President Donald Trump on Thursday refused to back down from his suggestion earlier in the day that the November general election be postponed, repeating unsubstantiated predictions of widespread voter fraud amid the coronavirus pandemic and saying that large numbers of mail-in ballots might mean “you never even know who won the election.”
The president’s extraordinary proposal, which he is not constitutionally empowered to enforce, represented his first attempt at floating a suspension of the election less than 100 days away.
“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” Trump wrote on Twitter in the morning. “It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
Hours later, he appeared to launch a partial clean-up of the suggestion after it was roundly rejected by members of his own party.
“Glad I was able to get the very dishonest LameStream Media to finally start talking about the RISKS to our Democracy from dangerous Universal Mail-In-Voting” Trump said Thursday afternoon, reiterating that he “totally” supports absentee voting.
The president added that in his view it was imperative to find out who won the election on election night, “not days, months, or even years later,” as some election experts have indeed warned that a drastic surge in mail-in ballots might mean a close race isn’t called on the evening of Nov. 3.
He also vowed that he would win the 2020 election, despite recent polling suggesting trouble for the president.
He reiterated those views in a coronavirus briefing at the White House later, ignoring multiple opportunities to walk back his proposal but insisting that he didn’t want to see the election delayed.
“Do I want to see a day change? No. But I don’t want to see a crooked election,” he told reporters, asserting without evidence that a 2020 election in which large swaths of voters cast their ballots by mail would be “the most rigged election in history.”
“I don’t want to see an election — you know, so many years I’ve been watching elections,” Trump added. “And they say the projected winner or the winner of the election. I don’t want to see that take place in a week after Nov. 3 or a month or, frankly, with litigation and everything else that could happen, in years, years, or you never even know who won the election.”
Virtually all public polling of the White House race shows Trump trailing by significant margins nationally and in battleground states, and his initial tweet Thursday morning came minutes after the Commerce Department reported that the pandemic had inflicted the worst economic contraction in modern American history.
As the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States has worsened in recent months, prominent Democrats have cautioned that the president might seek to seize upon the public health crisis to question the legitimacy of the election or even defy its results.
“Mark my words, I think he is going to try to kick back the election somehow, come up with some rationale why it can’t be held,” former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said in April.
Trump rejected Biden’s warning days later at a news briefing conducted by the White House coronavirus task force.
“I never even thought of changing the date of the election,” he said. “Why would I do that? November 3rd. It’s a good number. No, I look forward to that election.”
Trump’s reelection team was similarly dismissive at the time of Biden’s remarks.
“Those are the incoherent, conspiracy theory ramblings of a lost candidate who is out of touch with reality,” Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, said in a statement.
Matt Wolking, the Trump campaign’s deputy communications director, tweeted at the time: “Joe Biden’s conspiracy theory is irresponsible and has no basis in reality.”
The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, generated controversy in May when he said he was unsure whether he could “commit one way or the other” to holding the election as scheduled.
Kushner sought to clarify his comments hours later, saying he had not been involved in and was unaware of “any discussions about trying to change the date of the presidential election.”
Biden has argued that while the coronavirus might force changes to the way voting is conducted, the election should not be delayed.
“I’d much prefer to have on — you know, in-person voting, but it depends. It depends on the state of play,” he said in April. “But we cannot, we cannot delay or postpone a constitutionally required November election.”
The date for the presidential election has been set in law by Congress since 1845 as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
In a statement provided Thursday to POLITICO, Hogan Gidley, the Trump campaign’s national press secretary, said the president’s tweet was “just raising a question about the chaos Democrats have created with their insistence on all mail-in voting.”
“They are using coronavirus as their means to try to institute universal mail-in voting, which means sending every registered voter a ballot whether they asked for one or not,” Gidley said, adding that “universal mail-in voting invites chaos and severe delays in results.”
The Trump campaign has sought to draw a distinction between universal mail-in voting and absentee voting, similar to how the president did in his tweet Thursday.
Justin Clark, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, told POLITICO earlier this month that Democrats were working to sow confusion ahead of the election and fundamentally change the process by which the country votes.
“Contrary to what some in the media and on the left claim, there are significant differences between absentee voting and universal vote-by-mail,” Clark said in a statement.
“If a voter can’t make it to the polls, they can request an absentee ballot,” he said, repeating his claims about fraud affecting “100% vote-by-mail” elections.
However, the president often muddles the two terms, and the Trump campaign has refused to clarify his positions on voting by mail.
The Trump campaign did not answer a list of specific questions from POLITICO earlier this month, instead providing only Clark’s statement.
POLITICO asked whether the president supports no-excuse absentee voting, or whether he thinks all voters should have a valid excuse to vote absentee.
The majority of states allow for no-excuse absentee voting, meaning anyone can request an absentee ballot.
POLITICO also asked whether the president still opposed mailing out absentee ballot request forms, not the ballots themselves, after criticizing such a policy in Michigan.
Trump has tweeted that absentee ballots “are a great way to vote for the many senior citizens, military, and others who can’t get to the polls on Election Day.” He deemed them to be “fine” because “a person has to go through a process to get and use them.”
Voting rights experts say there is no difference between the terms mail-in voting and absentee voting, and some jurisdictions such as Florida have scrubbed the latter term to avoid confusion among voters.
Republicans have actively promoted requesting absentee ballots in no-excuse states, including Pennsylvania and Florida.
In November, 42 states and the District of Columbia will effectively allow for, at a minimum, no-excuse absentee balloting — meaning any voter, regardless of age, health or location on Election Day will be able to vote by mail should they choose to do so.
Of those states, just seven are planning to proactively mail every voter a ballot. Five do it as a regular course — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — while California and Vermont, along with the District of Columbia, have announced their intention to do so because of the pandemic.
An analysis last month of voting in three of those states that send ballots routinely found that officials identified an infinitesimal amount of potentially fraudulent ballots.
House Democrats did pass a bill in May that would mandate all voters be sent a ballot in the case of an emergency, along with other sweeping changes to the American electoral system.
But the legislation faces ardent opposition from Senate Republicans, and it is exceedingly unlikely to become law.
The remaining eight states, including the large states of Texas and New York, require a valid excuse for a voter to request an absentee ballot for November.
Despite the president’s repeated insistence to the contrary, cases of election fraud in the U.S. are exceedingly rare.
Experts acknowledge that there are some slightly higher fraud risks associated with mail-in balloting when proper security measures are not put in place.
Beyond his allegations of potential voter fraud, Trump has also claimed that mail-in voting would yield unfavorable electoral results for the Republican Party.
Nonetheless, GOP political operatives have embraced vote-by-mail, and a recent study found that it does not benefit one party over another.
Roughly 57.2 million Americans participated in the 2016 election via early, absentee or mail-in voting, including active duty military who live either overseas or in the U.S. outside their home voting jurisdiction. That total represented 2 in 5 of all ballots cast.
Trump voted by mail in Florida’s primary in March, and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has repeatedly voted in Florida while out of state — including when she worked in Washington and had a New Jersey driver’s license that indicated she was not a Florida resident.
Still, at the White House on Thursday Trump claimed that conducting an election heavy in mail-in ballots would be “very unfair” to the country, and that doing so would make the U.S. “a laughingstock all over the world.”
He also accused his opponents of trying to conceal what he asserted was rampant fraud for mail-in ballots.
“That’s common sense,” he asserted. “Everyone knows it. Smart people know it. Stupid people may not know it. And some people don’t want to talk about it. But they know it.”
He skirted a question about whether he intended the “net effect” of his comments to cast doubt on the results of the November election, contending that his comments “had a tremendous impact” and had provoked Americans to look more closely at voting by mail.
The president’s accusations of voter fraud extend back to the 2016 election and do not apply exclusively to voting by mail.
During his previous campaign for the White House, Trump promoted various theories preemptively casting doubt on the results of the “rigged” election, including his claim that 1.8 million dead people “are registered to vote, and some of them absolutely vote.”
After he was elected in November 2016, Trump claimed without evidence that millions of people voting illegally cost him the popular vote.
And in 2018, he disbanded a controversial commission that was charged with investigating his unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud during the election.
His comments on Thursday earned him nearly universal condemnation, even among his top allies in the Republican Party.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who as president pro tempore of the Senate is in the line of succession for the presidency, dismissed Trump’s tweet as the president’s own personal opinion and pointed out that it would take an act of Congress to change the date of a federal election.
“It doesn’t matter what one individual in this country says,” Grassley said. “We still are a country based on the rule of law. And we must follow the law until either the Constitution is changed or until the law is changed.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also pushed back on Trump. “No way should we ever not hold an election on the day that we have it,” McCarthy told reporters.
At least one ally and defender of the president, Federalist Society co-founder Steven Calabresi, used Trump’s tweet to call for his removal from office.
“I am frankly appalled by the president’s recent tweet seeking to postpone the November election,” Calabresi wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times.
“Until recently, I had taken as political hyperbole the Democrats’ assertion that President Trump is a fascist,” he continued. “But this latest tweet is fascistic and is itself grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment again by the House of Representatives and his removal from office by the Senate.”
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