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

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“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 McConnellProfessional sports players associations come out against coronavirus liability protections Democratic leaders report 'some progress' in talks with White House Top GOP senator urges agencies to protect renters, banks amid coronavirus aid negotiations 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 McCarthyDon't let Trump distract us from the real threat of his presidency Overnight Health Care: Five takeaways from Fauci's testimony | CDC: Children might play 'important role' in spreading COVID-19 | GOP leader wants rapid testing at Capitol GOP leader wants to make rapid testing available at Capitol 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 GrahamObama announces first wave of 2020 endorsements Trump putting TikTok ban on hold for 45 days: report This week: Negotiators hunt for coronavirus deal as August break looms 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 PenceWhite House mandates random coronavirus testing for staffers Trump criticizes Birx over Pelosi, COVID-19 remarks: 'Pathetic' NASA astronauts in SpaceX capsule splash down to earth MORE would cease to be vice president and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHillicon Valley: Trump backs potential Microsoft, TikTok deal, sets September deadline | House Republicans request classified TikTok briefing | Facebook labels manipulated Pelosi video Trump says he's considering executive action to suspend evictions, payroll tax Trump won't say if he disagrees with Birx that virus is widespread 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) WallaceTrump adviser Jason Miller: Biden running mate pick 'his political living will' Sunday shows - Stimulus debate dominates Bass: 'Lesson learned' on 2016 Castro comments MORE whether he would “give a direct answer” as to whether he would accept the results of the election.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.