A very overt and obvious effort to distract the U.S. voting public from an unprecedented historic collapse of the U.S. economy made even more evident on Thursday? Check.
A clear suggestion that if empowered with an authority that legal experts agree he does not possess, President Donald Trump would delay the November election if he viewed it as being in his political interest? Also check.
"Trump's election tweet is absolutely a distraction from the economic numbers and Covid-19 infection and mortality rates. But make no mistake that he is indeed sowing the seeds to declare illegitimate/invalid an election he is freaking out about losing come November."
—Vanita Gupta, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
There were many immediate reactions, interpretations, and elevated warnings following Trump's morning tweet which floated the idea to "delay the Election" in November—and as the day proceeded progressive critics made it increasingly clear that while the gesture was in many ways classic Trumpian misdirection, the various implications also remain too important to ignore.
The ACLU emphasized that Trump has no legal authority whatsoever to delay the election.
"This is America. We are a democracy, not a dictatorship," said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project. "The Constitution empowers Congress to set the date of the election, and Congress set that date for November. Nothing President Trump says, does, or tweets can change that fact.”
As Alexander Burns at the New York Times explains:
It would take a change in federal law to move that date. That would mean legislation enacted by Congress, signed by the president and subject to challenge in the courts.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law echoed that legal argument and said even if Congress was to move the date of the election, the president's term would still expire on January 20, 2021 and noted that nothing short of a constitutional amendment could alter that fact.
"It's essential we respond quickly and strongly: not because Trump can change the date of the election (once again, HE CAN'T) but because his messaging is aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the one way we can get him and the GOP out of power."
—Indivisible"Dictators and despots seek to delay elections and rig the rules to maintain their grip on power," said Kristen Clarke, the group's president and executive director. "But this has never been the case in American democracy."
Trump, Clark noted, is seeking "to promote chaos and confusion by suggesting that the nation's November 3rd election should be delayed or postponed," but he "has absolutely no power" to do either.
Regardless of Trump's legal authority, progressive critics like former labor secretary Robert Reich warned that Trump may attempt to assert such power nonetheless:
Trump does not have authority to delay Election Day. The law makes it "the Tuesday after the first Monday in November." But what if he invokes "emergency powers?"
— Robert Reich (@RBReich) July 30, 2020
In an op-ed for Common Dreams, Public Citizen president Robert Weissman warns that ignoring or downplaying Trump's threat would be a grave mistake.
Calling it "a coup in the making," Weissman writes that it is clear the president is worried about his electoral prospects as the economy nosedives. "He is thinking out loud about how he can discredit the election, undermine its legitimacy and hold on to power even in the event he loses," argues Weissman. "This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for the American people and American democracy. Trump is broadcasting that he is considering a coup to hold on to power."
Despite constitutional safeguards assumed by many groups and legal experts, Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said lawmakers in Congress should not take the threat lightly.
After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to questions about Trump's tweet during a Senate hearing on Thursday by saying he would defer to the Justice Department on the question, Jaffer asked, "Shouldn't the Judiciary Committees be demanding, right now, that the Justice Department release anything that the Office of Legal Counsel has written about the president's purported authority to delay the election?"
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While Trump clearly "doesn't have the authority to delay the election," added Jaffer, "a lot of terrible things could happen if Trump believes he has the authority."
Recognizing the president's possible political motivations for the suggestion, The Nation's John Nichols argues in a new column that a "a scared Trump is a dangerous Trump," and that even as the president likely knows he has no such authority to move the election, that doesn't mean he shouldn't face intense public rebuke over the mere suggestion. Nichols writes:
"Shouldn't the Judiciary Committees be demanding, right now, that the Justice Department release anything that the Office of Legal Counsel has written about the president's purported authority to delay the election?" —Jameel Jaffer, Knight First Amendment Institute
When the president makes threats of this sort, he does so to create chaos and uncertainty. He seeks to suppress and depress turnout. As such, says New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, "These statements should be immediately met with universal condemnation by all American leaders."
These condemnations should be blunt. They should recognize Trump's disregard for democracy and the threat it poses.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was among the many congressional lawmakers who did precisely that:
No, Mr. President. We're not delaying the election. The American people are sick and tired of your authoritarianism, your lies, your racism. On November 3, 2020 democracy will prevail and your disastrous presidency will end. Bye-bye. https://t.co/wmBYriSxGs
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) July 30, 2020
For progressives, the multiple layers of what Trump is up to show his efforts are not necessarily one thing, but that everything tied up in the threat should be considered a dangerous affront.
1. Congress sets the date of the election.
2. Presidents have NO power to delay, postpone or cancel elections.
3. These messages from Trump are intended to promote chaos and confusion, and undermine confidence in our elections. We REJECT all of it. pic.twitter.com/lN4VoxF4ty
— Kristen Clarke (@KristenClarkeJD) July 30, 2020
In an email to its members, the anti-Trump advocacy group Indivisible explained the Republican president's political strategy this way:
We all know "can't" and "illegal" have never stopped Trump from trying.
Here's the "why" of Trump’s tweets: if Trump loses, he wants his base to think it's because of a nefarious plot against him, not because he's the worst president of our lifetimes. Not because millions of Americans rose up and said "no thanks, no more." He's a cog in the GOP's long-standing democracy-undermining machine, and their plan is that long after Trump is gone, his people will keep calling the legitimate exercise of our democratic rights "fake news."
"That's why it's essential we respond quickly and strongly," the group continued: "not because Trump can change the date of the election (once again, HE CAN'T) but because his messaging is aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the one way we can get him and the GOP out of power."
Trump’s election tweet is absolutely a distraction from the economic numbers and COVID-19 infection and mortality rates. But make no mistake that he is indeed sowing the seeds to declare illegitimate/invalid an election he is freaking out about losing come November.
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) July 30, 2020
In anticipation that Trump will refuse to go quietly or sow doubt over the results if he is defeated in by presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden in November, more than 30 groups have forged a "Protect the Results" coalition to mobilize Americans if the president refuses to concede.
"If there's anything we've learned in the Trump era, it's that we have to be prepared for all possibilities," said Shane Larson, senior director for government affairs and policy for Communications Workers of America, one of the coalition members. "If Trump in his escalating efforts to turn this country's democracy into a one man show refuses to leave office, we are ready to mobilize our members and take to the streets to protect the integrity of our elections."