“Make sure because the only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged,” the president said. “Remember that. It’s the only way we’re going to lose this election, so we have to be very careful."
The warning about cheating, on the other hand, was offered in Pennsylvania in August 2016, and focused specifically on his purported concerns about that state. When he won Pennsylvania, his allegations that the state was riddled with fraud simply melted away.
There was no reason to believe those allegations in the first place. In 2012, the state stipulated in response to a lawsuit that it had identified “no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania.” A 2017 investigation by the state determined that as many as 544 illegal votes might have been cast over 18 years of voting in the state, a period in which more than 93 million votes were submitted. “The illegal ballots were apparently cast by noncitizen immigrants who later reported themselves as having mistakenly registered,” the Associated Press reported.
In fact, Trump's own campaign, in an effort to repel a recount in the Michigan vote four years ago, asserted that "[a]ll available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake."
This didn’t prevent Trump from lazily alleging that fraud occurred anyway — not in states he won, of course, but in ones he lost. He’s repeatedly made the nonsensical claim that his huge loss in California was a function of fraud, meaning that millions of votes would somehow have been illegally cast without detection. He’s also repeatedly claimed that the results in New Hampshire were tainted by fraud, a claim unsupported by any evidence and which has repeatedly been rejected by officials in the state and by outside analysis of the vote.
Why make those claims? Because Trump is embarrassed that he lost the popular vote, obviously. He presents himself as a winner, so he rationalizes his loss. That it doesn’t make sense is beside the point.
In focusing so insistently on allegations of fraud, he has convinced many of his supporters that it occurs at significant scale and poses a persistent threat to our electoral system. According to his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, Trump himself actually believes his dishonest claims.
“The president said this week the only way we lose this election is if the election is rigged,” a reporter asked McEnany at a briefing Wednesday. “It begs the question: Does the president believe there’s any circumstance under which he can lose the election fairly?”
“The president believes he's done a great job for the American people, and he believes that will show in November,” McEnany responded. “He believes that voter fraud is real, in line with what we see all across the country, particularly with mail-in ballots which are prone to fraud."
“Is the president saying if he doesn't win this election, that he will not accept the results unless he wins?” another reporter asked later.
“The president has always said he’ll see what happens and make a determination in the aftermath. It’s the same thing he said last November,” McEnany said, presumably referring to his assertions about November 2016. “He wants a free election, a fair election, and he wants confidence in the results of the election, particularly when you have states like Nevada doing mass mail-out voting to their voting rolls. And when they tried this in the primary, it was a massive failure. … With that being the system, the president wants to take a hard look at this and make sure that these are fair election results and not subject to fraud."
There's a lot to contest here, but it's important to highlight that McEnany, ostensibly the institutional voice of the presidency, is leaving open the door to Trump rejecting the results of the election. And in doing so, she points to literally no other cause than this speculative claim about the existence of rampant voter fraud.
It is, of course, true that voter fraud happens. It is also true that gang violence happens. It is not true, though, that voter fraud happens rampantly, affecting the results of elections, any more than it is true that gang violence poses a dire and immediate threat to most Americans. The analogy I like to use is car theft. Trump is pointing to a few stolen cars and alleging that there is necessarily a national ring of car thieves which is stealing hundreds of thousands of vehicles and putting the entire idea of private car ownership at risk.
Or, really, he and McEnany are pointing to the existence of crowbars as an argument in support of the idea that this national ring of car thieves exists. McEnany's claims about fraud in Nevada derive entirely from her assertions that sending ballots to voters will facilitate fraud, not that fraud actually happens. Last week, we made a quiz aimed at helping the president's team to differentiate between actual voter fraud and fraud-like things that they're blowing out of proportion. It seems she has not yet taken it.
Trump “believes that voter fraud is real, in line with what we see all across the country, particularly with mail-in ballots which are prone to fraud,” McEnany said. If he actually believes this — a question in its own right — he’s foolish to do so. We don’t see wide-scale fraud all over the country, any more than we see wide-scale auto theft all over the country. Mail-in ballots are more prone to fraud than in-person voting (the focus of Trump’s hand-wringing in Pennsylvania in 2016), but in the same sense that people who leave their jewelry on nightstands are more prone to having it stolen than those who put it in their sock drawer: Neither happens very often.
The only recent example of an apparent coordinated effort to cast fraudulent absentee ballots on behalf of a candidate occurred in North Carolina in 2018. In that case, the ballots were submitted for the benefit of the Republican candidate for Congress.
It’s quite possible that Trump is hinting at rejecting the results of the election because of “fraud” for the same reason he’s talked about fraud over the past four years: He’d like to convince the world that he only lost because of cheating. Maybe Trump’s limp efforts to point to fraud as the cause of his loss is what we’d see if he does lose, a president whining nonsensically about millions of illegal votes in California as he moves back to Mar-a-Lago.
But by now it’s hard to extricate those claims from the president’s broader pattern of undermining the legitimacy and honesty of the November contest to his benefit. It’s therefore important to note that Trump’s claim that he must withhold judgment about the result until he makes sure it wasn’t tainted by fraud is like saying he has to withhold judgment until he’s sure that the results weren’t affected by people casting votes while dressed like Elvis Presley. That might happen, but it’s unlikely. And it, too, almost certainly wouldn’t affect the results.