At rallies across the Midwest and Sun Belt swing states, President Donald Trump has been openly discussing murky schemes to prevent legitimate ballots from being counted, escalating threats to disenfranchise millions of American as the weeks-long voting season ends tonight and his pathway to reelection becomes increasingly narrow.
“The Election should end on Nov. 3, not weeks later!” the president said on Friday. He repeated the claim at an event in Dubuque, Iowa on Sunday, adding falsely, “That’s the way it’s been, and that’s the way it should be.”
Democrats have been clear in their condemnations of the president’s comments, which they consider the most worrisome of Trump’s four years in office, which were often marked by anti-democratic rhetoric.
“When Donald Trump says, ‘I think I deserve a third term, or I think the election should end on election night, that’s the way it’s always been,’ I don’t think he’s joking. I think we should take him deadly seriously,” said Democratic senator and top Joe Biden surrogate Chris Coons. He compared Trump’s statements to aspiring autocrats in young democracies that he dealt with when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on African Affairs. “We would rally the international community and say, ‘No, you should not do that. It’s not a good idea. That violates the norms of democracy.’”
But most Republicans, from critics to allies of Trump, have remained publicly silent. It’s not new for Trump’s party brethren to duck and cover when he says something troubling. But after five years of perfecting the art of explaining how they “didn’t see the tweet” — the much parodied talking point to which Republicans on Capitol Hill often resort — it is shocking but not surprising that they aren’t speaking up now, even when the integrity of America’s electoral system is under attack by their party’s leader.
Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii called Trump’s weeks-long campaign to discredit election results an “incompetent attempt at autocracy.”
“There are lots of reasons to believe that what Trump is talking about or contemplating cannot be accomplished,” said Schatz, who is outraged by the dearth of Republicans who have criticized the president’s false statement about when ballots are counted. “But if your plan includes congressional Republicans standing up to Trump, you need a new plan.”
Efforts to solicit on the record comment from a broad range of party leaders Monday were met with indifference.
Sen. Ben Sasse didn’t respond to a DM. Chris Christie didn’t return a text. A message to the spokesman for Sen. Josh Hawley, an up-and-comer in the party, went unanswered. Sen. Lindsey Graham didn’t return a call after POLITICO left a voicemail for him. (Graham’s outgoing message offered the option of sending a fax but a reporter did not avail himself of that method of communication.)
White House spokeswoman Alyssa Farah promised to call back but never did. Rudy Giuliani went silent, even though a reporter sweetened the deal by agreeing to hear him out on the Hunter Biden intrigue, a current Giuliani obsession. Karl Rove was kind enough to respond, but he was too busy to discuss the president’s comments sowing doubt and mistrust about the sanctity of the election process, because, he said, his “flight is getting ready to shut the door and pull away from the gate.”
Hogan Gidley, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, did respond. When asked about the president’s comments suggesting that votes shouldn’t be counted after Election Day, Gidley replied, “What’s the quote?” Told by a reporter, “Have you been following the news? There are dozens of them!” Gidley did not reply on the record.
As usual, Never Trump Republicans, who generally now back Biden, were willing to speak their minds.
“For months now the president has questioned the integrity of the election, and now at the 11th hour, he’s signaling prematurely that he’ll declare victory before the result is certain, setting the stage for further discord,” said Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security who recently unmasked himself as Anonymous, the internal Trump critic who published a scathing op-ed in The New York Times. “I think it’s destructive to the democratic process. I think it could potentially lead to civil unrest and even violence in the country, and it’s wildly irresponsible for a president to do.”
He is “disappointed” that his fellow Republicans are remaining quiet. “Right now Republican elected officials need to be saying that the president’s words are unacceptable and we need to patiently await the outcome of the vote,” Taylor said.
Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee at the beginning of the Obama era, expressed similar concerns. “The president knows full well that not in the history of elections in this country have we ever certified the outcome of the election on election night because votes are allowed to continue to be processed after Election Day,” Steele said. “Election Day is just that, the day to vote. It is not the day that a winner is certified.”
