Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a senior political analyst at CNN. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
President Donald Trump doesn’t really like democracy.
That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from his latest statements which undercut confidence in the presidential election now less than 100 days away.
On Thursday morning he fired off this tweet – designed to alarm people and distract from the worst quarterly GDP loss in recorded American history: “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???”
Make no mistake – this is the sitting President of the United States, who is seeking a second term, floating the idea of delaying the upcoming election. That’s something America has never done – even in the depths of the Civil War.
But Trump’s comments are part of a pattern from his team.
In an interview with Time magazine, last May, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner was asked if he was willing to “commit that the elections will happen on November third,” due to the coronavirus. He answered: “I’m not sure I can commit one way or the other, but right now that’s the plan.”
The princeling was immediately slammed then for his weak grasp of the facts: that the timing of elections is determined by the Congress, not the President, according to the US Constitution.
But that basic rule was still news to Attorney General William Barr when he was asked in a hearing before the Judiciary Committee this week by Congressman Cedric Richmond whether a presidential election could be single-handedly delayed by the President.
“Actually, I haven’t looked into that question under the Constitution,” Barr said.
The correct answer, for those playing at home, is “Hell no – we do not delay elections in the United States and in any case, the President doesn’t have that power under the Constitution.”
But Barr’s rhetorical shrug is either a statement of basic ignorance from a smart man entrusted to protect and defend the Constitution, or it is another “tell” from a Trump toady who is reluctant to contradict his boss or the cause of expanded presidential power. (Keep in mind that in the same congressional hearing Barr had to be asked twice whether it was ever appropriate for a president to ask a foreign power to interfere in an election on their behalf, before croaking “No.”).
Delaying the election is not an option for a president, even during a pandemic with 150,000 dead, when he is falling behind in the polls. So why is he doing this?
This dangerous game is really part of an extended effort by the President to sow the seeds of doubt in the legitimacy of the election if he should lose.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to President Trump in his interview with Chris Wallace last weekend when asked whether he would accept the results of the election.
“It depends. I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election. I really do,” Trump said.
“Are you suggesting that you might not accept the results of the election?” Wallace prodded.
Trump responded, “No. I have to see.”
This is part of a pattern of recent statements from Trump preemptively calling the 2020 election results rigged, as on July 26, when he tweeted: “Rigged Election, and EVERYONE knows it!”
And that’s one of some 40 times this year alone that President Trump has called the upcoming election rigged.
The usual target that triggers him is mail-in voting – a common form of absentee voting that is predominant in five states and accounted for roughly 25% of the votes cast in 2016.
But Trump insists it is major source of voter fraud while Barr has suggested without evidence that it could be a tool of foreign interference. In fact, studies show that the rate of mail-in ballot fraud is a miniscule .0025%.
Let’s be clear: this is a desperate self-interested attempt at undercutting our democracy by a frightened narcissist who is terrified that he will be exposed as a loser. And he is willing to dismantle faith in our democracy to avoid that personal pain.
That is a hostile action that his partisan defenders on this count are gleefully aiding and abetting. Witness the comment by GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer to CNN about Trump’s tweet to delay the elections: “I think that if you guys take the bait, he’ll be the happiest guy in town. I read it. I laughed I thought my gosh this is going to consume a lot of people, except real people. And it was clever.”
In other words, “don’t worry, be happy.” Now imagine Cramer’s response if former President Barack Obama had said something even remotely similar.
Threats to delay our elections or undercut faith in their results should not be a partisan issue. This cuts to the core of who we are as a democracy. It is exposing again just how much hyper-partisan rot has addled the brains of so many senior elected officials from an allegedly co-equal branch of government.
Remember, Trump also repeatedly refused to say whether he’d accept the results of the 2016 election, believing that he would lose – as polls showed he would (accurately reflecting the popular vote, but not the electoral outcome).
Since he took office, Trump has consistently acted in ways to expand presidential power and dismantle democratic norms, with the acquiescence of Senate Republicans. And we know from former Trump aides like John Bolton that Trump tries to do favors for dictators and often expresses admiration for their uncontested power.
This was an instinct in evidence long before he entered politics, as when he praised China’s communist party for violently crushing the protests of the country’s own citizens in Tiananmen Square. And, of course, he has consistently refused to condemn or confront Russia’s Vladimir Putin, most recently declining to even discuss intelligence reports that Russia paid bounties to Taliban leaders to kill US troops – despite having repeated calls with the autocratic leader.
This is not a joke. This is our democracy that Trump is playing with. And he is making his intentions known in plain sight.
Unless the election is a blow-out, Trump will almost certainly contest the results, which could lead to unprecedented chaos. This would be compounded by the the massive number of absentee and mail-in votes that will be cast during Covid, possibly keeping the nation from knowing the winner until well after Election Day. It is a nightmare scenario that could make the United States look like a failed state.
In the middle of a bloody Civil War – a far greater crisis than we face—Abraham Lincoln heard suggestions that he delay the 1864 election. It looked to many like he would lose. But he rejected that advice, later explaining: “we cannot have free government without elections, and if the rebellion could force us to forgo, or post-pone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered or ruined us.”
The same logic applies today. But Trump is the anti-Lincoln, the prime driver of our destabilization rather than a reconciler who aims to heal our divided nation.
Trump is making his intentions clear. So it is up to up to the rest of us to buckle up for a fight to save the republic against a President who will do anything he can to hold on to power, regardless of rules – including destroying trust in our democracy.