The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a speech of historic dishonesty, Trump tried to reinforce his long-planned effort to retain power

Speaking for the first time since election night, President Trump made a litany of false and misleading claims about voting and election results on Nov. 5. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Well into a presidency defined by disinformation and falsehoods, President Trump managed something remarkable on Thursday evening. Speaking to reporters in the White House briefing room, he offered the most thoroughly dishonest comments of his tenure.

For 15 minutes, he delineated nonsensical allegations about the state of the presidential election, claiming to be the victim of nefarious efforts to prevent him from earning a second term. And when he finished, after espousing obviously false claims to a room of reporters who knew better, he didn’t even have the courage to face their inevitably probing and challenging questions.

Solely for the purposes of illustrating how divergent from reality Trump’s remarks were, we’ll delineate his argument before picking it apart.

The president claimed that Democrats supported the use of mail-in ballots to alter vote totals after Election Day. He claimed the media, pollster and technology companies were arrayed against him as well. He spent some time on the polls, claiming they were efforts to “suppress” Republican turnout. He complained the margins he enjoyed shortly after polls closed in some states had since eroded — something he suggested was suspicious — and insisted he had evidence of impropriety that would be upheld by the courts.

If most of this sounds familiar, it should. Trump has for months telegraphed this backup plan in the event of a loss in the presidential contest. He’s telegraphed it so explicitly that it was understood even coming into Election Day that Trump would likely claim victory and fraud should he lose.

How was it telegraphed? He said repeatedly that mail-in ballots are vectors for fraud as far back as early April. They are not; there’s no evidence of any significant fraud so far this year and no evidence of systemic voter fraud involving mail-in ballots in years past. The obvious goal was to paint those ballots as suspect so that, if necessary, he could push to have states stop counting them.

To that same end, he spent weeks insisting to reporters and to audiences at his rallies that the only way he could lose would be if fraud were committed. He declined to say he would allow a peaceful transfer of power, insisting that he would lose only if something untoward happened. As he said these things, of course, he consistently trailed former vice president Joe Biden in the polls, so he similarly told the public and his base that the polls couldn’t be trusted.

He was rarely more obvious than when he nominated Amy Coney Barrett to sit on the Supreme Court. Before announcing Barrett as his pick, Trump told reporters that it was important to fill the seat vacated by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg because of the election.

“I think this will end up in the Supreme Court, and I think it’s very important that we have nine justices,” he said in September, adding that he hoped to avoid situations in which there might be a tie. Asked in October if he thought Barrett should recuse herself from election-related issues, Trump said he didn’t.

All of the pieces were in place for Trump to do what he did. With polling showing him trailing, everyone expected Trump to claim victory and to try to stop votes from being counted, which is what happened.

To believe Trump’s presentation of what’s happened since Tuesday night, then, is to have to believe either that all of this alleged fraud happened despite Trump’s “drawing attention” to it or that he was signaling his plan to contest a loss all along. One must either think that a president who had evidence of serious violations of federal law somehow failed to prevent those violations from happening, despite overseeing the Justice Department, or think that Trump is simply making excuses.

It’s important to note that Trump was aided in his efforts to cast doubt on the election results. He was aided by a compliant conservative media that willfully amplified his unfounded claims about fraud and Republican officials who declined to rebut them. He was aided by Republican legislatures in the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which declined to start counting mail-in ballots before Election Day, thus extending the count for days afterward.

The Post's Amy Gardner analyzes President Trump's multifarious legal challenges across swing states questioning the integrity of the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)

But this is nonetheless being driven by Trump. In his comments on Thursday, he leaned into his long-standing tactic of throwing out every possible allegation he could muster, hoping that the cloud of nonsense itself would convince people that there was something undergirding his position. If he makes 1,000 false claims, he needs the public to believe only one.

