President Donald Trump is the election meddler-in-chief.
In his latest assault on the integrity of November’s vote, Trump denigrated mail-in voting and in a staggering moment, appeared to suggest North Carolinians should try to vote twice — a potential crime — to test its security.
More evidence of meddling came earlier Wednesday with the news that Trump’s Department of Homeland Security withheld an intelligence bulletin warning of a Russian plot to spread misinformation about Joe Biden’s health, which mirrored the President’s own attacks. The report, first revealed by ABC News, followed the Director of National Intelligence’s decision to stop in-person lawmaker briefings about election interference — a move Democrats say could shield foreign actors who want to help Trump.
If the story of the 2016 election was a broad meddling operation by a foreign power to favor Trump, the emerging story of the 2020 election increasingly appears to be an attempt by the President to use executive power to swing the election his way. There has never been a modern American election in which a President has so publicly and unashamedly tried to portray the sacred quadrennial exercise in democracy as corrupt.
Trump’s attempt to discredit mail-in voting got a strong assist from Attorney General William Barr, who declared that changing to such a system would be “reckless and dangerous,” in an interview with 24newsreads.com on Wednesday.
“This is playing with fire. We’re a very closely divided country here,” Barr told 24newsreads.com’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.” Asked for evidence to defend his claim that foreign adversaries could dump large numbers of fraudulent mail-in ballots into the system, Barr told Blitzer: “Logic.” US intelligence officials have said there is no evidence to suggest that the election could be threatened in such a manner. Barr also claimed that China, not Russia, was the most active foreign foe in interfering in the election. Last month, intelligence officials said that while Beijing wanted Trump to lose, Russia was making a far more aggressive attempt to hurt Biden.
Barr’s comments will stir fresh concerns that he is acting as a political functionary for Trump rather than in the traditionally more neutral role expected of an attorney general. Such suspicions were provoked by the way he intervened to ease the political sting of the Mueller report and the probes he has set up apparently to discredit previous investigations into 2016 election interference.
An election that is already tainted
The President’s effort to discredit the election is not limited to his false and frequent claims that mail-in voting — a reassuring option for many voters amid a pandemic that has killed more than 185,000 Americans so far — is stained by massive fraud. The President has warned that the election will be the most corrupt in US history and said, without evidence, that Americans may never know who won. He also threatened to send US attorneys and sheriffs to polling places to ensure there is no fraud, a tactic that would be construed as voter intimidation, especially among minority voters given grim historic echoes.
Trump has no reservations about using the authority of the presidency to mess with democracy. After all, he was impeached for an audacious attempt to coerce a foreign power — Ukraine — into intervening in the election to hurt Biden’s campaign. And he has consistently rejected his own intelligence agencies’ assessments that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to help him — once, infamously at the side of President Vladimir Putin.
Trump’s latest attempt to cast doubt on the election comes as several new polls show he still trails Biden nationally, despite predictions by his campaign that convention season would dramatically narrow the gap. A new 24newsreads.com poll has Biden’s lead steady at 8 points, 51% to 43% among registered voters. A Quinnipiac University survey has Trump down 10 points.
Whether the President is seeking to construct a face-saving exit from power if he loses in November or is mounting a more overt effort to stack the deck, one thing is clear: Given his fervent support among tens of millions of Americans, the election — the bedrock of the country’s democratic government and rule by the people for the people — has already been deeply tarnished.
Trump’s warning could spark chaos at polling places
Each time the President speaks about mail-in voting, which he distinguishes from absentee voting but is functionally the same, he introduces more doubt about the integrity of a system used without problems in many states.
He seemed to suggest in an interview with a local station in Wilmington, North Carolina, on Wednesday that people should vote once by mail, then show up at their polling place to see if their preference had been registered.
“Well, they’ll go out and they’ll go vote, and they’re going to have to go and check their vote by going to the poll and voting that way, because if it tabulates then they won’t be able to do that,” Trump said.
“So let them send it in, and let them go vote, and if the system is as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote. If it isn’t tabulated they won’t be able to vote, so that’s the way it is. And that’s what they should do.”
Trump’s advice could lead to considerable chaos and recriminations at polling stations if it is followed by thousands of Republican voters. It could also lengthen the time that it takes for votes to be counted. Trump is already raising likely delays in tabulating results to claim, falsely, that the election is not secure.
There is also no current evidence to support his implication that significant numbers of mail-in votes could go astray or not be counted in the Tar Heel state. The North Carolina State Board of Elections says in voter advice on its website that there are “numerous safeguards” included in the absentee-by-mail voting process. It also says that if someone has “voted by absentee ballot and then shows up to vote in person, the check in system will alert the poll worker that the person has already voted.”
Patrick Gannon, the board’s public information officer, said people do not need to go to the polls on Election Day if their ballot has been counted.
“In fact, we’d strongly advise against that, to allow other people who haven’t yet cast a ballot to vote.”
The state’s Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein said he would do everything in his power to ensure the will of the people is upheld.
“President Trump outrageously encouraged NCians to break the law in order to help him sow chaos in our election. Make sure you vote, but do NOT vote twice!” Stein tweeted.
Voting arrangements, which vary from state to state, are often complicated and can confuse some voters. So at a minimum, it is irresponsible for a President, with all of his visibility and power, to repeatedly cast doubt on the system.
And more fundamentally, voting twice is illegal.
Barr appeared to support the President’s inflammatory suggestion that North Carolinians should try to vote twice to test the system.
“So let them send it in by mail and let them go vote, let them send in the ballot, and then let them go vote. And if the system is as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote,” Barr said on “The Situation Room.”
Long-term effects of a tainted election
Trump’s constant claims that the election will not be free and fair threaten to leave deep damage whoever wins in November.
If he loses but claims he was cheated, Trump will delegitimize the result among millions of voters who backed him but who might accept a loss if he graciously conceded, as is expected of every defeated presidential candidate who puts nation above self. An election seen as stolen by Trump could have unpredictable effects among those who believe they were disenfranchised.
The appearance of a tainted election would also shatter hopes that a Biden administration might harbor of uniting a divided nation and of summoning national resolve to finally prevail over a pandemic that Trump mismanaged.
It would also sow distrust of elections on the right, potentially for decades, further fueling conspiratorial fringe groups like QAnon.
And it would all seem so unnecessary given the facts.