Behind the scenes, Democrats are preparing to confront President Donald Trump if he loses the election next month to Democrat Joe Biden – if Trump claims that the result is rigged, refuses to engage in a peaceful transition or tries to challenge the result through the courts, Congress or statehouses.
The Biden campaign and congressional Democrats are strategizing together to wage a post-election response to Trump on two fronts – anticipating both a legal challenge and a messaging war – as Trump’s attacks on the election have only intensified while he’s lagging in the polls two weeks ahead of Election Day, with voting already underway. Outside groups are also mobilizing to try to blunt any efforts to dispute the vote count after November 3.
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Trump has repeatedly made baseless claims that the election will be fraudulent and stolen from him, saying, “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” The President has also refused to say that he will accept a peaceful transfer of power. Though he said at Thursday’s NBC News town hall that he wants there to be a peaceful transfer of power, he again suggested he would not agree to it at a rally in Michigan on Saturday.
“They say we want a fair and friendly transition,” he said. “I say, ‘Really? Well, when I won you spied on my campaign.’”
Trump’s rhetoric has raised alarms among local officials worried about civil unrest or even violence in the aftermath of the election.
Democratic sources say that they are taking the President at his word. The Biden campaign is preparing for any number of legal contingencies that could arise if the vote is close, while lawmakers are preparing for plausible – and also quite implausible – scenarios that could arise if the presidential election were kicked to Congress to decide a winner. Democrats are also readying a response to Trump’s claims of fraud – which could cause his voters to doubt the legitimacy of the result, even if it’s a Biden landslide – with plans underway for nationwide protests should Trump try to dispute the result. They’re also working with social media companies to try to discourage a premature declaration of victory on election night.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats released a report on Sunday titled, “Counting Votes & What to Expect on Election Day,” aimed at preemptively pushing back on Trump’s claims of fraud, which details how not all states are likely to finish counting their votes on November 3.
“Despite the President’s false claims, according to the leading election experts in our country, voter fraud is nearly nonexistent,” the report says. “In some states, we may not know the winner on Election Night. That’s OK.”
Not taking any chances
While plans are being drawn up, there are concerns that Democrats simply won’t have the messaging horsepower to counter Trump’s bully pulpit – and Twitter account – if he claims victory on election night before states are called or claims that Democrats stole the election.
“We need to step up our messaging,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat. “There’s not an organized effort. We’re going to have to really move into hyper-drive here to counter that false and insidious narrative of the President and lower expectations about you’re going to know everything you need to know on November 3.”
Connolly added, “He is setting up a strawman and it has to be knocked down.”
The Trump campaign has defended the President’s rhetoric on voter fraud. In a statement, campaign spokeswoman Thea McDonald accused the media of “peddling liberal talking points and ignoring the President’s commitment to accept the results of a free, fair election.” Still, last month, Trump’s son Eric Trump told supporters in Nevada that Trump would concede if “he got blown out of the water,” according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
But Democrats say they aren’t taking any chances and fear that even if Trump steps down, he will undermine public trust in the results if he loses. A Biden campaign official told CNN the campaign is coordinating with Democrats on Capitol Hill and voting rights groups with messaging around Trump’s attacks on the integrity of the election. The campaign has also spoken with social media companies about combating misinformation and about the reporting of election results, the official said.
“Donald Trump can bluster and lie all he wants, but we’re confident that this election will be decided fairly, and we’ve built the largest voter protection program in history to prepare for any contingency and fight back against any attempt by Trump to interfere with the democratic process,” said Biden campaign spokesman Mike Gwin.
A senior Democratic congressional aide said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has held discussions weekly in leadership team meetings over messaging and that House Democrats are coordinating with the Biden campaign.
“The Biden campaign will obviously be in the driver’s seat,” the aide said.
Outside groups mobilize
Trump’s rhetoric about the election being stolen or rigged has mobilized both liberal activists and Washington veterans keen on ensuring the results of the election are trusted. They’re looking to provide air support should Trump launch a Twitter-driven protest of the results after Election Day.
Priorities USA, the largest Democratic super PAC backing Biden, is beginning to plan for the possibility that Trump will attempt to frame election results that favor Biden as illegitimate.
