As much of the political world went into an uproar over Donald Trump floating the idea of delaying the November election, inside the president’s orbit, his Thursday morning tweet suggesting just that was seen as something far narrower and more strategically focused.
The president isn’t really trying to delay the vote. He is trying to preemptively delegitimize the likely results.
Two administration officials and another individual close to the president say that what they saw Thursday morning was the most recent tantrum—“frustration,” as one of the officials put it—of a president in search of a scapegoat in case he’s denied a second term. None of these sources said they were aware of any serious effort to trample the clear constitutional guidelines and delay a presidential election.
“He is terrified of losing this one,” said the person close to Trump. “I have heard him say more times than I can count how insane it would be to live in a country where the people could possibly prefer this guy, Joe Biden, over [the president] and think that this buffoon could be a better leader than Trump.”
Asked at his press conference Thursday about the tweet, Trump said “it doesn’t need much explanation” before launching into a lengthy assertion of claims that there would be widespread fraud in the election due to the use of mail-in ballots, relying heavily on reports of delays and irregularities in New York City’s primaries.
“I just feel, I don’t want to delay, I want to have the election. But I also don’t wanna have to wait for three months and then find out the ballots are all missing and the election doesn't mean anything,” said the president. “That’s whats gonna happen… smart people know it. Stupid people may not know it.”
“Do I want to see a change? No,” said Trump, when pressed on whether he actually meant to change the election’s date or if he meant to sow doubt in the outcome. “I don’t want to see a crooked election.”
Even if Trump’s tweet about delaying an election—an act for which an army of legal scholars noted Trump lacks the authority—was just a bluff, it underscored a reality that isn’t much more reassuring: The president and his allies have been busy for months sowing doubt about the credibility of an outcome in which Trump isn’t the victor. And they’ve done so through increasingly baseless, self-serving means, including by directing tens of millions of dollars in advertising, multipronged legal action, and nonstop messaging, towards attacking the practice of voting by mail.
On Thursday, following the president’s morning tweets, Trump’s lieutenants made clear that that was Team Trump’s primary concern: turning voting-by-mail, a well-established and fairly common practice in American elections, into a convenient bogeyman.
“The president is just raising a question about the chaos Democrats have created with their insistence on all mail-in voting,” alleged Hogan Gidley, the Trump campaign’s national press secretary. “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.”
Across town on Capitol Hill, the president hitting the send button on the Thursday tweet sparked a time-honored reaction: Republicans ducking and claiming they didn’t see it. For those who copped to looking, nearly all pointed out that Trump lacked the authority to follow through on his presumed threat. Others suggested he was merely joking.
“I don’t know how else to interpret it,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told The Daily Beast. “All you guys in the press, your heads will explode and you’ll write about it.”
But on the question of whether Trump’s words served to sow discord over the trustworthiness of the election, a familiar split developed, with lawmakers close to the president validating his stated concerns about mail-in ballots, and his critics expressing fear that Trump’s tweet was posted in earnest.
Asked if she was concerned that Trump’s tweet would undermine public trust in the election, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) quickly said yes. “I think that we should all be working to shore up the faith in our electoral system,” Murkowski said.
And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has formally warned against undermining trust in U.S. elections, told The Daily Beast he wished Trump hadn’t said what he did.
“He can suggest whatever he wants,” Rubio added. “We're going to have an election, it's going to be legitimate, it's going to be credible.”
Even a co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society expressed horror at Trump’s tweet.
“Until recently, I had taken as political hyperbole the Democrats’ assertion that President Trump is a fascist. 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,” Steven Calabresi wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times.
Many Republicans were content to sidestep questions about the impact of Trump’s words on the public’s trust in elections. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) responded by saying that Trump was raising legitimate concerns about mail-in voting. But he also expressed confidence in the electoral process. “I feel like we’ll be ready to go in November, and we’ll have a free and fair election,” said Graham.
While Trump’s main objective may have been to seed doubts about the outcome of the election, the fact that he expressed it shows the erosion of bulwarks against authoritarianism, according to lawyers and scholars. They warned that those safeguards depend in large part on Republican condemnation. The fact that they weren’t, said Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor, poses an urgent threat to U.S. political stability, particularly as Trump “surges” federal agents into what he describes as Democratic-controlled cities against protesters he conflates with terrorists.
“Republican leaders have to denounce this. Trump is testing the waters, like he always does,” said Stanley. “The worry is that after multiple presidential elections in which the minority party won and governed in a way untethered from its electoral support, American democracy is seriously challenged.”
Legal scholars agree that the law provides no authority to the president to delay an election, but instead leaves that power in the hands of Congress. In 2014, a Congressional Research Service report assessed the prospect of delaying an election due to a “sufficiently calamitous” terrorist attack. It concluded that while the Executive Branch held “significant delegated authority regarding some aspects of election law, this authority does not currently extend to setting or changing the times of elections.”
But the Trump years have provided routine lessons about the fragility of American institutions as bulwarks against authoritarianism. Jameel Jaffer, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, said that beyond the illegality of delaying the election, it was significant that Trump believed he possessed the power to delay it.
“There’s a difference between saying, ‘He’s not allowed to do this’ and saying, ‘He won’t do it,’” Jaffer said. “That’s what’s most disturbing here, not the possibility they come up with a colorable argument, but that the president will act in spite of the absence of any colorable legal argument.”
A Justice Department spokesperson did not reply to a query about any recent guidance its Office of Legal Counsel has offered on the issue. During Tuesday testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, Attorney General William Barr said he had “never looked into” whether the president could override statutes establishing the date of the presidential election. Barr also demurred when asked if he committed the department to noninterference in a contested election outcome, saying merely, “I will follow the law.”
Several prominent Trump allies—including some of his chummiest advisers and most hardened legal defenders—dismissed the notion that he could or would push the election back. In a brief phone conversation, celebrity attorney and Harvard Law figure Alan Dershowitz, a member of the defense team during Trump’s impeachment trial, said, “The answer is clear: only Congress can change the date of the election. A president doesn't have the authority… Of course, any citizen has the right to ask Congress to make a change, but I can’t imagine that they would do that.”
But others close to the president kept the door propped conspicuously open. Testifying on Thursday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an attorney, said about presidential authority to delay an election, “In the end, the Department of Justice, others will make that determination.”
Stanley, who authored the book How Fascism Works, said the presence of federal law enforcement in American cities rendered it “a dangerous time” for Trump to “raise doubts about the election in case he loses.” He noted that in Portland, agents from the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security “went and did what Trump wanted them to do” while using the language of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency to justify suppressing protesters.
Vigilante violence tied to the election is also possible in the event that Trump disputes the outcome. Armed accelerationist elements like the Boogaloo Bois, a meme-turned-militant movement, seek a civil war or a race war. In Louisville over the weekend, opposing armed militias assembled at a rally for Breonna Taylor but avoided violence.
Historically, “it’s very familiar when you have a militarized force used to going after foreign enemies and then allowed to operate domestically to separate citizens from noncitizens, and now the worry is they’ll be sent against protesters and demonstrators, and all of this is worrisome ahead of the election,” Stanley said. “Unfortunately, this is on the Republican Party, and unfortunately, the Republican Party has not been acting like a party in a democracy for quite some time.”