It’s been a big week for the questions “Can Trump do that?” and “Will he actually follow through?” First Trump threatened to delay the election in a tweet. It was one of his most brazen authoritarian attempts – and thankfully, one of his least realistic, as only Congress can call for such a suspension. Next came the president’s Friday night claim that he would ban TikTok, a move that he eventually walked back, saying that he approved of a potential sale of the Chinese-owned social-media app to Microsoft — if the U.S. Treasury got a taste of the sale price.
Those two queries came up again during the White House coronavirus press conference on Monday, in regard to President Trump’s increasingly obvious strategy to delegitimize the mail-in ballot this November. In response to a question from a reporter from the far-right OAN network on the vast expansion of voting by mail due to the pandemic, Trump said that he is considering stopping any further efforts to make mail-in voting easier, claiming: “I have the right to do it. We haven’t gotten there yet. We’ll see what happens.”
The president, who spent the decade prior to his entry into politics in reality TV, is prone to such cliffhanger pronouncements. But even if he did follow through with such a bold order, it would immediately be challenged in the courts by voting-rights advocates — who would detail the minuscule threat of mail-in ballot fraud. Though Trump may very well bail on such a notion, it is important to track his escalating rhetoric against mail-in ballots, which will either help ensure safe voter turnout as experts predict, or realize the president’s fear of “the greatest election disaster in history.” On Monday, Trump also announced his intention to sue the state of Nevada for providing mailed ballots to all its residents, an act he called a “coup.”
As New York’s Ed Kilgore has noted, the president is engaging in a two-pronged strategy to demonize voting by mail: First, by encouraging Republican voters to brave the pandemic and vote in-person while drumming up fears about fraudulent mail-in ballots, and second, by slowing the ability of the USPS to deliver mail in a timely manner. The ultimate goal of this strategy may be an attempt to declare victory on Election Night based on early exit polls leaning in the president’s favor, then declare the slow crawl of mail-in ballots afterward as “fraudulent in many cases” — despite mail-ballot fraud being even less common than the already negligible concern of ballot fraud in person. His intentions have certainly been clear — in April, Trump claimed that mail-in voting “doesn’t work out well for Republicans” — even if his factual understanding is not. This spring, the largest study to date on the partisan leanings of mail-in voters determined that the practice does not disproportionately benefit either party.