The Memo: Trump tweets cross into new territory
President Trump’s critics are sounding the alarm as his public comments and tweets cross new lines with the 2020 election less than six months away.
Trump has suggested without evidence that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough was involved in the death of a staffer almost two decades ago when he was a Florida congressman. Trump’s insinuations have provoked an unsuccessful plea from the woman’s widower for Twitter to remove the tweets in question.
Trump has also raised the specter of widespread fraud if voting by mail is allowed on a broad basis in November’s election. In a Tuesday morning tweet, he suggested that mail-in voting would be “substantially fraudulent” and alleged “this will be a Rigged Election.”
Together with earlier vague allegations about malfeasance on the part of former President Obama and Trump’s references to his likely Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, as “Sleepy Joe,” there is little doubt that the 2020 campaign will be even nastier than the 2016 contest against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s tweets also come as the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus nears 100,000. The number of new jobless claims since the crisis began has surpassed 38 million, underscoring the scale of the economic devastation.
In the RealClearPolitics national polling average, Biden led Trump by 5.5 percentage points on Tuesday evening. A Fox News poll last week put Biden 8 points clear of Trump. The president tweeted soon afterward that the cable network “should fire their Fake Pollster. Never had a good Fox Poll!”
To critics, the suggestion of voting fraud is a way to delegitimize a Trump defeat, if it happens, in November.
John “Mac” Stipanovich, a veteran of Republican politics in Florida but a strong critic of the president, told The Hill: “He is setting the table … to claim that he didn’t lose but that he was cheated, that the election was rigged. That is typically reckless and irresponsible on his part because it undermines people’s confidence in the election process, which in turn undermines people’s belief in the legitimacy of their government. And when people don’t believe in the legitimacy of their government, anything can happen.”
There are some voices raised in a qualified defense of Trump’s skepticism about mail-in voting, however.
Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois, recently told the Christian Science Monitor, “Voting by mail has this big uncertainty about it. It is just a less secure kind of voting.”
A Wall Street Journal editorial late last week raised the prospect of a close election where the outcome would be made more divisive by a delay in counting and verifying mail ballots.
Calling such a scenario a “nightmare,” the Journal added: “At best, mass mail voting is a roll of the dice, calculated against the grim reality of the pandemic. … For ballot security and democratic legitimacy, it’s hard to beat going to the polls on Election Day.”
Trump’s Twitter feed has been controversial since the start of his political career, of course. His blasts at the media, his propensity for using mocking nicknames for rivals and his penchant for erroneous assertions did not prevent him winning election in the first place. It is not definitively clear that they have hurt him in office either.
In addition to the jabs at Scarborough and at Democrats, Trump has engaged in a public Twitter spat in recent days with his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who is seeking to return to his former position as a senator representing Alabama.
It is his insinuations against Scarborough that have ignited the most intense firestorm, however.
The tragedy at the core of the matter is the 2001 death of Lori Klausutis, who was 28 and a member of Scarborough’s office staff. She died after collapsing at her job, apparently as the result of an underlying heart condition that had never been diagnosed.
Trump’s suggestion that there was something nefarious about the death has raised the question of whether Scarborough could potentially sue him for defamation. It also provoked Timothy Klausutis, who had been married to the deceased woman, to write to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
He asked Dorsey’s company to delete Trump’s tweets because “the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain.”
Twitter has not taken any action. At a press conference on Tuesday, Trump said he had seen the letter from Klausutis but insisted he was sure the deceased woman’s family would want to “get to the bottom” of what had happened to her.
At an earlier briefing to reporters, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said “our hearts are with Lori’s family at this time.”
McEnany also complained at the briefing about Scarborough’s wife and “Morning Joe” co-host, Mika Brzezinski, suggesting that Trump was culpable for the deaths of Americans in the coronavirus crisis.
For supporters of Biden, the attacks on Scarborough are predictable confirmation that the months to the election will include plenty of no-holds-barred attacks.
“If he is accusing Joe Scarborough of murder — and that’s basically what he is saying — what can we expect he is going to accuse Joe Biden of? Shooting John Kennedy?” mused Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina state senator and an early supporter of Biden who sits on the candidate’s finance committee. “There will be no allegation too fantastical and there are people who wear tinfoil on their head who will buy it.”
Late Tuesday, Twitter added a tag to Trump’s tweets about voting by mail, suggesting users could “get the facts about mail-in ballots.”
At that time, however, the president’s tweets about Scarborough still stood.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.