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

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' 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 McConnellOn The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate Democrats say White House isn't budging in coronavirus relief stalemate 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 McCarthyWin by QAnon believer creates new headaches for House GOP GOP leaders go into attack mode against Harris Republicans introduce bill to defend universities conducting coronavirus research against hackers 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 GrahamRon Johnson signals some GOP senators concerned about his Obama-era probes Democrats ramp up warnings on Russian election meddling Hillicon Valley: Facebook removed over 22 million posts for hate speech in second quarter | Republicans introduce bill to defend universities against hackers targeting COVID-19 research | Facebook's Sandberg backs Harris as VP pick 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 PenceBiden, Harris tear into Trump in first joint appearance Conway: Harris is going to have to answer for marijuana prosecutions in California It's Harris — and we're not surprised MORE would cease to be vice president and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Bass on filling Harris's Senate spot: 'I'll keep all my options open' Win by QAnon believer creates new headaches for House GOP 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) WallaceChris Wallace: Kamala Harris 'not far to the left despite what Republicans are gonna try to say' Mnuchin: Democrats will 'have a lot of explaining to do' if they want to challenge Trump orders in court Pelosi: Trump executive actions 'are illusions' 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.