US President Donald Trump’s demand for vote counting to stop in an election that is still undecided may have been his most extreme and dangerous assault on the institutions of democracy yet in a presidency replete with them.
Trump appeared in the East Room of the White House early on Wednesday morning to claim falsely that he had already beaten Democrat Joe Biden, and the election was being stolen from him in a massive act of fraud. He vowed to mount a challenge in the Supreme Court and declared that he had already won states that were still counting votes, including Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
The election has not yet been won, and the President and the former vice president are still locked in a tight battle for the decisive states with millions of votes still being counted.
Trump’s remarks essentially amounted to a demand for the legally cast votes of American citizens not to be recorded in a historic act of disenfranchisement. And they brought closer the potential constitutional nightmare that many have feared since Trump started to tarnish an election that he apparently worried he could lose months ago. His rhetorical broadside was also notable because it came at a moment of huge tension in a deeply divided nation — a time when a president, even one whose political fate is in the process of being written — could be expected to call for calm.
Trump’s comments were especially remarkable since it appears that the President has a good chance of winning outstanding states in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina and Michigan, which could hand him a second term. And the implication of his authoritarian remarks was that the President wants vote counting to stop in those states but to go on in Arizona, where he trails Biden.
They were also a warning sign of the kind of behavior that might be expected in a second term from a President who has survived impeachment and may be heading for a new mandate that he would view as a validation of his norm-crushing behavior. In some ways, Trump’s aggressive response to a night of nail-biting tension and a yet-to-be-decided result could also take the gloss from what would be a stunning political achievement if he wins reelection despite expectations that his handling of the pandemic would cause the country to turn against him.
“Millions and millions of people voted for us," Trump said in the East Room. “A very sad group of people is trying to disenfranchise that group of people."
Trump wary of early and mail-in votes
Trump is angry that hundreds of thousands of mail-in and early votes — cast disproportionately by Democrats — are still being counted, leaving open the possibility that Biden could challenge Trump’s leads in the Midwest. But those votes were made in a way that is just as legitimate as the ballots that were lodged by voters showing up in their precincts in the traditional manner.
“We were getting ready for a big celebration. We were winning everything. And all of a sudden it was just called off," Trump said. “This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country."
“Frankly we did win this election," he said, despite millions of votes still outstanding.
The President made his televised statement after his opponent delivered his own remarks and said that all of the votes must be counted.
“It’s not my place or Donald Trump’s place to declare who has won this election," Biden told his crowd in Wilmington, Delaware.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has consistently taken aim at the institutions that have underpinned American government for decades. He has attacked the judiciary, the intelligence services and made clear for example that he believes that the Justice Department should be loyal to him rather than the law. He has even said that as president he has absolute power under the Constitution to do whatever he wants.
“I have an Article Two where I have the right to do whatever I want as President," Trump declared last year.
It was not immediately clear on what grounds Trump planned to try to ask the Supreme Court to intervene in the election because, so far, he has not provided evidence for any voting irregularities.
“These are legally cast ballots or at least will be determined to be legally cast ballots by the appropriate local county and state officials," Benjamin Ginsberg, a longtime Republican election lawyer, told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“And for a president to say we are going to disenfranchise those legally cast ballots — it really is extraordinary."
The President’s statement sparked a sharp response from Biden’s campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon.
“It was outrageous because it is a naked effort to take away the democratic rights of American citizens," she said in a written statement. “The counting will not stop."