Letters From an American

Gaming the System

It is all about the Electoral College now

Gaming the System

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 20: White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a news briefing on the latest development of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. at the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House March 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. With deaths caused by the coronavirus rising and foreseeable economic turmoil, the Senate is working on legislation for a $1 trillion aid package to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. President Trump announced that tax day will be delayed from April 15 to July 15. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Both the administration’s disastrous response to the coronavirus and looming legal troubles are putting pressure on the president.

Yesterday, Dr. Deborah Birx, the advisor to the White House on the coronavirus pandemic, warned we are entering a “new phase” of the disease as it is “extraordinarily widespread.” Today, Trump accused Birx of crumbling under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s criticism of her usually upbeat presentations about the crisis. “So Crazy Nancy Pelosi said horrible things about Dr. Deborah Birx, going after her because she was too positive on the very good job we are doing on combatting the China Virus, including Vaccines & Therapeutics. In order to counter Nancy, Deborah took the bait & hit us. Pathetic!”

When reporters asked what he meant by the tweet, he answered, “Well, I think that we’re doing very well and we have done as well as any nation.”

The US has more than 4.5 million infections and more than 155,000 deaths.

In an astonishing interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios, aired tonight, the president could not seem to grapple with the reality that the numbers of dead are climbing in America. He continued to insist that what mattered are cases, and that we have high infection numbers only because we are testing. Swan explained that our death rate as a proportion of our population is “really bad,” but Trump incorrectly insisted it is “lower than the world,” and told Swan, “You’re not reporting it correctly.”

Today another penny dropped, too. We learned that the Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. is apparently investigating Trump for more than the hush money paid to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, who both claimed to have had an affair with Trump. Vance’s team appears to be focusing on tax fraud, insurance fraud, and bank fraud, all crimes Trump fixer Michael Cohen said were on the table. According to CNN legal analyst Elie Honig, this is significant because hush money payments are hard to prove because the prosecutors have to prove intent. Financial fraud, in contrast, is based on documents.

This seems to be bad news for Trump, and his lawyers were in court today trying again to stop Vance’s subpoena of Trump’s financial documents from his accountants, Mazars USA.

As for the upcoming election, there is something obvious in front of us:

No one is pretending that Trump is going to win the popular vote. He’s not even trying to. He’s doubling down on the culture wars that excite his base in the hopes of getting them to turn out in strong numbers, most recently by sending federal law enforcement officers into cities led by Democrats in order to create images of what looks like rioting, to enable him to set himself up as defending “law and order.”

At the same time, he and his supporters in the Republican Party are working to guarantee an undercount of votes for his opponent by attacking mail-in voting, shutting down polling places, kicking people off voter rolls, undercutting the United States Postal Service, and even, perhaps, by permitting a wave of evictions that will make it significantly harder for displaced people to vote.

It is notable that, as a country, we are not talking about policies or winning majorities. We are talking about how Trump can win by gaming the Electoral College, or by cheating.

In the past few days, polls have shown that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is running strong against Trump in the Rust Belt swing states that Trump needs to win. A new poll yesterday shows Biden at 50% and Trump at 41% in Pennsylvania, whose 20 electoral votes Trump picked up in 2016 and that he sure would like to have again this time, although there are routes for him to win without them.

Also yesterday, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story about a crisis in mail delivery. “Neighborhoods across the Philadelphia region are experiencing significant delays in receiving their mail, with some residents going upwards of three weeks without packages and letters, leaving them without medication, paychecks, and bills,” it began. The recent overhaul of USPS procedures has led to the pileup of undelivered mail across the country.

The new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, a Trump loyalist, claims his new regulations are to promote efficiency, but the sudden slowdown of mail delivery just as people begin to receive and return their ballots raises concerns that it is a deliberate attempt to skew the vote. On “Fox News Sunday,” yesterday, host Chris Wallace asked senior Trump campaign advisor Jason Miller “Isn’t the postmaster general increasing the chances that the Postal Service will be overwhelmed… coming up to the election?” Miller replied that any problems would not be DeJoy’s fault, but rather the fault of Democrats who are changing the rules around mail-in voting.

The Trump campaign is also alarmingly unwilling to rule out accepting foreign help to pull out a win. According to former National Security Advisor John Bolton, Trump asked Chinese leader Xi Jinping for help swinging agricultural states back to the Trump camp with large purchases of US agricultural products, and ask that he apparently got with the Chinese trade deal of January 15.

Last week, a Brazilian newspaper reported that US Ambassador to Brazil Todd Chapman lobbied for lower ethanol tariffs by emphasizing “the importance for the Bolsonaro government of maintaining Donald Trump as US President.” According to a letter written by the chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Eliot Engel (D-NY) and chair of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, and Trade Albio Sires (D-NY) to Chapman, demanding an explanation by 5:00 on August 4, the article went on: “Iowa is the largest ethanol producer in the United States…and could be a key player in Trump’s election. Hence the importance – according to Chapman – for the Bolsonaro government to do the US a favor.” The report has been independently confirmed by another Brazilian newspaper.

We know Trump pressured Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into Hunter Biden and the company that had hired him, Burisma, before he would release congressionally appropriated money to help our ally resist Russian incursions. And we know that Ukrainians linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin are currently feeding information to Republicans involved with the Senate’s own new investigation of Hunter Biden.

Last summer, Trump said he would take help from Russia or other countries if they produced information he could use against his opponents. On “Fox News Sunday,” Jason Miller refused to say that the campaign would not accept foreign help in this election. Host Chris Wallace pressed him on the issue three times, and Miller simply called the question “silly.”

“Can you flatly state that the Trump campaign and the administration will not accept foreign assistance this time?” Wallace asked. “Chris, I said that’s an absolutely silly question. We’re going to go and win this election fair and square,” Miller answered.

In 2019, Ellen L. Weintraub, former chair of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) officially stated: “Let me make something 100% clear to the American public and anyone running for public office: It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a US election.” She continued, “This is not a novel concept. Electoral intervention from foreign governments has been considered unacceptable since the beginnings of our nation.”

The FEC does not currently have enough members on it to have a quorum, leaving it unable to conduct business.

The concern that a sitting president is angling not to win reelection by appealing to a majority, but rather by using the apparatus of his high office to cheat, is unprecedented, and we must not normalize it.

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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.