WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s pattern is now familiar: He makes a stunning assertion, on Twitter or impromptu. The head scratching begins.
Was he serious? Was he trying to distract from other negative news?
Allies are left to shrug their shoulders and brush off his remarks. Some regularly claim to have not read or heard them.
A public numbness sets in, to the point that even Trump’s most ardent political opponents have difficulty summoning outrage.
But this week the president offered a statement that stood out, even among many that have put Trump’s branding iron on the office.
His standing with the public flagging amid myriad crises, Trump floated on Twitter the prospect of delaying the Nov. 3 election — a suggestion more in line with autocrats who try to quash the public’s ability to vote than with the head of the world’s leading democracy.
It was a tweet that mattered, and couldn’t be ignored, even by many Republicans who have long given Trump a pass.
It mattered because it amounted to a stunning attack on the underpinnings of American democracy — on the notion that a nation that has held free and fair elections in the midst of wars, pandemics and the Great Depression might not be capable of doing so when it’s Trump’s political career that is on the line.
“Most presidents have leaned very hard in the other direction, even when times were tougher than now,” said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Indeed, Abraham Lincoln pressed for an election in 1864 when the Civil War was raging and his prospects for victory looked bleak, though he ultimately benefited in part by making it easier for soldiers in the field to vote. An election was also held on time in 1944, with incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt claiming victory in the midst of World War II.
But Trump does not appear to have the same attachment to the tenets of American democracy as his predecessors. He has repeatedly put stress on the nation’s institutions, prompting an obstruction of justice investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller and impeachment by the House of Representatives for seeking a foreign government’s help in digging up dirt on Joe Biden, now his Democratic opponent in the November election.
In 2020, Trump has aggressively turned his attention to the electoral process that will determine his political fate. He’s repeatedly raised unfounded accusations of fraud, particularly related to the uptick in mail-in voting that is expected because of safety fears during the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s also refused to say whether he would accept the outcome of the election, saying it's too soon to give an ironclad guarantee.
Trump made similar statements as a candidate in 2016, and has also flirted with election fraud conspiracy theories as a private citizen. The fear among Democrats and many elections experts in 2020, however, has been that Trump would wield the power of his office to affect the outcome of the election or Americans’ ability to vote — particularly if he thought he might be headed for defeat.
The president appeared to validate those fears this week. He tweeted that “Universal Mail-In Voting” — something that has not been proposed — would lead to “the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.”
“Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” he wrote.
Trump expanded his election attacks later in the day, saying he didn’t want to move forward with the vote unless the results are known the same day. Because of the expected increase of mail-in votes, which take longer to count, it’s likely that the results may not be known for days, particularly if the contest between Trump and Biden is close.
With the election less than 100 days away, both national and battleground state polls show Trump trailing Biden and losing support from Americans on his handling of the pandemic and other major issues.
In reality, Trump doesn’t have the ability to delay the election on his own. Changing the date would require approval from Congress — something Republican lawmakers made clear they would not support.
“Never in the history of the country, through wars and depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time, and we’ll find a way to do that again this November 3,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a stalwart Trump ally.
The best-case scenario, according to some observers, is that Trump’s broadsides against the electoral process are simply a way for him to explain away a possible loss.
“The hopeful scenario is that Trump is just laying the groundwork for a ‘sore loser’ campaign afterward where he won’t use legal mechanisms to challenge the election, but he will tell himself and his supporters that he was robbed and become a kind of a permanent irritant in the political system,” Galston said.
Still, many Democrats cast Trump’s tweet as a warning shot and a signal of what the president may be willing to do if it appears likely he will lose in November.
“This has got to be a wake-up call,” said Biden, whose campaign has assembled a team of 600 lawyers and observers who are assigned to safeguard the integrity of the election in every state.
Events on the other side of the world offered a cautionary tale.
The day after Trump floated a delay in the U.S. election, Hong Kong’s government announced that it would postpone September legislative elections for a year. The government blamed the coronavirus pandemic, but the move was seen as a way to sideline pro-democracy politicians seeking to push back on heavy-handedness by Beijing.
The White House condemned the move.
Associated Press writer Will Weissert in Washington contributed to this report.
Editor’s Note: Julie Pace has covered the White House and politics for AP since 2007. Follow her at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC