It was also a success more broadly for the president, too, given that it was essentially an hour-long conversation between himself and a supporter. The network’s Maria Bartiromo, whose evolution into an explicitly pro-Trump advocate has been steadily obvious, served as little more than a hype woman, setting Trump up with softball questions and encouraging his responses. It wasn’t the first time she has played such a role, but it was nonetheless remarkable to see the scope of her disinterest in posing any challenge to the president.
This was true from start to finish, with Trump going on extended riffs about his opponents, real and perceived, including multiple assessments of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server more than seven years ago. But nowhere was Bartiromo’s failure to hold Trump to account more obvious — and potentially more dangerous — than in her sycophantic support of his claims about fraudulent voting.
By now it’s obvious that Trump and his allies want to frame mail-in votes as inherently suspicious because they know that those ballots are likely to favor former vice president Joe Biden. Trump wants vote totals as of election night to stand because votes counted after that point will almost certainly shift results toward Biden. This isn’t a conspiracy; it’s a function both of Democrats generally being more likely to cast ballots that are counted more slowly and, this year, being far more likely to do so in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
But if Trump can get you to think that these votes are probably riddled with fraud, you’ll be more likely to support his near-inevitable cries that they should be ignored. And Bartiromo did her best to give Trump the chance to convince you of this inaccurate view.
She asked the president about FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, allowing Trump to attack his nominated bureau chief for participating in a video message downplaying Trump’s fraud allegations.
Trump used Wray to go on an extended riff about the alleged dangers of mail-in ballots.
TRUMP: He talks about, you know, even the voting thing, that he doesn’t see the voting ballots as a problem. There’s thousands of ballots right now! You pick up any paper in the country practically, and they’re cheating all over the place on the ballot. So how is that not a problem? That’s a much bigger problem than China or Russia. If you look at it, it’s a much bigger problem.
This line of argument isn’t subtle. Trump has repeatedly tried to downplay the idea that China or — particularly — Russia is seeking to influence the outcome of the 2020 race. Here, he argues that this idea of rampant fraud is necessarily more worrisome. The Department of Homeland Security, which this week released a report highlighting the threat of Russia’s efforts, apparently disagrees.
To Bartiromo, the president then offered some anecdotes that he feels bolsters his claims about the threat posed by fraud.
TRUMP: So what — you know, when you say that, oh, I don’t see that as a problem. Pick up the newspaper and read and — they lost 1,000 ballots or were defrauded in North Carolina. 500 ballots were sent to Virginia erroneously, erroneously. You look at what happened in — just take a look at what happened in New York with the Carolyn B. Maloney race. It was a disaster, how they were able to give her that victory. I don’t know the other guy; it was a Democratic primary, but it was just a small primary.
Three examples here, none of which is actually an example of fraud.
To be fair, it’s not clear what Trump is actually talking about in North Carolina. There have been a number of submitted absentee ballots rejected by election officials that are now the subject of a legal dispute in the state. This, of course, is a question of the extent to which efforts to root out fraud are overly sensitive. A number of people in the state also received incorrectly printed voter registration forms, which also has nothing to do with attempted fraud. (Here we’ll plug our handy “is this fraud?” quiz.)
There was an incident in 2018, when 1,000 completed ballots in North Carolina were allegedly destroyed — but that was part of an apparent electoral fraud effort conducted on behalf of a Republican congressional candidate. Trump doesn’t talk about that one much, but, either way, it was caught.
In Virginia, a nonprofit group sent out 500,000 absentee ballot applications which also included a printing error, making them useless. It had nothing to do with the state or with actual votes.
In the New York primary where Rep. Maloney (D) was defending her seat, there has been no accusation of fraud. Her opponent, Suraj Patel, wanted more votes counted — again, arguing that rules aimed at rooting out fraud were overzealous — but has made clear he doesn’t think fraud occurred.
Beyond that, though, great examples.
Bartiromo, always eager to be helpful, offered a not-actually-fraud incident of her own.
BARTIROMO: And in L.A. County.TRUMP: Well, you take a look at that. Look at what happened yesterday.BARTIROMO: More than 2,000 L.A. County ballots, printed, mailed without presidential election— without the presidential race on the ballots.TRUMP: They forgot to put my name on the ballot.BARTIROMO: Ballots are being thrown in the trash. Ballots are being sent to dead people. I have another story every day on this situation. What are you going to do about it, Mr. President? If they cheated in 2016, they're gonna cheat again. How are you going to stop this and ensure you have the wherewithal to fight back if it's all ballot lies?TRUMP: Two thousands ballots—.BARTIROMO: Joe Biden has 800 lawyers.TRUMP: They forgot one minor detail: to put my name on the ballot. Okay? Other than that, the ballots were wonderful, right?
About 2,100 absentee ballots in Los Angeles County were, in fact, printed without the presidential candidates listed. Printing millions of ballots or ballot applications tailored to specific voters in specific precincts is trickier than it might seem, obviously. But given that Los Angeles County cast 2.5 million votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and only 760,000 for Trump, it’s unlikely that if those 2,100 votes hadn’t counted, it would have mattered.
It’s also likely that most of those votes would have been for Biden, whose name was also left off the ballots.
Bartiromo also resuscitates some familiar, hand-wavey claims of fraud, like: What about ballots sent to dead people! Well, there’s no evidence at all that such ballots — an artifact of grieving families failing to prioritize contacting the registrar of voters to update their records — actually contribute in any significant way to attempted fraud. As we’ve noted before, this is equivalent to claiming that because so many people have screwdrivers in their garages, there must be a national ring of auto thieves stealing millions of cars each year without detection. Just because someone has a tool to commit a crime doesn’t mean they commit a crime, much less as part of a systemic effort to throw the election.
We’ve said before and we’ll say again that all of this — these ridiculous claims about fraud and this elevating of non-fraud incidents to create a fog of suspicion — is the goal. Trump doesn’t necessarily want you to think that all of his and Bartiromo’s examples are legitimate. He just wants you to think that it’s all uncertain. That maybe there’s something iffy going on. Because then, when he says on Nov. 4 that we should stop counting votes, you’ll remember somewhere deep in your brain that you had heard that there were questions about absentee voting.
In her example, though, Bartiromo goes further: Since Democrats cheated in 2016, they’ll obviously cheat again! How did they cheat in 2016? Well, by having the FBI investigate various Trump campaign staffers with established ties to Russia as they tried to fend off a Russian effort to interfere in the election. Bartiromo, like Trump, uses all sorts of misleading and erroneous claims to bolster the idea that the Russia probe was meant to block Trump’s ascent to the presidency, but, like her fraud examples, they don’t hold up.
But Trump was happy to continue the thread.
TRUMP: These are cheaters. These are — these are con men. These are cheaters that we're dealing with. In Nevada, they don't want to have any signature on the ballots.
Trump detoured briefly to criticize Gov. Stephen Sisolak (D-Nev.) for purportedly preventing Trump’s reelection campaign from violating rules governing in-person gatherings. Then he continued.
TRUMP: And he’s in charge of the ballots. And there’s bad things happening out there. Now, we have law enforcement watching him, very strong. The U.S. attorney is watching him, very strongly. The U.S. marshal is watching in New Mexico and saying that I think we can win. We have the U.S. marshal and the U.S. attorney watching them. So it’s not — it’s not easy for them because we have people watching. Nobody ever has.
First, this is wrong. Sisolak isn’t in charge of ballots in Nevada, the secretary of state is. It’s also not true that the state is allowing ballots to be cast without signatures.
That point about how Sisolak and officials in New Mexico are under scrutiny by federal investigators, though, is interesting. It’s not clear what Trump is referring to, but is seems relevant that the Justice Department this week announced its intention to expand scrutiny of voting.
Particularly given the explicit reference in the DOJ announcement to mail carriers.
TRUMP: But it's a corrupt system because they're sending out millions of ballots. Now, when you send out millions of ballots, when you're the sender, you can send them wherever you want. You can send them to Democrat areas, Republican areas, you don't have to send them at all.TRUMP: Mailmen are being, as you know, indicted. One was indicted yesterday in New Jersey, another one was indicted in West Virginia. Mailmen.
Again, no evidence that ballots are being sent only to members of one party, a bit of deceit which would be trivial to uncover. It’s also not the case that many states have suddenly switched to sending out ballots. Only four states and Washington, D.C., have made such a change, and only one — Nevada — was actually close in 2016.
Trump’s claims about mail carriers misbehaving rely on two incidents.
In New Jersey, a mail carrier threw out hundreds of pieces of mail, including blank ballots. The charges he faces are centered on his failure to deliver mail, not on fraud.
In West Virginia, a mail carrier was indicted in May … for altering a handful of absentee ballot requests to switch the requested ballots from Democratic to Republican ones.
Again, the same pattern: Throw out a ton of unverified “questions” about mail-in voting without even bothering to see if they stand up.
In that regard, Trump was on a roll.
TRUMP: Ballots are being found in riverbeds. They dumped a whole — they call it a tray. A tray is a lot of ballots. I don't know how many, but it's a lot.BARTIROMO: Wow.TRUMP: They found trays of ballots in a river. They found eight ballots with my name on— military ballots, eight ballots with my name on it in a wastepaper basket in another good state. No, it's a terrible thing.
Two more debunked incidents.
There was no “river” involved in the first case. There was some mail found in a ditch in a town in central Wisconsin, apparently discarded as in New Jersey, which did not include any known absentee ballots. (That so much mail is being discarded is itself interesting. It’s unclear if it is a function of changes in procedures at the Postal Service or if this just happens all the time, with scrutiny on ballots elevating them to national attention. But that’s a different discussion.)
The ballots in the “good state” — Pennsylvania — were, in fact, found in the garbage. An investigation found that this was unintentional.
What’s important about Trump’s rhetoric is that nearly all of this has already been publicly debunked. Even if it hadn’t been, even if, say, those seven Trump ballots in Pennsylvania (the correct number) had been intentionally tossed, there’s no reason to think this is evidence of a national conspiracy which threatens the integrity of the results of the presidential contest. Even in 2016, when Trump won Pennsylvania by only 0.7 points, his margin was over 44,000 votes. Losing 0.02 of that total is not proof that sinister forces are aligned against him.
Had Trump been interviewed by a serious journalist, he might have received some pushback on these truly ridiculous claims.
But he was instead being interviewed by Maria Bartiromo.
“This is incredible interference,” she said of Trump’s claims.
This is embarrassing sycophancy.