Editor’s Note: Anne Milgram is CNN contributor and a distinguished scholar in residence at New York University’s School of Law. She served as federal prosecutor and was attorney general of New Jersey from 2007 to 2010. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
In a stunningly dishonest and brazen speech from the White House this evening, President Trump falsely claimed that a secret cabal of Democratic voters and election officials was stealing the 2020 election from him. As he spoke, former Vice President Joe Biden was steadily approaching the 270 electoral college votes he needed to be elected President.
Trump’s remarks were plainly desperate, a last-ditch effort to claim that he is losing because others are cheating him. He accused the Democrats of trying to “steal” and “rig” the election, essentially implicating the entire Democratic Party in these imagined crimes. It was the kind of speech that, four years ago, I would not have believed any American president would make.
At its core, the President’s speech was an attack on our democracy and the legal voting systems long established in every one of our states and territories. The President screaming that the polls and voting were fraudulent – without any evidence of fraud – was the political equivalent of someone falsely screaming “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. The goal was to create confusion and undercut the outcome of the election.
Trump falsely claimed again that he could not possibly lose an honest election. “If you count the legal votes, I win the election,” he said. His argument was simple: votes for him are “legal” and the mail-in votes for Biden in battleground states (which Trump noted fall heavily in favor of Vice President Biden) are not.
Trump made these false claims without evidence. He did not mention the court cases that have been filed on his behalf based on the same false claims – some of which have already been tossed out of court for lacking merit.
He did not explain why his own vote – by mail, in Florida – was not fraudulent. Nor did he explain how the ballots cast in Senate elections – which appear on track to maintain Republican control of the Senate – were OK, while the votes cast for president on the exact same ballot were bogus.
The President explained nothing.
He did not talk about how the battleground states counting mail-in ballots were doing exactly what they should be doing. When I served as Attorney General for New Jersey, I oversaw the state Division of Elections. Each state sets its own rules for elections: when, how and where votes are cast and counted, and what forms of voting to allow – in person, by mail or both.
And then after the election, the states count the votes before they certify the winners. People may challenge votes or voters, if they have reason to believe that they are not legitimate. But a vote cannot be challenged simple because of the form it takes – sent by mail, for example – or because of the political candidate it is cast for.
The President didn’t talk about any of those things. He wanted to talk about a senseless theory about a national conspiracy coordinated on a vast scale by election officials and voters from Pennsylvania to Arizona to North Carolina to Georgia and beyond. The President has made variations of this argument for months, with no evidence to back it up.
What we have seen in evidence this week was something far larger and more beautiful than the evil scheme the President imagined. It was thousands and thousands of elections officials and workers, and the American people, joining together to reach a common goal – for citizens to exercise their democratic right and duty to vote, in the middle of a pandemic, in a battered economy, with many waiting in line for hours on end.
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It was a conspiracy – a conspiracy of democracy, whose goal was a fair and free election. To allow the people of the United States – regardless of their political party, or favorite candidate, or way that they voted – to stand up to be heard, and to have their say in how their government is run. Some state officials are Democrats, as are millions of voters. Some officials – and millions of voters – are Republicans. Many are neither. But at the end of the day, all are Americans.
Their votes must be counted.