Until now it may have sounded overblown to say President Donald Trump was threatening to interfere with the operation of the November election. Not anymore. Partisan squabbles over ballot procedures are common, but this is reaching a new level.
Trump practically shouted the quiet part out loud in a Fox Business Network interview Thursday when he lashed out at Democrats in Congress seeking to shore up mail delivery in the midst of the pandemic.
"They want $25 billion for the post office," Trump complained. "Now they need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. But if they don't get [it], that means you can't have universal mail-in voting because they're not equipped to have it."
The president indicated he would resist. Later in the day, however, he said he would not veto coronavirus legislation if it included funding for the U.S. Postal Service.
Sure, Trump issues so many whoppers and empty threats big and small that you can’t even take his most dire postures seriously. Remember early on, when he was throwing around the prospect of nuclear war on the Korean peninsula?
Still, Trump's drive to destroy confidence in a voting process challenged by the pandemic — if not discourage participation outright — has become clear. For context: His new postmaster general, campaign donor Louis DeJoy, has moved to carry out cost-reducing service cuts as coronavirus-era demand rises for deliveries and mail-in ballots.
Slowing the vote by further degrading the Postal Service wouldn't be a surgical task. Collateral damage could hurt Trump voters, Joe Biden voters and nonvoters alike. Like other Americans, they get mail-order prescription drugs and other vital deliveries that service cutbacks stand to delay.
Those facts will be broadcast loudly by Biden and other Democrats.
Trump has said mail-in voting will hurt Republicans — which GOP election officials in many states deny, as some invite party members to apply as early as possible for the ballots. The president has said falsely several times that election boards sent out ballots unrequested, when in fact they had sent out applications.
Trump has alleged over and over that U.S. elections will or can be "rigged." Because he's never produced a shred of evidence, there's reason to believe he would not rig things for himself if he can.
Trump raises the prospect that there could be weeks or months of litigation over the count of mail-in ballots. All this feeds speculation that he could declare victory on election night no matter what — and thus delegitimize a win for Biden.
Two weeks ago, he said large numbers of mail-in ballots might mean “you never even know who won the election.” Just saying that, falsely or not, can be destabilizing.
As we've seen before, Trump leaves himself wiggle room when eroding confidence in legitimate institutions. For example, he has said "absentee ballots" are fine, particularly in Florida, where he has voted by mail.
This is sheer gaslighting. Mail-in ballots and absentee ballots are the same thing.
Or he could end up backing off by saying he opposed only "universal" mail-in voting, whatever that means. This week, he told North Carolina supporters who called into a telephone rally: "You can request absentee ballots right now. Absentee ballots are great."
On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down efforts by the Republican National Committee to break an agreement that allows Rhode Island residents to vote by mail through the November election without having to get signatures from two witnesses or a notary. The state suspended the witness requirement due to the coronavirus health risk.
Trump and allies, evoking the specter of fraud, don't even pretend for patriotism's sake that they want everyone who is eligible to vote. They also offer no alternative plans to make casting ballots easier amid the pandemic. Trump's strategy sits out in plain sight, ready for the people to judge.