Letters From an American

“At This Point It’s Country Over Party”

Olivia Troye, the former top homeland security aide to Vice President Mike Pence

“At This Point It’s Country Over Party”

Flags. (Photo by Glenn Harper/ flickr CC 2.0)

September 17, 2020

It feels like power is slipping away from Trump and his administration, and they are trying desperately to claw it back. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his team are trying to criticize the president without getting sucked into his orbit, so they can focus on moving the country forward.

Today began with Trump’s former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warning in a New York Times op-ed that the 2020 election will determine “whether the American democratic experiment, one of the boldest political innovations in human history, will survive.” Our enemies, both “foreign and domestic,” are trying to destroy our faith in the upcoming election.

Calling for a bipartisan and nonpartisan commission to oversee the election, Coats said, “We must firmly, unambiguously reassure all Americans that their vote will be counted, that it will matter, that the people’s will expressed through their votes will not be questioned and will be respected and accepted.” He warned that if instead we accept “Total destruction and sowing salt in the earth of American democracy,” the only winners would be Vladimir Putin, [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping and [Iranian leader] Ali Khamenei.”

Coats did not mention Trump by name, but it was clear the president and his supporters were uppermost in Coats’s mind. Trump has repeatedly insisted that the mail-in voting means the election will be tainted, and that the only acceptable outcome is his own reelection. Today he tweeted: “Because of the new and unprecedented massive amount of unsolicited ballots which will be sent to “voters”, or wherever, this year, the Nov 3rd Election result may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED, which is what some want. Another election disaster yesterday. Stop Ballot Madness!” This is entirely inaccurate, and Twitter flagged it.

Trump followed this tweet with one urging people to vote in person and another claiming: “There is a group of people (largely Radical Left Democrats) that want ELECTION MAYHEM. States must end this CRAZY mass sending of Ballots. Also, a GIFT to foreign interference into our election!!! Stop it now, before it is too late.”

(Trump seems eager not just to stop mail-in voting but also to get people to vote in person, even urging North Carolinians to vote in person a second time after filling out a mail-in ballot. It’s happened enough that I’m curious about why he seems to want people to cast their ballots in person, especially since voting machines in North Carolina notoriously malfunctioned in 2016.)

Midday, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned the House Homeland Security Committee that “the intelligence community consensus is that Russia continues to try to influence our elections” by spreading disinformation through social media, online journals, and so on. Russians are “very active” in their attempts to undermine Biden’s campaign. They are trying to “sow divisiveness and discord” and “primarily to denigrate Vice President Biden and what the Russians see as kind of an anti-Russian establishment.” Russians are spreading the idea that mail-in ballots are insecure, and that Biden is slipping mentally—both stories Trump echoes.

Trump took to Twitter to argue with his FBI director. “But Chris, you don’t see any activity from China, even though it is a FAR greater threat than Russia, Russia, Russia. They will both, plus others, be able to interfere in our 2020 Election with our totally vulnerable Unsolicited (Counterfeit?) Ballot Scam. Check it out!”

The president’s attempt to deflect attention from Russia while putting it on China is more disinformation. Department of Homeland Security whistleblower Brian Murphy last week said that DHS acting Director Chad Wolf told him “to cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States, and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran. Mr. Wolf stated that these instructions specifically originated from White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.”

Today the administration lost two more employees to the Republican Political Alliance for Integrity and Reform (REPAIR), launched a week ago by former DHS officials Miles Taylor and Elizabeth Neumann. The group is made up of current and former Trump officials who oppose his reelection. Josh Venable, the former chief of staff to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Olivia Troye, the former top homeland security aide to Vice President Mike Pence, who played a key role on his coronavirus task force, both joined REPAIR today. Troye says she supports Biden because she thinks the US is in a constitutional crisis, and “at this point it’s country over party.” Troye recorded a scathing video about Trump for the coalition “Republican Voters Against Trump.”

Late this afternoon, a  federal judge in Washington state temporarily blocked Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s changes in the United States Postal Service in response to complaints from 14 states. Judge Stanley Bastian agreed “The states have demonstrated that the defendants are involved in a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service. They have also demonstrated that this attack on the Postal Service is likely to irreparably harm the states’ ability to administer the 2020 general election.” It’s not clear what the injunction will do, though, since most of the changes have already been made.

To reassure his base, Trump today announced he will create a national commission to promote “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.” He claims that US schools are indoctrinating children with a left-wing agenda that teaches them to hate America. This announcement was solely an attempt to rally his base; the federal government has no authority over school curriculum.

Tonight Biden participated in a CNN town hall in Pennsylvania with host Anderson Cooper, where he tried both to critique Trump’s administration and to demonstrate why he would be a good replacement for the president. The first difference between the two candidates was apparent immediately: while Trump sat during his town hall, Biden stood for the full hour and fifteen minutes. He was extremely well prepared for the live, unscripted comments from voters. Like the questions for Trump two days ago, the questions Biden fielded were pretty obvious ones.

He both answered the questions in detail and used them to criticize Trump. He took the president to task for his “close to criminal,” “totally irresponsible” response to the coronavirus and said that, if elected, he would increase testing and promote wearing masks. In response to Attorney General William Barr’s statement this week that lockdowns to combat the virus were the “greatest intrusion on civil liberties” in US History “other than slavery,” Biden said, “What takes away your freedom is not being able to see your kid; not being able to go to a football game or a baseball game; not being able to see your mom or dad, sick in the hospital.”

Biden pointed out that he and President Obama had never had to send troops into a city, and that crime had declined on their watch while it is ticking up under Trump. He criticized Trump’s attack on the peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., for a photo op, (although he incorrectly said Trump held the Bible upside down). He called for more accountability within police departments while defending “the vast majority” of law enforcement officers as “decent, honorable people,” who were eager to get rid of the “bad cops” in their midst. As president, he would bring law enforcement officers, unions, and communities of color to “sit at the table and agree on the fundamental things that need to be done” to move the country past the crisis it is in.

Crucially, Biden addressed the vast income inequality in America, casting himself as a voice for ordinary Americans. He reached back to his own youth as the son of a salesman in Scranton, Pennsylvania to contrast himself with Trump, who was born into great wealth. “I view this campaign as a campaign between Scranton and Park Avenue,” Biden said. “All Trump can see from Park Avenue is Wall Street. All he thinks about is the stock market.” He called for a raise for health care workers to more than $15 an hour.

When asked how he would make sure that future elections are not marred by this year’s great fight over mail-in ballots, Biden told voters, “Firstly, I would not try to throw into question the legitimacy of the election.”

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.