re not equipped to have it,” Trump added.
There was another sign on Thursday that the President was getting antsy about the failure so far of the Justice Department to move against former Obama administration officials linked to the Russia investigation.
Prodded by friendly questions from Fox’s Maria Bartiromo, Trump lashed out at Wray – whom he appointed – and even seemed to cast doubt on the ultimate loyalty of Barr, who has repeatedly intervened in cases and controversies to Trump’s political benefit. The President appeared to be agitating for both men to effectively intervene in the election by producing evidence hurtful to his opponent.
“So Christopher Wray was put there. We have an election coming up. I wish he was more forthcoming. He certainly hasn’t been,” the President said.
“There are documents that they want to get, and we have said we want to get. We’re going to find out if he’s going to give those documents. But certainly he’s been very, very protective.”
Trump said Wray should provide more documents to prosecutor John Durham, who was tapped by Barr to lead the review into the origins of the Russia investigation in yet another exercise apparently designed to gut highly critical findings by Mueller about the President’s conduct.
More suspicion of the White House’s behind-the-scenes activity surfaced last week, when it emerged that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met with rapper Kanye West, who has announced a run for president that has no chance of winning electoral votes but that some critics have surmised could attract sufficient votes among young Black voters in states decided by razor-thin margins to drive down Biden’s share of the vote.
“We had a general discussion more about policy,” Kushner said Thursday, when asked about his encounter with West during a family vacation in Colorado.
That’s an answer that is unlikely to put concerns about the White House’s pre-election activity to rest.
Adam Levine, Manu Raju and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.