So he claimed that polling showed Biden with a lead to somehow “suppress” Republican votes. This was an effort to leverage his supporters’ distrust of the media and to theorize a grand conspiracy against him — but it doesn’t make sense. In 2016, overconfidence on the left may have aided Trump. What’s more, turnout was up even among Republicans, so this theoretical “suppression” effort didn’t work. Yes, some polls were off the mark (though it’s hard to say how many and how far while votes are being counted), but polls are occasionally off the mark. The idea that they were intentionally wrong to hurt Trump in some truly unclear way makes no sense.

He then complained about how the margins he had on the evening of Nov. 3 had narrowed significantly or vanished. He suggested it was somehow suspicious that Biden was doing better with those votes.

But there’s a simple, obvious reason: Trump told his voters that mail-in voting couldn’t be trusted.

Polling repeatedly showed that Biden supporters were more likely to cast mail-in ballots. Data from the election shows that they did. So, because key states have had to count the flood of ballots this year after the fact, we’re seeing those votes added to the total only belatedly. (Trump also hinted that it was odd Democrats pushed for an expansion of mail-in voting this year, but that argument is at least fully in keeping with his efforts to pretend the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t exist.) It’s hard to believe he made these claims sincerely, of course, given how clear it was that his fail-safe approach to retaining power centered on contesting those ballots.

As part of his attempt to whip up a whirlwind of uncertainty, he delineated various allegations about interactions with officials counting ballots in various states. Those efforts have increasingly involved confrontations with Trump supporters; Trump used such tensions as a point to suggest that something nefarious was being hidden.

Again, though, this idea that votes are being counted illegally somehow is incomprehensible. Consider the heart of what Trump is claiming: that dozens of people in scores of counties are allowing illegal ballots to be counted — again, a serious crime — to hurt Trump. But they also allowed various other Republicans to win? They chose to introduce fraudulent ballots into a system in which Trump’s campaign has authorized observers instead of, say, simply altering vote totals in electronic systems?

None of it, start to finish, makes sense. But it doesn’t need to. The point is not to present evidence of a broad, systemic effort to prevent him from winning, since no such evidence exists. (As his team made clear in a confrontation with MSNBC on Thursday.) The point is to start from the end point — Trump should win — and generate enough questions that there’s somehow space to come up with a strategy to make that happen.

Again, this has been the plan for months. Two things, though, crippled the ability of the plan to work.

The first was Trump’s own ineptitude. His insistence that he would lose only through fraud and that mail-in ballots were rife with it set expectations that he would try this. Then, the second problem: Biden did slightly too well. Having states such as Georgia be up in the air and having Fox News — Fox News! — call Arizona for Biden forced Trump into the position of appearing to be behind. As any political observer learned during the fight over the 2000 election, being perceived as trailing makes it much harder to argue that you deserve to be the winner. No wonder Trump and his team went ballistic at their favorite cable-news network.

Trump’s allies go along with all of this because it preserves their power. Trump’s base goes along with it because they believe him. And that’s what makes all of this so dangerous.

Sure, it’s dangerous to democracy broadly to have a president dishonestly attack the democratic process. But it’s acutely dangerous to leverage the trust of fervent supporters in an effort to hold power. Back in August, I wrote about how the combination of Trump’s disinformation about fraud and polling meant that his supporters might not accept results of a fair election — and that they might, as a result, attempt to intercede in vote-counting. So they have, with Trump adding encouragement on Thursday night.

Since Jan. 20, 2017, the day of his inauguration, Trump’s priorities as president have been obvious. His focus on his base and his own interests over those of Americans who voted against him has been explicit. His jingoism hasn’t masked his indifference to the systems and history that undergird the United States government and people.

Should anyone have not picked up on all of that, though, he made it clear on Thursday. The most important thing to Trump is maintaining power, not the stability of the country or the American experiment. Worse, he wrapped his self-serving arguments in the verbiage of defending the nation.

It was a historic speech, truly, in the way that Dred Scott v. Sandford is historic. It was commentary that will be studied for years, just as the Oval Office recordings of Richard M. Nixon are studied.