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The Memo: Trump's real target is election's legitimacy

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE does not have the power to delay the 2020 election — but that hasn’t prevented a Thursday morning tweet in which he alluded to the possibility from causing a firestorm.

To Democrats and other Trump critics, the suggestion that the election could be postponed raised the sharpest questions yet about what they see as the president’s authoritarian tendencies.

But others see different motives. To some, the tweet was a transparent effort to distract from dire economic news. To others, it was part of an ongoing effort to undermine the legitimacy of the coming election.

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New data from the Commerce Department Thursday showed an historic drop-off in American economic performance in the second-quarter, as GDP fell at an annualized rate of 32.9 percent. The deterioration from the first quarter to the second quarter this year was 9.5 percent. 

Those figures, as The Wall Street Journal noted, were “the steepest declines in more than 70 years of record-keeping.”

Trump’s hope that he would be able to run on a robust economy has been reduced to tatters by the coronavirus crisis and the related shutdowns. No sooner was the damning data out than Trump took to Twitter about the election. 

“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” he wrote.

He clearly succeeded in diluting the focus on the economic news but even some figures sympathetic to the GOP were not persuaded by his argument

“This is classic Trump: say something outlandish to try to distract everyone from the horrible economic news,” said Dan Eberhart, a major Republican and conservative donor.

Democrats made a similar point. 

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“Trump’s threat is nothing more than a desperate attempt to distract from today’s devastating economic numbers that make it clear his failed response to the coronavirus has tanked the U.S. economy and caused tens of millions of Americans to lose their jobs,” Lily Adams, a Democratic National Committee spokesperson, said in an email to reporters.

Eberhart, like some others within the GOP, expressed dismay at the ominous nature of Trump’s suggestion.

“Nobody is gonna be happy. Delaying the election is a trick performed by authoritarian regimes not something that should happen in George Washington’s republic. Delaying the election will cause a political earthquake from whose rubble the Republican Party might never emerge,” he said.

Republican figures on Capitol Hill rushed to distance themselves from Trump with unusual alacrity.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden backs 0B compromise coronavirus stimulus bill US records over 14 million coronavirus cases On The Money: COVID-19 relief picks up steam as McConnell, Pelosi hold talks | Slowing job growth raises fears of double-dip recession | Biden officially announces Brian Deese as top economic adviser MORE (R-Ky.) told a broadcaster in his home state: “Never in the history of the Congress, through wars, depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time and we’ll find a way to do that again this Nov. 3.” 

McConnell also affirmed the suggestion from the Kentucky news anchor, Max Winitz, that the election was “set in stone.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHouse GOP uses procedural tool to protest proxy voting The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Capital One - Tensions rise with Trump, Barr Watch live: McCarthy holds news briefing MORE (R-Calif.) said, “We should go forward with our election. No way should we ever not hold an election on the day that we have it.”

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBiden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country The Memo: Harris moves signal broad role as VP Former US attorney asks for probe of allegations Graham pressured Georgia official MORE (R-S.C.), often a strong Trump supporter, acknowledged that any delay in the election “probably wouldn’t be a good idea.”

The discussion would, under any normal circumstances, be moot. The date of Election Day is set in law — the statue in question dates to 1845 — and there is no plausible possibility that the Democratic-controlled House would accede to changing it. 

There is also an additional hurdle. The end date of Trump’s first term — Jan. 20, 2021 — is mandated by the Constitution. 

Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, noted that in some bizarre scenario where that date were reached without an election, Trump would cease to be president, Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceSenate confirms Christopher Waller to Fed board Trump pardon scandal would doom his 2024 campaign Trump to award highest civilian honor to Lou Holtz on Thursday MORE would cease to be vice president and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden backs 0B compromise coronavirus stimulus bill US records over 14 million coronavirus cases On The Money: COVID-19 relief picks up steam as McConnell, Pelosi hold talks | Slowing job growth raises fears of double-dip recession | Biden officially announces Brian Deese as top economic adviser MORE (D-Calif.), as the third in the line of succession, would take over in the Oval Office.

Lichtman, like many other observers, believes that Trump is less interested in postponing the election than in establishing a rationale for his defeat, if that should happen. 

Right now, Trump is a significant underdog to win reelection. He trails his presumptive Democratic opponent Joe Biden by more than 8 points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average, and also lags in almost all the key swing states.

In a “Fox News Sunday” interview broadcast on July 19, Trump was asked by Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceBiden adviser: 'He does not have any concern' about Trump lawsuits Public health expert: Americans no longer acting 'with common purpose' on pandemic Anti-Defamation League criticizes White House appointee 'who has consorted with racists' MORE whether he would “give a direct answer” as to whether he would accept the results of the election.

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The president declined to do so. 

“I have to see,” he responded.

Lichtman suggested that Trump’s incendiary tweet on Thursday morning was “more to do with assuaging his ego” than anything else. Trump’s argument, in the event of a defeat, would then become “I lost because it is an illegitimate election,” Lichtman predicted.

Trump continues to profess confidence that he will win. His campaign has for some time been arguing that the opinion polls are flawed, and are under-sampling the president’s supporters. They also predict the worst economic shocks have passed.

Later on Thursday, Trump appeared to bring down the heat around the issue of an election delay by a notch or two. 

He claimed that he had at least succeeded in getting “the very dishonest LameStream Media” to discuss the risks of mail-in voting — even though there is little evidence that it creates any greater possibility of fraud.

“We are going to WIN the 2020 election, BIG!” Trump enthused in another tweet a moment later.

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For the moment, however, it seems that he is preparing the ground to blunt a defeat.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency. Alexander Bolton and Morgan Chalfant contributed.