WASHINGTON — With just six weeks to go until Election Day, President Donald Trump’s critics have a nagging worry: How will he cheat next?
With a president accused of stiffing hundreds of contractors as a private businessman, who knowingly accepted Russian help to win in 2016, who has already begged and extorted foreign leaders for help winning in 2020, that he will try in the coming days, they say, is a foregone conclusion.
“I think the notion of whether he will try to cheat is almost laughable. Of course he is going to cheat,” said Daniel Goldman, the former federal prosecutor who led the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment investigation of Trump’s attempted extortion of Ukraine.
Goldman said the possibilities range from actively encouraging foreign help again to announcing trumped-up charges against prominent Democrats in the closing days to trying to suppress the vote. “I think you’re going to see him use all the levers of government at his disposal,” he said. “That is incredibly scary.”
Mary Trump, the president’s niece who wrote in her recent book, “Too Much and Never Enough,” that Trump even cheated getting into the University of Pennsylvania by paying someone to take his SATs for him, said there is no need to speculate. “It’s already happening. He’s actively cheating already,” she said, citing the mistrust he is sowing in the use of mail ballots and his sabotage of the postal service to make it harder to deliver those ballots.
“The closer we get, the more bad polling he sees, the more desperate he will be,” she said.
Neither the White House nor Trump’s campaign responded to HuffPost queries on this topic.
Trump himself, asked specifically on Wednesday about whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose, would not do so. “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens,” he said, and then continued his attacks on the legitimacy of mail ballots. “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 will be a continuation.”
That came hours after he admitted that he expects the election to be decided by the Supreme Court, which is why he wants to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg last week. “This scam that the Democrats are pulling ― it’s a scam ― this scam will be before the United States Supreme Court,” he said.
Which itself came after repeated assertions that any election he does not win is, by that very fact, proof of its illegitimacy. “The only way they can win is to cheat, in my opinion,” he said last week.
“He will seek to shut down the election process as quickly as possible, so that a full count becomes difficult,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an authoritarianism expert at New York University.
All of Trump’s comments trying to delegitimize the coming election have come against the backdrop of Attorney General William Barr’s politically charged investigation to discredit a special counsel probe into the assistance Trump received from Russia in 2016 as well as the recent revelation that Russia is working to help Trump again. Trump, rather than publicly renouncing such assistance from Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, instead criticized his FBI director for revealing it to Congress.
One former national security official in Trump’s White House, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Americans who are not yet alarmed by Trump’s actions and statements to date are making a grave miscalculation.
“The president absolutely in his mind is convinced that the law does not apply to him,” the former official said, adding that Trump would, if he thought he could get away with it, try to invalidate the election entirely. “I would not put it past this president at all. If he could be a Putin-esque strongman, he would love that.”
A Lifetime Of Cheating
Flouting rules and laws has been a well-documented part of Donald Trump’s life since he was a young man taking over his father’s real estate business in the early 1970s.
His first mention in the New York Times, in 1973, was when President Richard Nixon’s Department of Justice forced Trump and his father to stop violating anti-discrimination laws by refusing to rent apartments to Black people.
For years, Trump knowingly worked with organized crime in his construction projects. In 1980, he underpaid undocumented immigrant laborers to demolish a building to make way for his Trump Tower high-rise.
And over a period of three decades, Trump has been accused by hundreds of contractors of cheating them out of promised payments for work they did on his buildings and golf courses.
He was accused of treating the charity he founded as a personal slush fund, using it for items ranging from a $12,000 football helmet signed by quarterback Tim Tebow to $7 for his son’s Boy Scout dues. He ultimately was forced by the New York State attorney general to shut it down.
That pattern of ignoring rules and conventions continued into his 2016 presidential campaign. Trump solicited help from Russia in finding damaging information against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and his campaign actually invited Russian representatives to its headquarters for a meeting on the topic. Later, when Russians made available material they had stolen from the Clinton campaign, Trump used it daily during the final month before the election — even though he had been told that it had been stolen by Putin’s intelligence services.
Those actions led to a two-year investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, who detailed both the Russian assistance as well as Trump’s efforts to throttle the probe. Barr, however, misrepresented its findings to favor Trump weeks before it was finally released, and Congress took no action to hold Trump to account.
And no sooner did that investigation wrap up did Trump start a new attempt to cheat in his coming reelection, this time by trying to extort the newly elected Ukrainian president into smearing the Democratic opponent he most feared with false accusations. That attempt was exposed by a whistleblower and ultimately ended with Trump’s impeachment, making him only the third president in American history to be so censured.
Destabilizing Our Democracy
The Senate Republican majority, though, with the exception of Utah’s Mitt Romney, voted to let Trump remain in office notwithstanding.
While some senators predicted that Trump would learn his lesson from the ordeal and stop trying to abuse his powers, Trump if anything ramped up his willingness to use the authorities of his office for his own political benefit.
This spring, after weeks of downplaying the danger posed by the coronavirus that included, at one point, dismissing it as “a hoax,” Trump managed to get his own name on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mailer that went out to every household in the United States. He used National Security Council staff and the Justice Department to try to block publication of former national security adviser John Bolton’s book, which described, among other things, how Trump begged China’s dictator to help him win reelection by buying large quantities of farm produce.
Trump insisted on having his name appear on relief checks sent to most Americans because of the pandemic. And on Thursday Trump announced he would send a $200 card to every Medicare recipient in the coming weeks to use for prescription drug co-payments, after previously trying to force pharmaceutical companies into sending them a $100 card. Exactly how that would be paid for is unclear.
And, most worrisome to critics, he got his attorney general and Department of Homeland Security to clear a public park of peaceful protesters using tear gas and beatings so that he could be photographed holding a Bible in front of a church across from the White House. Photos and video from that event quickly appeared in his campaign’s advertising.
“Trump and Barr know they are unlikely to win in conditions of fair and free elections and will do anything necessary to stay in power,” Ben-Ghiat said. “In their minds they have just begun to consolidate their power, and the election is an annoyance to be neutralized so they can continue.”
Indeed, Trump’s ability to rely on Barr and his acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf gives him brute force authority, should he choose to use it. And the possibility that most worries his critics: that he will abuse that authority in the coming election.
“Rather than trying to cheat in the election, he’s just going to try to steal the election,” said Goldman, adding that Trump, like “a fairly ineffective mob boss,” has been open about his intentions. “You know what his motivations are, because he says them, and he tells you what they are.”
Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster in South Florida with expertise in the Latino vote, said he can think of an easy scenario for Trump already: Send in Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, as he has already done to quell urban unrest, only this time to respond to reports of ballot “fraud.”
“What if he utilizes a battalion of ICE folks to the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections office and seizes custody of the mail ballots? Who’s going to stop him?” Amandi said. “What happens if he does that not only in one county in one state, but in battleground states all over the country? For the first time in American history, we need election monitors from outside the country to watch what’s going on inside the United States.”
One Trump critic, though, said he thinks the fear of outright, third-world-dictator-style election tampering is overblown. Miles Taylor, who as chief of staff in Trump’s DHS oversaw those ICE agents, said they will follow the law, just as they followed the law when they refused Trump’s orders to turn away asylum seekers at the Mexican border.
“Most of these line agents don’t want to end up in jail. They know their authorities,” he said.
He added, nevertheless, that he has deep worries about the coming election, because Trump shows zero regard for democratic institutions and norms. “The president and his rhetoric are like a loaded gun, and he is pointing that gun in every direction,” Taylor said. “He is already actively seeding the narrative for potential nationwide unrest. That’s the most concerning thing to me.”