WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump drew immediate rebukes across the political spectrum Thursday after floating the prospect of delaying the November election and claiming without evidence that widespread mail balloting would be a “catastrophic disaster” leading to fraudulent results.
The suggestion represented Trump’s latest, and most dramatic, attempt to undermine public faith in U.S. elections, which have grown more regular as polls have shown his political fortunes declining. The president has attacked mail voting nearly 70 times since late March in interviews, remarks and tweets, including at least 17 times this month, according to a tally by The Washington Post.
Thursday’s tweet came on the heels of a devastating report showing that the economy shrank nearly 10% from April through June, the largest quarterly decline since the government began publishing such data 70 years ago.
But Trump encountered an unprecedented measure of pushback from senior Republicans in Congress, conservative leaders outside government and, of course, Democrats. Former president Barack Obama, speaking at the funeral of the late civil rights icon John Lewis in Atlanta, weighed in to say that “even as we sit here, those in power … are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting.” Obama, who has avoided public comments on much of Trump’s presidency, did not cite the tweet specifically or mention his successor by name.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was among many Republican senators who quickly and unequivocally rejected Trump’s idea. “Never in the history of the country, through wars, depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time,” McConnell said in a television interview with WNKY of Bowling Green, Kentucky. “We’ll find a way to do that again this Nov. 3.”
One of the most dramatic critiques came from Steven G. Calabrese, a co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society, who wrote in an opinion piece published in The New York Times on Thursday that the president’s tweet was “fascistic” and “grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment.”
Trump has enjoyed full-throated support from conservatives and nearly all congressional Republicans; the Federalist Society, for instance, has cheered on and even helped select his Supreme Court nominations. That support appeared to wobble Thursday, with Calebrese and many other Republicans not only alarmed by the president’s apparent disregard for the limits of his power, but emboldened to say so in public.
“Election Day is and will be Nov 3, 2020,” said Republican Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary to George W. Bush. “Mr. President — please don’t even pretend to mess with this. It’s a harmful idea.”
Added Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., on Twitter: “We are not moving the date of the election. The resistance to this idea among Republicans is overwhelming.” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., weighed in similarly.
Trump gave no indication that he will push for the date change, or that he thinks he has the power to do so.
“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” he tweeted Thursday morning. “It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
The U.S. Constitution gives the power to regulate the “time, place and manner” of general elections to Congress, while states control the dates of primary elections. Nowhere is the president granted such power.
In addition, the Constitution’s 20th Amendment spells out a hard end to a president’s and vice president’s four-year terms on Jan. 20, whether an election is held or not.
“The president has no power to change the date of the election,” said Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine. “This is yet another statement by the president which undermines voter confidence and that seeks without evidence to undermine the legitimacy of voting by mail.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., simply tweeted the relevant passage from the Constitution granting Congress the power to set election dates.
Other Democrats suggested that Trump’s suggestion reflected a realization that he could lose to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who has been leading in national and many battleground state polls.
“Donald Trump is terrified,” tweeted Sen. Kamala D. Harris, D-Calif., who is among those being considered as a running mate for Biden. “He knows he’s going to lose to @JoeBiden. It will require every single one of us to make that happen. We will see you at the ballot box on November 3rd, @realDonaldTrump.”
Some Democrats used the occasion to promote how-to instructions on mail balloting.
“President Trump is talking about delaying the November election because he is afraid of people voting by mail,” Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., said in a tweet in which she included a link to a Florida government website with instructions on how to do so. “You know what to do,” she added.
The president of the American Postal Workers Union, Mark Dimondstein, also rebuked the president for undermining confidence in the U.S. Postal Service and noting that there is “essentially no fraud” in mail balloting.
“It’s a tremendous insult for the president to be railing against vote by mail over and over and over and over, railing against the post office,” Dimondstein said. “It’s an insult to every postal worker and every customer who trusts the post office.”
Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., called Trump’s tweet “despicable,” especially because it came on the day of civil rights icon John Lewis’ funeral.
“Americans will rise up & continue John’s fight for unfettered access to the ballot box,” Clyburn tweeted. “Our voices will not be silenced.”
Trump appeared unfazed by the criticism, even “pinning” the message at the top of his Twitter feed to elevate its stature. But several Trump advisers said no internal discussions are underway within the White House about moving the election. The tweet caught aides by surprise, said one senior adviser who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “He is just trolling,” said another.
Indeed, Trump offered up a new tweet later Thursday suggesting that he had manipulated news outlets into covering the issue: “Glad I was able to get the very dishonest LameStream Media to finally start talking about the RISKS to our Democracy from dangerous Universal Mail-In-Voting (not Absentee Voting, which I totally support!).”
Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said on Fox Business that “obviously” the president understands that he doesn’t have the authority to move the election.
A Department of Justice spokeswoman declined to comment on Trump’s tweet. Earlier this week at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, however, Attorney General William Barr told Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., he had not studied the question of whether the president could move the election date.
“I’ve never been asked the question before. I’ve never looked into it,” Barr said.
Biden suggested in April that Trump might try to move the election date. At the time, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh accused Biden of “incoherent, conspiracy-theory ramblings” and said that “President Trump has been clear that the election will happen on Nov. 3.”
Another Trump spokesman, Hogan Gidley, said in a statement that the president was merely “raising a question about the chaos Democrats have created with their insistence on all mail-in voting.”
In fact, most Democrats are pushing for mail balloting in addition to early in-person and Election Day voting — not universal mail balloting, as Trump has alleged — because even though many voters have expressed a new preference for voting by mail because of fear of infection, many other voters remain more comfortable casting their ballots in person.
Trump has argued that mail-in voting tends to hurt Republicans at the ballot box.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted this month shows that 51% of Democrats prefer voting by mail this fall, compared to 20% of Republicans. However, a recent study by Stanford University researchers found no partisan impact of expanding voting by mail.
At the congressional hearing, Barr repeated his concern that he felt there was a “high risk” mail-in voting would lead to fraud, but said he did not believe the election would be rigged — seeming to break with Trump.
“I have no reason to think it will be,” Barr said.
Even if Congress voted to delay the general election, the electoral college is still required to elect a president under federal law. If lawmakers changed that, too, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence would still be required to leave office by noon Jan. 20. With no successor, the speaker of the House of Representatives, currently Pelosi, would be next in line.