President Donald Trump’s bullying, cajoling and constant interruptions in the first 2020 general election debate with former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday night made the whole affair confusing and difficult to follow. And while there will (rightly) be scads of attention paid to Trump’s unwillingness to condemn white supremacists and hate groups, there was actually a moment that I found more frightening – and isn’t getting anywhere near the same amount of attention.
Here’s it is – in an exchange between debate moderator Chris Wallace and Trump:
Wallace: Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest? And will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified? President Trump, you go first.
Trump: I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully. Because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it. As you know, today, there was a big problem. In Philadelphia they went in to watch. They were called poll watchers – a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things. And I – I am urging – I am urging my people. I hope it’s going to be a fair election. If it’s a fair election…
Wallace: You’re urging them what?
Trump: … I am 100% on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that. And I’ll tell you what. From a common-sense…
Wallace: What does that mean, you can’t go along? Does that mean you’re going to tell your people to take to the streets?
Trump: I’ll tell you what it means. It means you have a fraudulent election. You’re sending out 80 million ballots.
Asked directly whether he will tell his voters not to engage in any sort of violence or “civil unrest” while the votes are being counted on and beyond November 3, the President of the United States not only refused to do so but also reiterated his call to his supporters to go to polling places and “watch” people casting votes.
Asked whether he is “going to tell your people to take to the streets” if the election results is either not decided on November 3 or not decided in his favor, Trump responded this way: “It means you have a fraudulent election. You’re sending out 80 million ballots.”
It’s impossible to overstate how dangerous what Trump said above actually is. But before we get into the big-picture impact, let’s look at the facts (or, better put, lack thereof) in the claims Trump made.
Trump said there was a “big problem” in Philadelphia on Tuesday because some of his supporters went to watch people vote and “they were thrown out.” That’s not what happened. What did happen is this: Trump backers tried to get into so-called “satellite centers” in Philadelphia that operate not at polling locations but rather as voter-service centers. So, you can submit a mail-in ballot there, but you can’t actually, you know, vote there.
“The satellite offices are Board of Elections Offices that provide voter services to the residents of Philadelphia for mail-in ballots,” said Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt in a statement obtained by a local TV station. “Satellite offices are not polling places and poll watcher certificates have not been issued for any individuals for anything other than poll watching activities on Election Day at Polling Places. So individuals seeking to receive services from a satellite office are not permitted to be there for other purposes.”
So, Trump is wrong on the facts.
Now, step back and see what he is doing here. There is NO question that urging his supporters to show up at actual polling places is aimed at intimidation, not transparency. How do I know? Because there has never been any evidence of widespread voter fraud in an American presidential election. Not one. (Just ask top GOP election lawyer Ben Ginsberg.)
While both parties traditionally use “poll watchers” (read more about that here) what Trump is calling for here seems to be aimed at keeping people who would vote against him – particularly Black and brown voters – away from the polls.
“Be poll watchers when you go there,” Trump said at a recent rally in North Carolina. “Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do. And that comment came less than a month after Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity this about his plans for poll watchers: “We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement, and we’re going to have, hopefully, US attorneys, and we’re going to have everybody and attorney generals (sic).” (While Trump lacks the authority to assign law enforcement to monitor polling places, he could employ off-duty cops for the job.)
If you think saying that you will put police officers at polling places to avoid “thieving and stealing and robbing” that “they do” isn’t mean as a scare tactic to keep minority populations from voting, let me introduce you to the last 400 years of American history.
In the space of a few sentences then, Trump repeated his urgings to his supporters to show up at polling places to intimidate potential voters and actively refused to call for calm in the days after the election in the event there isn’t a declared winner.
This is the President of the United States, people. And even if he weren’t in such a powerful position, what Trump is saying would be deeply irresponsible. As it is, what he is saying is incredibly dangerous.