President Donald Trump, his campaign, and his supporters are gearing up to manufacture a political crisis on Election Day.
The president declared at a rally on Sunday that the winner of Tuesday’s presidential contest must be declared by the end of the day—never mind that states routinely take days or even weeks to tally up presidential vote totals and certify official results. The comments came shortly after a report from Axios that the president is planning to preemptively declare himself the winner on Tuesday if early returns from in-person voters, in enough states to give him an electoral college win, appear to be tilting in his direction—even though the full tally of mail-in votes from states, which are expected to more heavily favor Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, will still be out.
Trump denied the report. But in a quick briefing with reporters, he pledged that his team of lawyers would move quickly the night of the election to petition the courts to, ostensibly, challenge the legitimacy of a category of ballots that were mailed in before the end of Election Day but arrived after it was over. Different states have different laws that govern those ballots, but the Supreme Court has already ruled, in several cases, to allow their submission based on the applicability of state laws. Trump called the court’s rulings “terrible.”
“We’re not gonna let that happen to us with these ballots,” he had declared at a campaign stop earlier in the day. “Does this mean we go and we wait, so it’s not Nov. 3, it’s much later than that? We should know the result of the election Nov. 3, the evening of Nov. 3. That’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it should be.”
In fact, that’s not the way it’s ever been in the history of American elections. Vote counts routinely continue in the days after presidential elections. No state has ever reported its final presidential vote tally on the day of an election. And unofficial projections by news organizations gaming out election returns and exit polls as they come in have famously resulted in retractions as more votes are counted.
The Trump campaign nonetheless sought to falsely portray votes counted after Nov. 3—as millions of votes are every election—as votes “stolen” from the president’s re-election effort. “President Trump will be ahead on election night, probably getting 280 electoral [votes], somewhere in that range, and then they’re going to try to steal it back after the election,” declared senior campaign adviser Jason Miller on ABC’s This Week on Sunday.
The misinformation emanating from the Trump campaign on Sunday was egregious enough that the Republican lieutenant governor of Utah, who is also a candidate for governor on Tuesday, felt obliged to step in and correct the record. “Please ignore this type of garbage,” he wrote on Twitter in response to Miller’s comments. “The truth is that elections are never decided on election night.”
Brendan Buck, a former senior aide to Republican House Speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner, was similarly incredulous. “I really urge my Republican friends, wherever you come down on Trump, not to give any legitimacy to BS that people who voted according to their local rules should not have their ballot count,” he wrote on Twitter. “Just don’t go there.”
What Trump remembers as election night victories in prior presidential cycles were actually projections put out by major news organizations based on their calculations of votes already tabulated and the resulting prospects for the election generally. But the unprecedented numbers of mail-in votes this cycle mean a prolonged official tabulation process—and far less real-time data on election night.
That will make it far more difficult for any news organization to predict Tuesday’s winner on election night. And it raises the stakes significantly for those outlets, which now must contend with one of the two major political parties either prematurely declaring victory or quickly moving to discredit their work specifically and the election results writ large.
Over the past several weeks, numerous television and print media organizations have been running simulations to prepare journalists for various real and somewhat out-there scenarios, including the possibility that one of the candidates declares victory early. One NBC insider told The Daily Beast that NBC News ran a simulation in which the Trump campaign emailed supporters declaring victory on election night.
All this has come against the backdrop of Trump supporters around the country engaging in menacing, occasionally violent, and potentially criminal efforts to intimidate the political opposition.
On Sunday, there were several reports of traffic jams being caused on major highways as Trump-supporting caravans took to the streets with their Trump flags adorning their cars. In Georgia, Democrats said they had canceled a rally because a large pro-Trump militia presence was expected. Earlier in the weekend, a group of Trump-supporting drivers nearly ran a Joe Biden campaign bus off the road in Texas.
Trump sent out an appreciative tweet of that Texas caravan on Saturday and later criticized the FBI for reportedly looking into the incident. On Sunday morning, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel was saying she hadn’t seen the video the president had approvingly tweeted.
“Certainly you don’t want harm, and we shouldn’t be hurting other people,” she told CBS’ Face the Nation. “So the president would not endorse that.”
Trump’s actions over the election’s closing stretch indicate that he and his team are prepared to take extraordinary actions to try to either delegitimize the results or create the political and legal circumstances to bend it their way after Nov. 3. A source with direct knowledge of the matter told The Daily Beast on Sunday that the president has stressed that he wants Republican lawyers on standby and “ready to fight” any potential legal battles with the Democrats.
Over the past week, moreover, the campaign has quietly amended a portion of its online donation page affecting recurring contributions, or donations that are charged to a donor’s credit card periodically throughout the election cycle.
Until late last week, that donation page said the contributions would recur through Election Day on Nov. 3. Now the page says recurring donors’ credit cards will continue to be hit through the middle of December. Those post-election contributions could be used to help finance legal battles or other expenses that arise in the event that the race is prolonged by an extended period of vote-counting.
The campaign didn’t respond to questions about that change, and whether, or for what purpose, they expect to need additional funds in the weeks after voters go to the polls.
But some Trump true believers are hoping it doesn’t come down to having the lawyers swoop in. “I think we win big enough that mail-in delayed counts won’t matter,” said one senior aide on Team Trump.