Letters From an American

Trump: “We’re Going to Have to See What Happens”

An Atlantic article rings the fire bell.

Trump: "We're Going to Have to See What Happens"

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

September 23, 2020

Today Americans were roiled by an article in The Atlantic, detailing the method by which the Trump campaign is planning to steal the 2020 election. The article was slated for The Atlantic’s November issue, but the editor decided to release it early because of its importance.

The article’s author, Barton Gellman, explains that Trump will not accept losing the 2020 election. If he cannot win it, he plans to steal it. We already know he is trying to suppress voting and his hand-picked Postmaster General is working to hinder the delivery of mail-in ballots. Now Trump’s teams are recruiting 50,000 volunteers in 15 states to challenge voters at polling places; this will, of course, intimidate Democrats and likely keep them from showing up.

But if those plans don’t manage to depress the Democratic vote enough to let him declare victory, he intends to insist on calling a winner in the election on November 3. His legal teams will challenge later mail-in ballots, which tend to swing Democratic, on the grounds that they are fraudulent, and they will try to silence local election officials by attacking them as agents of antifa or George Soros. The president and his team will continue to insist that the Democrats are refusing to honor the results of the election.

Gellman warns that the Trump team is already exploring a way to work around the vote counts in battleground states. Rather than appointing Democratic electors chosen by voters, a state legislature could conclude that the vote was tainted and appoint a Republican slate instead. A Trump legal advisor who spoke to Trump explained they would insist they were protecting the will of the people from those who were trying to rig an election. “The state legislatures will say, ‘All right, we’ve been given this constitutional power. We don’t think the results of our own state are accurate, so here’s our slate of electors that we think properly reflect the results of our state,’ ” the adviser explained. The election would then go to Congress, where there would be two sets of electoral votes to fight over… and things would devolve from there.

They would likely end up at the Supreme Court, to which Trump this morning said he was in a hurry to confirm a new justice so there would be a solid majority to rule in his favor on the election results. “I think this will end up in the Supreme Court and I think it’s very important that we have nine justices, and I think the system’s going to go very quickly,” he said. “Having a 4-4 situation is not a good situation.”

Amidst the flurry of concern over The Atlantic piece, a reporter this afternoon asked Trump if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election. “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump said. “You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster.” He went on to say: “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very — we’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer frankly, there’ll be a continuation.”

In response to this shocking rejection of the basic principles of our government, Adam Schiff (D-CA), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted, “This is how democracy dies.” He said: “This is a moment that I would say to any republican of good conscience working in the administration, it is time for you to resign.” But only one Republican, Mitt Romney (R-UT), condemned Trump’s comments as “both unthinkable and unacceptable.”

On Facebook, veteran journalist Dan Rather wrote of living through the Depression, World War Two, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, Watergate, and 9-11, then said: “This is a moment of reckoning unlike any I have seen in my lifetime…. What Donald Trump said today are the words of a dictator. To telegraph that he would consider becoming the first president in American history not to accept the peaceful transfer of power is not a throw-away line. It’s not a joke. He doesn’t joke. And it is not prospective. The words are already seeding a threat of violence and illegitimacy into our electoral process.”

There is no doubt that Trump’s statement today was a watershed moment. Another watershed event is the fact that Republicans are not condemning it.

But there are two significant tells in Trump’s statement. First of all, his signature act is to grab headlines away from stories he does not want us to read. Two new polls today put Biden up by ten points nationally. Fifty-eight percent of Americans do not approve of the way Trump is doing his job. Only 38% approve of how he is handling the coronavirus. Voters see Biden as more honest, intelligent, caring, and level-headed than Trump. They think Biden is a better leader.

Trump’s headline grabs keep attention from Biden’s clear and detailed plans, first for combatting coronavirus and rebuilding the economy, and then for reordering the country. The Republicans didn’t bother to write a platform this year, simply saying they supported Trump, but Trump has not been able to articulate why he wants a second term.

In contrast, Biden took his cue from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and has released detailed and clear plans for a Biden presidency. Focusing on four areas, Biden has called for returning critical supply chains to America and rebuilding union jobs in manufacturing and technology; investing in infrastructure and clean energy; and supporting the long-ignored caregiving sector of the economy by increasing training and pay for those workers who care for children, elderly Americans, and people with disabilities. He has a detailed plan for leveling the playing field between Black and Brown people and whites, beginning by focusing on economic opportunity, but also addressing society’s systemic racial biases. Biden’s plans get little attention so long as the media is focused on Trump.

The president’s antics also overshadow the reality that many prominent Republicans are abandoning him. Yesterday, Arizona Senator John McCain’s widow Cindy endorsed Biden. “My husband John lived by a code: country first. We are Republicans, yes, but Americans foremost. There’s only one candidate in this race who stands up for our values as a nation, and that is [Biden].” She added “Joe… is a good and honest man. He will lead us with dignity. He will be a commander in chief that the finest fighting force in the history of the world can depend on, because he knows what it is like to send a child off to fight.”

McCain is only the latest of many prominent Republicans to endorse Biden, and her endorsement stings. She could help Biden in the crucial state of Arizona, especially with women. “I’m hoping that I can encourage suburban women to take another look, women that are particularly on the fence and are unhappy with what’s going on right now but also are not sure they want to cross the line and vote for Joe. I hope they’ll take a look at what I believe and will move forward and come with me and join team Biden,” McCain said.

That McCain’s endorsement stung showed in Trump’s tweeted response: “I hardly know Cindy McCain other than having put her on a Committee at her husband’s request. Joe Biden was John McCain’s lapdog…. Never a fan of John. Cindy can have Sleepy Joe!”

And, of course, Trump’s declaration has taken the focus off the Republican senators’ abrupt about-face on confirming a Supreme Court justice in an election year. The ploy laid bare their determination to cement their power at all costs, and it is not popular. Sixty-two percent of Americans, including 50% of Republicans, think the next president should name Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement.

The second tell in Trump’s statement is that Trump’s lawyers confirmed to Gellman that their strategy is to leverage their power in the system to steal the election. Surely, they would want to keep that plan quiet… unless they are hoping to convince voters that the game is so fully rigged there is no point in showing up to vote.

Trump’s statement is abhorrent, and we must certainly be prepared for chaos surrounding this election. But never forget that Trump’s campaign, which — according to our intelligence agencies — is being helped by Russian disinformation, is keen on convincing Americans that our system doesn’t work, our democracy is over, and there is no point in participating in it. If you believe them, their disinformation is a self-fulfilling prophecy, despite the fact that a strong majority of Americans prefers Biden to Trump.

Trump’s statement is abhorrent, indeed; but the future remains unwritten.

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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.

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