Trump has now done something very close to this. And the answer to Karlan’s question is: Yes, Trump is abusing his office and betraying the national interest:
Trump is referring to the Michigan secretary of state’s announcement that applications for absentee ballots will be mailed to 7.7 million residents. That’s to ensure that Michiganders can vote safely amid a pandemic that has brought more than 50,000 cases of coronavirus to the state and killed more than 5,000 people.
Trump’s new threat is not a precise parallel to Karlan’s scenario. But Trump is threatening to somehow withdraw federal aid unless Michigan drops vote-by-mail, a naked effort to extort Michigan into doing something that could help him politically. (Trump rage-tweeted a similar threat at Nevada.)
We also know Trump fears vote-by-mail can hurt his chances. Trump explicitly admitted that with such Democratic voting rights measures, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
And so, in lodging this threat, Trump is saying the corrupt part out loud — with a bullhorn.
There have long been grounds for asking whether Trump has corrupted the process of doling out aid to states. A Post investigation found big disparities in how states are treated, which has left some officials “wondering whether politics is playing a role in the response.”
Now Trump has made the threat as explicit as anyone could imagine.
What Trump threatened is illegal
As a threshold matter, what Trump is threatening is illegal, according to Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“The federal government does not have the power to withhold funding from states because the president disagrees with something the states are doing,” Vladeck told me. “There’s no legal mechanism by which he can do that.”
Theoretically, Trump might try to do this. Under the Cares Act, which recently passed Congress, states get allotted coronavirus aid money from the Treasury Department, and then subsequently certify that they used it all on coronavirus-related purposes, a spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee tells me.
So Trump could try to instruct the Treasury Department not to dole out that money. Note that Trump actually cc’d the Treasury Department in his tweet-threat, an act that becomes a lot more disgusting when you understand that this is how the mechanism actually does work.
Secondarily, the premise of Trump’s threat is based on lies. His original tweet (which he has now deleted and replaced) claimed that Michigan had sent out “absentee ballots.”
But the state sent out applications for absentee ballots. “A state can decide for itself how to allow its residents to apply to vote absentee,” Vladeck points out. (Trump has now substituted a corrected tweet, which is embedded above).
And of course the specter of voter fraud that Trump floated is itself fiction.
For all these reasons, Vladeck says, if Trump actually tried to realize the threat, it would be illegal and would be “struck down” in court.
A pathetic wannabe autocrat
This episode shows Trump functioning as a pathetic wannabe autocrat who can’t even get his corrupt threats right in another sense as well.
The disaster aid that was allotted to Michigan in the Cares Act, which totals around $3.8 billion, has already been sent to the state, House Appropriations Committee spokesperson Evan Hollander tells me.
Hollander adds that this is also “perverse,” because the funding that Trump is threatening — and which has already been doled out — is actually pretty limited, given the scale of need.
“Much more help is needed to pay the vital workers who are on the front lines of this pandemic and are at risk of losing their jobs,” Hollander tells me.
That’s why Democrats are pushing for more aid to states in the next rescue packages. But if they can get that, Trump could theoretically try to use it as leverage.
Which is why, as pathetic as this display is, we need to take it seriously. It’s more evidence that Trump continues to try to employ large swaths of the federal government as nothing more than tools to help advance his personal, financial and political interests.
Trump will continue to do so, by getting his attorney general to discredit the findings of the Russia investigation, making it easier to gain from Russian interference again. Trump is also actively pushing Senate Republicans to use their investigative powers to corruptly smear opponent Joe Biden.
This is what Trump was impeached for, and we all predicted that if he got acquitted, he’d be emboldened to keep it up. Now, with nearly 100,000 Americans dead in no small part due to his incompetence and depravity, Trump is using that desperation to openly extort governors to do his corrupt bidding — in a way that could put people’s lives at risk for exercising the right to vote, all to grease his reelection hopes.
Just as he did with Ukraine.