Anyone not part of the cult of Trump who still doubts that he is a menace to American democracy has to be convinced by his concerted efforts lately to use his executive powers to steal the 2020 election. It’s a classic authoritarian tactic: hold an election, but rig it so that no one else can win.
Trump’s most obvious move of late—but not the only one–is to cripple the US Postal Service so that the expected deluge of mailed ballots triggered by the COVID-19 crisis can’t be processed and the election results are contested.
The other, just as potentially serious, is to use the Justice Department to charge political adversaries with what Trump calls “treason” and “the greatest political crime in American history” for allegedly “spying” on his 2016 campaign. If he had his way, those charged would include his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, along with former president Obama and assorted top former FBI officials.
So far, only an ex-FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, has been charged with—and is pleading guilty to–falsifying wiretap applications connected with the FBI’s probe of Russian aid to Trump’s 2016 campaign. Despite repeated allegations by Trump, Attorney General William Barr, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Fox News and other conservative outlets—also GOP Sens. Charles Grassley and Ron Johnson — about a high-level FBI-Obama-Biden “spygate” conspiracy, the Justice Department’s Inspector General said the overall Russia investigation was properly launched.
Barr nevertheless appointed Connecticut US Attorney John Durham to launch a criminal investigation. Barr has said he does not believe Obama or Biden will be charged, but that does not rule out release of a Durham report before the election that Trump and Barr could interpret as implicating Biden.
Trump has urged Barr and Durham “not to be politically correct” in handling the case, implying he expects Barr to validate his allegations, as Barr has loyally done in the past. Last-minute criminal disclosures and indictments may have defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Trump clearly hopes that this year’s “spygate” will damage Biden.
Meantime, his purposeful sabotage of the U.S. Postal Service could create election year chaos and raise doubts who won. Trump repeatedly claims—against all evidence–that mail-in voting would result in massive vote fraud, but he’s also said that if more Americans were able to vote, “you’d never have a Republican elected again.” Now, he’s openly admitted that he’s seeing to it that the Post Office is starved of funds in order to insure “you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to handle it.”
Washington-state-style mail-in voting will not be universal this election, but because of the COVID danger, almost every state has made it easier to cast an absentee ballot, covering 76 percent of the electorate. That includes six swing states crucial to winning this election—Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. On Thursday, Trump disingenuously said that if Congress passed a bill—such as House Democrats have already done—providing $25 billion to the Post Office, he might sign it.
Meantime, though, the Republican National Committee, state GOP organizations and the Trump-connected group, Honest Elections, have mounted lawsuits all over the country to block mail-in voting. And Louis DeJoy, Trump’s just-appointed Postmaster General (a major Trump donor who’s also an investor in USPS rival companies), has taken other actions to slow mail deliveries, including cancelling overtime pay and ousting two dozen experienced top Postal officials.
He was caught removing drop-off mailboxes in Montana and forced to reverse a planned national policy. But postal union officials across the country report USPS is removing and destroying hundreds of vital mail-sorting machines. USPS warned 46 states that its voters risk being disenfranchised by late ballot deliveries—even as Trump’s regime makes that danger a reality. The delays will make all but certain it will take days or even weeks to declare final voting results—a chaotic period during which Trump may well try to declare the results (if he loses, as polls now indicate he will) invalid.
Trump told Fox News’ Chris Wallace that he might not concede if election returns show he lost. What would happen then? A dismal, possibly violent set of scenarios was forecast by a “war game” exercise conducted by a bipartisan group of more than 100 current and former senior government officials and campaign officials assembled by the Transition Integrity Project. The full list of participants was not disclosed, but included the project’s originator, Georgetown University Prof. Rosa Parks, former Republican National Chairman Michael Steele, journalist David Frum, and Hillary Clinton Campaign director John Podesta—all opponents of Trump.
The group recommended that the Biden campaign prepare—legally and politically–for a contested end-game, as should state governors, secretaries of state, attorneys general, and legislatures. It also urged Congress to pass legislation limiting Trump’s executive powers in case he tries to use them to illegally hold onto the presidency.
The last request of Congress seems unlikely to happen in advance. The only action the Republican Senate has taken to slow Trump down was rejection of his suggestion that the election be postponed.
Only a few Republicans have raised a peep about his sabotage of the Postal Service. The Senate evidently won’t pass an emergency funding measure for USPS. And it hasn’t resisted other anti-democratic Trump moves. It wouldn’t convict him on clear evidence he held up Congressionally-approved military aid to Ukraine to force an investigation of Biden. GOP leader Mitch McConnell won’t even send to committee House-passed HR1, containing measures to protect voting from foreign interference among many election reform measures.
On a bipartisan basis, the Senate Intelligence Committee supported the unanimous conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections to help Trump and was likely to repeat in 2020. But the full Senate has taken no action. Trump has disputed the findings and replaced Directors of National Intelligence who supported them.
And that’s not all the actions Trump has taken to weaken democracy. Despite pleas from the U.S. Census Bureau for more time amid the COVID crisis to finish the 2020 population count, Trump has ordered it to end prematurely—ensuring that hard-to-reach people won’t be included. They include minorities, the homeless, Native Americans and others who might swell population in blue states.
The Census is the basis for reapportionment of House seats, meaning that Trump is tipping the scales toward a repeat of 2011, when GOP-dominated states gerrymandered their party into outsized influence for a decade.
It’s possible that the Supreme Court could help protect democracy. It just upheld Rhode Island’s mail-voting plan and earlier rejected Trump’s claim that a president has absolute immunity from criminal investigation. Then again, the Roberts court weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act, opening the way for GOP states to enact numerous voter-suppression laws. And recently it has refused to protect voter rights in specific cases.
To prevent Trump’s undermining democracy, Democrats need to make his efforts a major campaign issue. They are doing so in the case of the Postal Service, which is so popular (and vital) an American institution that raising the issue could have a significant effect on inconvenienced voters.
It’s a major Biden theme that “the soul of America” is at stake in the election, but he hasn’t emphasized that democracy itself is at risk. The only sure way to save democracy, though, is a massive Democratic voter mobilization that ensures Biden wins in a landslide that Trump can’t contest—and delivers a Senate majority as well.
Just in case, though, legal—and law enforcement—preparations need to be made to be certain that a defeated Trump actually departs the White House.