In a late-night speech from the White House, President Trump declared the plan he has been openly signaling for weeks: He hopes to steal the 2020 election by prematurely declaring himself the winner and halting the tabulation of outstanding ballots that, if counted, would give Joe Biden a strong chance of victory.
Trump’s argument is simple and farcical. In states where Trump trails, like Arizona, he urges that more votes should be counted and that he will probably win. (Fox News has called Arizona for Biden, a projection that was followed up around 3 a.m. by the Associated Press.) In states where Trump leads, no more votes should be counted. Trump on Georgia, where his opponent is slightly favored to pull ahead by projections: “They’re never gonna catch us, they can’t catch us.” There is no principle here more sophisticated than “Heads I win, tails you lose.”
“We were getting ready for a big celebration … all of a sudden it was just called off,” the president complained, when “a very sad group of people is trying to disenfranchise that group of people [who supported him]. We won’t stand for it … We were winning everything and all of a sudden it was just called off.” This is a completely fantastical description bearing no relation to what happened. As analysts have predicted for weeks, late-arriving ballots favored Joe Biden and have eaten into Trump’s early lead.
What gives Trump the opportunity to steal the election is that the coronavirus has caused the two parties’ voters to choose different means of casting their ballots. Democrats have by and large taken the pandemic seriously and voted by mail. Republicans have followed Trump’s message that the virus is harmless and voted primarily in person. Republican legislators in several key Midwest swing states refused to allow their election offices to tabulate mail ballots early, so that the same-day vote would be counted first, giving Trump a lead he could use to discredit counting mail ballots.
Even though it was very clear that Trump intended to pursue this dangerous and destabilizing strategy, it’s telling that Republican legislators cooperated with it. Now he has the opening to launch legal challenges to prevent the tabulation of legal votes.
Trump has said he wanted to appoint a ninth Supreme Court justice in order to have that appointee decide the election in his favor. He has even made his case directly to the Court that its self-interest lies in giving him a second term. There is no legal leg to stand on at the moment, but what ensues after he tries to prevent vote-counting remains to be seen.
Joe Biden’s speech emphasized that he believes he will eventually win when all the votes are counted. “We believe we’re on track to win this election. We knew because of the unprecedented early vote and the mail-in vote it was going to take a while,” he said, “We’re going to have to be patient until the hard work of tallying the votes is finished. And it ain’t over until every vote is counted, every ballot is counted.”
Biden wants to count all the votes and let the candidate who wins by the rules become the next president. Trump wants to steal the election. He is exactly who he seemed to be all along.
Update: Biden has now taken the lead in the Electoral College in overnight counting, which makes Trump’s strategy untenable. Trump’s incentive to stop counting the votes is gone because he currently trails. In a closer election, he could have possibly found a way to suppress enough votes to win. But Biden’s lead is robust enough, and formed quickly enough, to make any desperation legal strategy moot. The trailing candidate always wants to continue counting votes. And Trump is trailing now.