An unsung benefit of the Donald Trump presidency is how it demands a deeper understanding of American civics and law.
His behaviour has added intrigue to previously ho-hum questions about the U.S. Constitution.
Can a sitting president be indicted?
Can he commit crimes and then pardon himself?
And the latest, prompted by a presidential tweet Thursday: Can the president delay the November election?
Trump tweeted that voting by mail — something many think might be wise during a pandemic — would lead to “the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.”
“Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” he finished.
Then he pinned the tweet so that it remained at the top of his account and wouldn’t get lost in the fire hose stream of his other tweets, a clear sign he wants to get people worked up about it.
Later in the day, during a briefing with reporters, he repeated his unsubstantiated claim that the vote in November “will be the most rigged election in history,” and that mail-in voting is an invitation to fraud.
“Everyone knows it. Smart people know it. Stupid people may not know it,” he said.
In truth, mail-in voting is available in many states, has been the standard way of voting in Oregon for more than 20 years, and all without the massive fraud Trump alleges.
The election is not going to be delayed. The question of whether it even could be delayed is settled. It was put to constitutional scholars months ago when COVID-19 deaths started rising and support for the president started falling.
The answer was a heavily qualified, technical “yes but no, not really.” The president can’t reschedule the election. Congress could but only under extraordinary circumstances and for a very brief delay.
The U.S. didn’t cancel elections during the Civil War, the pandemic of 1918, or the two world wars. So, as extraordinary and tragic as this moment seems, it has equally serious precedents.
And, besides, Democrats are calling the shots in the House, and the states administer elections. At least one Republican governor was quick to push back against the president.
“Make no mistake: the election will happen in New Hampshire on November 3rd. End of story,” tweeted New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.
Trump knows all this, so what is he up to?
If his tweet isn’t really serious about an election delay, then the important part is his claim that the election will be the most inaccurate and fraudulent in U.S. history. That’s a tell — it suggests he thinks he’s going to lose.
He did the same thing before the 2016 election when polls were suggesting Hillary Clinton would be the next president.
WATCH | Sound familiar? Trump also suggested the 2016 election would be rigged:
The evidence shows that when there is a threat to election integrity and it might benefit Trump, he keeps quiet about it. So does his family.
As Robert Mueller’s special counsel report laid out, Trump, his son Donald Jr., his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner all knew the Russian government was offering to help Trump during the 2016 election. The proof is in their own private emails that are now public. The Trumps didn’t report the threat to the FBI, or tweet about it, they sat on it or lied about it.
More recently, Trump was impeached in 2019 for misusing the power of his office to try to pressure the president of Ukraine into making damaging statements about Trump’s presumed election opponent, former vice-president Joe Biden. He was acquitted by the Republican majority in the Senate.
So Trump is clearly not offended by election shenanigans in principle.
The conventional wisdom among many Washington pundits is that Trump is conjuring election fraud in order to seed the ground now for discrediting the result in November. He can then claim the presidency was stolen from him. To what end is uncertain: To challenge the result if it’s close, or to save face if it isn’t?
One famous pundit, the colourful Louisiana Democrat James Carville, has a startlingly different take.
“There’s a significant chance that Trump doesn’t run,” Carville said on MSNBC earlier this month, citing what he saw as an impossible path to Trump’s re-election. “I think there is a better chance Donald Trump does not run for re-election than he is re-elected.”
Sometime Fox Business commentator Charles Gasparino tweeted in late June that his Republican sources were “for the first time raising the possibility that @realDonaldTrump could drop out of the race.”
The explanation offered is not simply that Trump hates losing; it’s that he has a deep fear of humiliation. Gasparino said some Republicans noted Trump’s fragile “psyche.”
Humiliation and diminishment seem to have scarred Trump at an early age.
In her new book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, the president’s niece, Mary Trump, recounts a scene from the president’s youth. He’d been teasing his older brother Fred, when suddenly Fred turned and dumped a bowl of mashed potatoes on the head of seven-year-old Donald, and everyone laughed at him.
Many decades later, at a big family dinner in the White House, Mary describes an aunt recalling the mashed potatoes story in front of the president:
“We’ve come a long way since that night when Freddy dumped a bowl of mashed potatoes on Donald’s head for being such a brat,” [said aunt Maryanne]. Everybody familiar with the legendary mashed potato story laughed — everyone except Donald, who listened with his arms tightly crossed and a scowl on his face, as he did whenever Maryanne mentioned it. It upset him as if he were that seven-year-old boy.”
Mary Trump considered the mashed potato story so revealing that she included it in the prologue of her book and then expanded on it in a later chapter as though it were an emblem of the president’s life — like the sled in the movie Citizen Kane.
The idea that Trump would be so driven to avoid humiliation that he’d conjure the inevitability of election fraud as an excuse to quit the presidency and avoid defeat sounds too far-fetched to take seriously. But not long ago, the whole idea of his presidency sounded that way.
And if that is what he’s preparing to do, this is exactly how it would look.