“We have begun making internal plans,” said Guy Cecil, who chairs the group. “We’re working with allied organizations to sort through our role both in terms of potential litigation and also what our role is in responding to the President.”
Two progressive advocacy groups, Stand up America and Indivisible, formed a bipartisan coalition of 100 advocacy groups called Protect the Results that’s organizing protests across the country should Trump try to challenge the results.
“We see these mobilizations as a critical way to counter any misinformation from Trump,” said Sean Eldridge, the founder of Stand up America.
A new bipartisan group of officials, called the National Council on Election Integrity, launched earlier this month with a campaign aimed at shoring up confidence in the election system. It includes Republicans like former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who was Secretary of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration; former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, a former GOP senator who served in the Obama administration; and former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, also a former GOP senator who served in the Trump administration.
After the election, Ridge said, the group’s focus will shift to ensuring a peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next, including continuing to push back on Trump’s efforts to undermine the legitimacy of late-counted ballots.
“Our purpose over the next couple of weeks is to make sure that every vote is counted, and that people are patient and wait for America’s voices to be heard,” Ridge told CNN. “And then ultimately work now to promote a peaceful transition of power that’s been going on ever since President George Washington left office.”
Bipartisan social media concerns
Trump’s use of social media to potentially raise doubts about the election results or prematurely declare victory is perhaps Democrats’ biggest concern. But Republicans, too, have their own complaints.
The Biden campaign official said there have been conversations with social media companies about fighting against election misinformation and the reporting of election results.
Both Facebook and Twitter have announced steps that they will take to push back on efforts to prematurely declare victory on Election Day. And Facebook has said it will bar political advertising after polls close on Election Day.
But Cecil said those steps are not only inadequate in his group’s view, they also disproportionately aid Trump and his allies, who are skilled at exploiting viral content, rather than paid advertising, to spread their messages.
“It does nothing but benefit Donald Trump and Republicans who are trying to sow confusion and misinformation,” Cecil said. “They’re not doing enough and what they’re doing is late in the game.”
Democrats are also anxious about how media organizations and social media accounts with large followings respond to or amplify the President’s comments. While Twitter has fact-checked a handful of Trump’s tweets about the election, the social media company’s rigid fact-check rules allow Trump to continue spreading false information about the election.
“It’s the tweets quoting him or headlines saying, ‘Trump refuses to concede citing voter fraud,’ that scares me,” the source said. “Just echoing what the President says on election night is a dangerous thing.”
Still, complaints about social media and the election have been bipartisan. Conservatives are furious with Twitter and Facebook after the social media giants took significant steps to limit the spread of a New York Post story about Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, sparking accusations that the companies were trying to protect Biden.
Challenges in the courts and Congress
In the event the election results are close, both the Biden and Trump campaigns have amassed hundreds of lawyers fanned out across the country for what would be the highest-stakes dispute after the polls closed: a contested result.
Election experts say another dispute like the Florida 2000 recount, where the winner of the presidential contest hung in the balance, is highly unlikely. But both sides are preparing for just such a scenario – and Trump has even said he’s expecting the election to go to the Supreme Court.
If any state comes down to the wire, the votes cast – especially through the mail – are likely to be scrutinized ballot-by-ballot, and that scenario is perhaps the most likely to wind up being challenged by the campaigns in courts.
But a post-election dispute could also play out on Capitol Hill. If there’s a debate over the electoral college results, the election could be thrown to an obscure 1800s-era law called the Electoral Count Act.
A group of House Democrats have been studying up on the law in anticipation of the election being thrown to Congress, said Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, a constitutional law professor who is part of the group.
“We’re going to have every constitutional and statutory tool on the table in preparation for defending the result,” Raskin said.
Democrats say they’re hopeful that in the event Trump loses the election, some of the congressional Republicans who have stood by his side for four years will begin distancing themselves from him, pointing to the pushback Trump received after he refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power.
Several Republican senators, including Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, have taken to publicly and privately criticizing Trump’s conduct in recent days.
Raskin said the political landscape after the election is declared – whether it’s on November 3 or days or weeks afterward – will depend on the margin of victory.
“Obviously, the bigger the landslide,” Raskin said, “the easier it will be to defend the result.”
Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.