Put another way, the election isn’t going well for the incumbent. Trump’s efforts to undercut Biden and to amplify a message aimed beyond encouraging his own base haven’t had noticeable effect. Were the election held tomorrow, Biden would probably win.
The election won’t be held tomorrow, though, giving Trump and his campaign time to try to woo voters and to stymie Biden’s effort in a wide range of other ways. On Thursday, for example, Trump casually informed Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo that the reason he opposed a coronavirus relief package that includes money meant to bolster voting by mail is because, without that money, an expansion of mail voting can’t happen. And since he said earlier this year that he sees mail-in voting as beneficial to Democrats, it’s not hard to figure out the play here.
Again, though, that’s simply part of a range of efforts Trump, his campaign and his broader team have used with an apparent or obvious eye toward influencing the outcome in November.
Disrupting and recasting the vote
Limiting U.S. Postal Service resources. The admission that he opposes sufficient funding for handling mail-in voting is only part of recent administration changes that threaten to hobble the Postal Service.
The service’s new postmaster general, Trump donor Louis DeJoy, has revamped overtime rules and internal systems, moves that are ostensibly centered on saving money but that have slowed delivery throughout the country. DeJoy has further determined that mail-in ballots will cost more than twice as much as in years past, increasing the burden on states running expanded mail-balloting programs.
“In recent weeks, the Postal Service has warned states that long-standing classification practices for ballots and other political mailings may not be enough to ensure timely delivery for the November election,” The Washington Post’s Jacob Bogage reported on Wednesday, “exacerbating Democrats’ fears that Trump is using the nation’s mail service to aid his reelection bid.”
It’s worth noting that Trump was questioned this week about the effect his plan to halt the collection of payroll taxes would have on Social Security, which is primarily funded through the tax. The president casually said that Social Security would simply use general-fund money instead, making up any shortfall. Were he interested in bolstering the Postal Service, he could very easily make a similar assertion.
Objecting to expansions of voting access. Beyond changes at the Postal Service, Trump and his team have taken steps to block state efforts to broaden mail-in voting.
In Nevada, Trump’s reelection campaign sued to stop a proposal that would send absentee ballots to active voters. In Pennsylvania, the campaign sued to, among other things, limit the ability of voters to drop their ballots off instead of mailing them in.
Again, the reasoning is clear. In addition to his belief that Democrats benefit from mail-in balloting, polling has shown that Democrats are more concerned about contracting the coronavirus and, relatedly, are more likely to vote by mail. A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday showed that 60 percent of those planning to vote for Trump indicated they would vote in person on Election Day, while about the same percentage of likely Biden voters said they planned to vote by mail.
If they can.
Alleging fraud. Trump’s opposition to mail-in voting is usually not explicitly predicated on impeding Democrats but, instead, on the false claim that expanded mail-in voting will lead to rampant voter fraud. His administration and campaign have repeatedly insisted that fraud will balloon in a world of expanded mail balloting, often using loosely related or completely unrelated events as rationales for assuming that fraud will be commonplace.
In addition to serving as a rationale for lawsuits such as those identified above, these fraud claims have another obvious benefit: Should the race not be decided conclusively by in-person voting on Election Day, Trump will be able to claim that uncounted ballots (likely to favor Democrats, as shown by Pew) are necessarily tainted by fraud and should be discounted.
Voter fraud, both in person and by mail, continues to be vanishingly rare, and there is no evidence at all that there exists any broad effort to illegally skew the vote, despite Trump’s repeated claims.
Encouraging foreign influence
Seeking a Biden probe from Ukraine. Trump’s apparent willingness to encourage foreign actors to influence the election — which can be a violation of federal law — led to his impeachment late last year. He admits to having asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation of Biden, for example, claiming that this was part of his efforts to uproot corruption.
Before that call with Zelensky, though, Trump had expressed little to no interest in battling international corruption, nor is that what he actually asked of Zelensky. What he clearly wanted, as argued in the impeachment investigation, was leverage from Ukraine against his likely presidential opponent.
The conversation in which Trump made that request of Zelensky occurred in July 2019. A month prior, ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos asked Trump whether he would accept foreign assistance in the election or turn the information over to law enforcement.
“I think maybe you do both,” Trump replied.
Reportedly encouraging China to weigh in on his behalf. As we reported in June, his interactions with Ukraine allegedly weren’t the only such effort. John Bolton, his former national security adviser, alleged that Trump had pressured China to aid his reelection as well.
“Trump said approvingly that there was great hostility to China among the Democrats,” Bolton wrote. “Trump then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability and pleading with [President Xi Jinping] to ensure he’d win. He stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome.”
Reportedly encouraging Brazil to weigh in. Something similar appeared to happen in Brazil, where the ambassador nominated by Trump allegedly asked that the country reduce tariffs on ethanol to boost Trump’s support in the Midwest. Asked earlier this week whether he’d asked his ambassador to push Brazil for reduced tariffs, Trump said that “we haven’t really discussed that too much, but at some point we probably will be.”
Refusing to firmly reject Russia’s ongoing efforts. Then, of course, there’s Russia. An assessment from the intelligence community delineated Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2020 election in favor of Trump, as the country did four years ago.
