On Thursday night, Trump himself explained the tweet as an attempt to focus the country on the prospect of massive mail-in voter fraud, a phenomenon that researchers say does not exist and could be guarded against with more funding. At a press briefing, Trump flashed article after article for the cameras about anecdotal problems with absentee votes during the primaries.
“I don’t want to delay,” he claimed. “I want to have the election. But I also don’t want to have to wait for three months and then find out that the ballots are all missing and the election means nothing.”
“That’s what’s going to happen,” he added, predicting that with “litigation” the results could be unknown for “years,” perhaps forever. “Smart people may know it. Stupid people may not.”
As is often the case, Trump dashed off his attention-hoovering tweet at an opportune moment Thursday morning. The worst economic decline ever recorded in U.S. history had just been announced. An aid package to save tens of millions of consumers was stuck in a deadlock. The rampant pandemic at the core of the problem was spiraling further out of control. And his poll numbers were floundering just three months away from the election.
So Trump did what he so often does when under pressure: He tried to change the subject, giving himself cover for any future failures.
For months, faced with the dual crises of a life-altering pandemic and a nationwide protest movement against racism, Trump has been laying the groundwork to contest the election results — refusing to commit to accepting the results, leveling baseless allegations that mail-in balloting will create the “the greatest Rigged Election in history.”
Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, even raised alarm in liberal circles in May when he toldTime magazine that he could not “commit one way or the other” to holding the election on Nov. 3, the date that is set by law. “Right now that’s the plan,” he said, later clarifying that there had not been any “discussions” inside the White House about changing Election Day.
Indeed, each time Trump or anyone in his circle walks up to the line of saying the election may be delayed or that the president may refuse to leave office — nightmare scenarios frequently bandied about in progressive circles and joked about on late-night shows — they always back off.
“Certainly, if I don’t win, I don’t win,” Trump told Fox News’ Harris Faulkner in a June interview. “You go on, do other things.”
Yet Trump and his sprawling circle of MAGA supporters like to needle liberals over their fears. During one stretch earlier this year, the president would often make playful suggestions about staying in office beyond the constitutional limit of two terms, sarcastically tweeting and joking about it at rallies.
Any time one of Trump’s critics has suggested that the president might be serious about these authoritarian ponderings, MAGA world has attacked. The reaction was most pronounced in April, when Biden, Trump’s presumptive 2020 Democratic rival, predicted Trump would try to find a way to push back the November election.
“Mark my words,” Biden said at a fundraiser. “I think he is going to try to kick back the election somehow; come up with some rationale why it can’t be held.”
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh lashed out at the time, calling the remarks “the incoherent, conspiracy theory ramblings of a lost candidate who is out of touch with reality. President Trump has been clear that the election will happen on November 3rd.”
On Fox News that night, anchors and guests castigated and mocked Biden for the remarks, saying he was deranged and trying to instill fear in the electorate. “Someone might want to check up on Joe Biden during this lockdown — he’s saying some very strange things,” said Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and onetime GOP presidential candidate, calling Biden’s prediction “a bizarre conspiracy theory.”
Three days later, Trump himself explicitly shot down the prospect: “I never even thought of changing the date of the election. Why would I do that?”
Yet Thursday’s tweet appeared to put the concept back in the realm of possibility — despite the fact that Trump can’t unilaterally move the election. Congressional leaders flatly rejected the idea and those in Trump’s circles reaffirmed it’s not being discussed.
Trump himself Thursday night even disavowed any desire to delay the election, describing a desired image of himself on election night “standing, hopefully hand held high, big victory.”
It’s “not real” said a former Trump adviser who remains close to the campaign, claiming no one has spoken about it. The person described it as Trump just tweeting something without giving it much thought or discussion.
“Like many tweets, people either cringed or laughed when they read it. But no one seriously entertained the idea,” agreed a senior Republican aide.
That said, the former Trump adviser heard an administration official had contacted an outside attorney to see whether Trump could halt the postal service from sending out mail-in ballots, citing attempted fraud or foreign interference. The attempt does not mean there is a plan to do this, however.
In the online echo chamber of Trump’s conservative followers, many portrayed Trump’s tossed-off thought as an attempt to troll his liberal critics.
Wayne Dupree, a far-right radio host who Trump has retweeted, said the president had intentionally “triggered” the political class with his suggestion. “Now watch them trip over their ankles until Sunday morning television programs slamming him for even ‘suggesting out loud’ that the election be delayed,” he tweeted, adding, “FYI. A POTUS can’t delay an election, it takes an act of Congress.”
“POTUS is quite likely baiting a hysteric response,” tweeted Fred Lucas, a White House correspondent at The Daily Signal, a conservative, Heritage Foundation-backed news site.
The point, said Stephen L. Miller, conservative media critic and contributor to The Spectator, is “to get you and an entire media apparatus to write about it instead of GDP crashing, or John Lewis’ funeral, which Trump should be attending instead of tweeting, and like usual, it worked.”
By that measure, it has worked. Before Trump got online Thursday morning, the predominant media narrative was challenging Trump’s ever-hopeful prognostications about how the country is recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, poll after poll and story after story — all of which Trump claims are fake or biased — have been chronicling the president’s tumbling reelection prospects.
But after Trump’s Thursday morning tweet, everyone turned their attention away from those issues — and to Trump himself.
Lawmakers were asked about whether they would delay the election (they won’t). Legal scholars resurrected their explanations for how American elections work (the president doesn’t control them). Pundits chided the president for trampling yet another norm. It was the first question Trump got at his Thursday evening press conference, and took up the bulk of the brief Q&A session.
So in the end, Trump got more cover for a potential loss — building on his evidence-deficient warnings that existing laws will create a fraudulent result in November.
“I don’t want to see a crooked election,” Trump said. “This election will be the most rigged election in history, if that happens.”
And Trump had doused yet another media cycle with his own narrative — rinse, repeat.
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.