Steele added that Trump “is fearful of the outcome because he has not made the case for his reelection to the American people so he’s trying to game the system against itself to his benefit. He’s poisoned people with this notion that the only way he loses is if the system is rigged. Well that’s just bullshit.”
Many Republicans insist they are disgusted by Trump’s threats, they just aren’t willing to say so publicly. Dozens of quietly anti-Trump members on Capitol Hill, or who left the Trump administration, usually in disgust, are willing to torch the president — but only under the cloak of anonymity.
“It’s despicable and un-American but not surprising,” said one senior Senate GOP aide. “They have never had any respect for the institutions of democracy that don’t benefit them. The beauty of federalism is that we leave it to the states to make their own rules and the idea that a president would overturn a state official’s decision to benefit them in an election is just kind of the antithesis of what Republicans used to believe in.”
He added, “It’s just one final F.U. to what Republicans used to believe in.”
Trump has been abetted not just by the silence of Republicans — his threats have been spread by top surrogates, including his sons, Eric and Don, and his daughter-in-law, Lara. She recently told voters in Scottsdale, Arizona, that mail-in balloting, which has been expanded in many places because of the coronavirus pandemic, and will likely create delays in ballot counting, was a Democratic plot to “rig the system.”
Other top campaign aides have joined the misinformation campaign. On Sunday, Jason Miller, a senior adviser, suggested that partial vote counts on Tuesday night should somehow determine the winner. “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,” Miller said, suggesting that fully counting ballots is a Democratic plot.
This rhetoric has also seeped down into the Trump grassroots across the country. At recent Trump rallies in Pennsylvania, Nevada, and North Carolina, voters often took it as an article of faith that mail-in ballots tabulated after Tuesday were somehow fraudulent. Leaving a Trump rally Sunday night in Hickory, North Carolina, a group of supporters talked about how polls were rigged because they were commissioned by the media, and that vote-counting after Election Day would give Democrats a chance to pad their totals with thousands of fake votes.
As always with Trump, there is a debate among Republicans as to whether he should be taken seriously.
“I just can’t believe that he would say anything like that. It’s crazy,” said a former senior administration official. “I don’t know if it was an off the cuff remark that he often says that he hasn’t thought through or if it was a real strategic decision. … A lot of people ask me, ‘If he loses the election, will he try to stay in power?’ I don’t see any way that’s going to be possible. I think once an election is declared valid, he’s not going to have any option.”
Others insist that his rhetoric is not as troubling as it sounds. “There have been so many times where people have said, ‘Oh he said this, he’s going to strip away our freedoms!’ and it doesn’t happen that way,” said a former White House official. “It never happens that way, so this is just another one of those things.”
A current White House official also tried to downplay Trump’s steal-the-election rhetoric. “I don’t think it’s something that’s being seriously considered,” he insisted, perhaps not realizing how much work the word ‘seriously’ was doing in his statement.
Another White House official insisted it was typical Trumpian hyperbole. “POTUS will play by the rules,” he said. “He will play by the rules.”
But what if he doesn’t?
Schatz argued that there was no reason to believe Republican leaders would organize themselves to force Trump to stand down if he pushed things in a truly anti-democratic direction that went beyond legitimate legal challenges or election night hyperbole.
“In the ‘West Wing’ version of this it would be Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, and a couple of former presidents,” he said. “In reality there’s no one.”
When asked if there was a “West-Wing” like contingency plan for Republican leaders if Trump did something radical in the coming days, the senior Senate GOP aide was coy.
“I can’t really talk about that,” he said. “It’s not something I can really get into.”
But when pressed, he offered the following: “It’s all hypothetical, but if they do what Jason Miller was talking about you’ll see a lot of people” — he paused for a moment — “not agreeing.”
Marianne Levine contributed to this report.