Trump continues to deny that Russia seeks to help him (“You know who else is not happy with us winning? Russia,” he said Monday) and to ignore calls to address the interference effort.
On Wednesday, he suggested that Russia wasn’t the problem with election interference.
“They want to take it countrywide, mail-in voting,” Trump said of his political opponents. “It’s going to be the greatest fraud in the history of elections. When you always talk Russia, Russia, Russia, China, Iran on voting, your biggest problem is going to be with the Democrats, not with China, Russia and Iran.”
Leveraging public property and resources
An allegation central to Trump’s impeachment was not only that he was encouraging foreign interference by requesting an investigation from Ukraine but that he was leveraging government resources to do so. The alleged leverage over Ukraine wasn’t his own disapproval — it was Ukraine’s reliance on American beneficence, particularly in the face of the threat posed by Russia, that served to entice Zelensky to comply.
It’s therefore worth noting that this was not Trump’s only apparent effort to use governmental resources to aid his campaign.
Giving his acceptance speech from the White House or from a national park. Frustration over coronavirus containment rules prompted Trump to move his speech formally accepting the Republican nomination out of Charlotte and to Jacksonville, where rules were more lax. That laxity contributed to a surge in cases in the Florida city, prompting Trump to cancel that speech, too. Now, he’s reportedly settled on two possible locations for the speech: the White House or the national park at Gettysburg, Pa.
Both are public property, raising legal questions about their use for an overtly political event. A political speech from the White House would be a particularly big break from tradition, which has held the executive mansion to be necessarily apolitical. But, of course, this hasn’t kept Trump from injecting political rhetoric into White House speeches and events regularly over the course of his presidency. His team insists that he’s not bound by legal prohibitions against using government resources for political activity, which is true. It’s also, again, a break from tradition.
Not surprising. This is, after all, the president who commandeered the Lincoln Memorial for a Fox News interview.
Using official events and accounts for political rhetoric. It’s not just at the White House where Trump overlaps his official duty with his political goals. His habit of turning normal governmental events into pro-Trump rallies hasn’t been particularly novel for several years now, but it continues to be a demonstration of how Trump blurs that line.
There are other ways in which it manifests, though. On Thursday morning, for example, the White House Twitter account — an institutional communications platform — retweeted this:
This is not a message of central importance to the functioning of the executive branch.
In February, I asked Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, how he viewed the administration’s use of the White House for political purposes.
“It’s important to remember that there are enormous gaps in laws protecting government integrity precisely because certain norms had always been in place until now,” Shaub wrote in an email. “The gaps in our laws are born out of an assumption that the norms would always be in place. So it’s not enough to say something isn’t illegal. Government integrity depends on adherence to these norms. Unfortunately, Trump has taken advantage of the fact that norms can’t be enforced.”
“I predict it will get far worse, too,” he added.
Allegations of efforts to amplify unrest in cities. Part of Trump’s efforts to undercut Biden included a focus on lawlessness in some cities that occasionally spun out of racial-justice protests. That led to the deployment of federal law enforcement in Portland, Ore., ostensibly to protect a federal courthouse. Days of violent confrontations resulted.
The Post reported at the time that Trump took a keen interest in watching the confrontations unfold. There was, it seemed, political utility in the violence.
“One of the officials said the White House had long wanted to amplify strife in cities,” The Post reported, “encouraging DHS officials to talk about arrests of violent criminals in sanctuary cities and repeatedly urging ICE to disclose more details of raids than some in the agency were comfortable doing. ‘It was about getting viral online content,’ one of the officials said.”
Claiming full ownership over funding allocations. Some of Trump’s efforts to leverage public resources for his political benefit are more anodyne. On Wednesday, Trump’s main Twitter account published a dozen congratulatory messages to states (including many swing states) about large funding disbursements.
The idea, of course, is that the messages will be amplified locally.
It’s the state-level version of his effort to brand the coronavirus stimulus checks. When Congress passed legislation aimed at backstopping losses as the economy shut down, Trump made an unusual demand: His name should be on them.
After some wrangling, it was.
Apparently boosting a third-party bid to harm Biden
Kanye West’s announcement in early July that he was seeking the presidency was quickly dismissed as yet another stunt from a celebrity with a demonstrated affinity for seeking attention. Since then, though, the contours of his announcement have become refined, with the revelation that Republican activists are aiding West’s efforts to get on state ballots.
On Wednesday, it was reported that West had recently met in person with Jared Kushner, the de facto head of Trump’s reelection effort. Asked about it Thursday, Kushner dismissed the meeting as an interaction between old friends. But West has reportedly been telling aides that he and Kushner speak “almost daily,” even as he has acknowledged that he understands his campaign could hurt Biden by peeling away anti-Trump votes.
The evidence is circumstantial but significant: A key Trump aide is talking to a candidate who sees his role as hurting Trump’s opponent and whose campaign is being boosted by activists from Trump’s party. Illegal or not, it certainly seems to have the Trump team’s fingerprints on it.
Constantly misrepresenting reality or lying about key situations
All of this sits alongside Trump’s general approach to his job — bolstering his case using whatever argument he wants, however obviously false. He’s made more than 20,000 false statements as president, over a dozen a day on average. In 2018, as the midterm elections approached, that average scaled up.
It’s safe to assume that we will see the same trend over the next three months.