The Trump Campaign Is on an Electoral Crime Spree
Cash-strapped and facing lagging polling numbers, President Trump is cheating — knowingly breaking the norms, rules, and laws of our political system — to remain in power. It’s not as if we shouldn’t have seen this coming: When the Senate failed to remove Trump for threatening to withhold federal aid from Ukraine unless it investigated Joe Biden and its — not Russia’s — role in the 2016 election, many warned he would read it as a green light to cheat even more aggressively in the election this year. Sure enough, here we are.
The scale of Trump’s cheating is breathtaking: using government resources for his reelection, including partisan attacks on Biden at official, taxpayer-funded events; appropriating the White House itself for partisan activity; launching a clearly illegal $250 million media campaign by Health and Human Services right before the election; sabotaging the U.S. Postal Service; wrecking the census; undermining the legitimacy of the electoral process itself; creating political space for Russia to once again intervene in U.S. politics on his behalf; brazenly manipulating media and using other disinformation tactics; employing deceitful campaign accounting to hide suspicious activity; coordinating with the absurd Kanye West campaign; and too many of Bill Barr’s activities to fit into one column. There is also the Senator Ron Johnson–led probe into a debunked conspiracy theory about Joe Biden and Ukraine — a project that reeks of partisanship and which U.S. intelligence has warned will only help Russia’s own disinformation campaigns.
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As someone who has been working in national politics and campaigns since the 1980s, I can tell you that this level of rule-breaking is unprecedented. In a very Trumpian way, what we are seeing looks more like an electoral crime spree than a traditional campaign.
In a prescient NBC News essay from 2018, former prosecutor Glenn Kirschner argued that the Department of Justice needed to rethink its policy of not prosecuting a sitting president; there needed to be exceptions, he argued, for election law violations — or “cheating,” as I call it. Otherwise, our system is actually designed to encourage cheating, and cheating at a massive scale. After all, if you cheat a little bit and lose the election, you could get prosecuted. But if you cheat really big and win, you can’t be prosecuted, per DOJ standards. Such is the scenario we’re now seeing: Trump has every incentive in the world to cheat at such a level that it will transform his losing campaign into a competitive one and therefore could help absolve him from prosecution.
Trump knows all this — it’s how he won in 2016. Even with the help of Russia’s attacks on the DNC and the Clinton campaign, Trump was trailing Clinton by six points 10 days out. But the infamous and DOJ norm-breaking Comey letter, which dropped on October 28, helped narrow Clinton’s lead to two points, and Jill Stein’s improbable campaign shaved off enough votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to give Trump a win. If any of these three things hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have Trump in the White House today. The combined efforts it took to turn this unpopular, scandal-ridden candidate into a 70,000-vote winner was extraordinary.
As we learned in 2016, all of this cheating can turn a big lead into a small one, and a small one can become an ill-gotten win for Donald Trump.
Right now, Biden leads Trump by seven to nine points. Following the path Trump set in 2016, all of his cheating is designed to chip away at Biden’s lead, to keep it close. Kayne might cut down Biden’s lead by a point or two, as would late or lost ballots. People not voting due to confusion or concerns — another point or two. Illegal use of the White House, daily partisan attacks from government buildings, the illegal $250 million campaign lying about the dark realities of Covid-19 — all combined, maybe two to three points. A Comey-like late hit by Barr or Senator Johnson — a point or two or three. Russia — who knows, maybe the whole election.
These efforts aren’t just about saving Trump; they’re also about saving the party. At the very least, even if all this cheating doesn’t save Trump, it could still prevent Democrats from flipping the Senate and blunt what would likely be a very favorable redistricting conditions for the left. That’s why you’ve seen party loyalists like USPS Chair Mike Duncan and Postmaster General Bill DeJoy going so far as to sabotage the Postal Service — they have to hold down Biden’s margin to prevent a game-changing bloodbath for the GOP.
As we learned in 2016, all of this cheating can turn a big lead into a small one, and a small one can become an ill-gotten win for Donald Trump. The more Biden’s campaign looks adroit and well-funded, and the more Trump’s own campaign continues to stumble and struggle, the better the odds the president relies on ways of staying in power that don’t involve winning a free and fair election. Keeping it close also allows Trump to launch a postelection challenge to the results and attempt to block ballots that arrive after Election Day from being counted. These efforts shouldn’t be dismissed, for in 2000, a 5–4 Supreme Court intervened to block the counting of ballots after Election Day. If it happened once, it can happen again.
We all failed to understand what was happening in 2016. There simply is no excuse this time. Trump’s extensive cheating must begin to get covered as a central aspect of his campaign — the way we treat paid media, candidate visits, Get Out the Vote, and so on. CNN did so on Monday night, the Washington Post did so last week. And the American people need to understand that the man they elected to uphold the law is breaking it daily in his dirty bid to hold onto power. The president’s rampant cheating should be a far bigger story than it is.