WASHINGTON — In a desperate struggle to resuscitate his reelection campaign, President Donald Trump has tried ignoring the coronavirus crisis, spreading racist fears about poor people bringing crime to the suburbs and promising that an economic miracle is right around the corner.
None of it has worked, so Thursday he attempted a new tactic — suggesting that widespread voter fraud could require delaying the Nov. 3 election. No U.S. presidential election has ever been postponed, even during the Civil War, World War II and other times of national crisis.
There’s no evidence that mail-in ballots have led to significant voter fraud, as Trump claimed, nor does the president have the authority to unilaterally postpone an election. Only Congress can change the date under the Constitution, and Republican leaders — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California — swiftly rejected the idea.
Trump’s isolation was even more stark because he did not attend the funeral of John Lewis, a civil rights icon and longtime Democratic member of Congress who fought to ensure Black people had the right to vote.
Former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton spoke emotionally at the memorial service in Atlanta, and a letter from former President Jimmy Carter was read. Trump did not make any public comments about Lewis’ death Thursday.
“Even as we sit here there are those in power that are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting,” Obama said in his eulogy.
Trump broached the possible postponement of the election early Thursday on Twitter, his typical dumping ground for conspiracy theories, unfounded accusations and half-baked proposals.
“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” Trump wrote.
In April, the president denied wanting to postpone the election, but his poll numbers have nose-dived since then. He’s trailing Joe Biden, the likely Democratic opponent and former vice president, by double digits in national surveys, and his support is lagging in key battleground states.
More bad news came shortly before Trump’s tweet when the Commerce Department announced the U.S. economy shrank at a 32.9 percent annual rate between April and June, the fastest and deepest contraction in history.
Democrats have sought to expand use of mail ballots in November to make it easier to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 150,000 Americans and raised fears that the virus could spread at crowded polling places.
Some states, such as Oregon and Colorado, already conduct elections almost entirely through the mail.
California and other states plan to broaden use of mail-in ballots this year, and activist groups worry that election officials in some communities are not prepared to process a glut of mail ballots in a timely manner.
Voting experts say there’s no evidence of widespread fraud that Trump often cites.
When it appeared likely that he would lose to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, he denounced that year’s election as “rigged.” After his victory, he falsely claimed that he lost the popular vote because millions of fraudulent votes were cast for Clinton.
With his reelection hopes dimming, Trump is again accusing Democrats of trying to cheat.
“Mail-in voting will lead to massive fraud and abuse,” he tweeted in May. “It will also lead to the end of our great Republican Party. We can never let this tragedy befall our nation.”
For academics who study authoritarianism, Trump’s tweet Thursday was an alarming indication that he’s looking to prolong his stay in office.
“This is something that is in the autocrat’s playbook,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University historian.
“You get it out there so people begin to think of it as possible,” Ben-Ghiat said. “Things that once seem completely unacceptable slowly come to be seen as things that could happen, and would be accepted.”
Trump did not say how long he would want to delay an election, or how widespread in-person voting would be possible as the coronavirus contagion continues to spike.
At least for now, prominent Republicans made clear that they would not consider postponing the election in a rare push-back to the president. Even if they supported a delay, House Democrats almost certainly would block the measure.
McCarthy, the House minority leader, said Trump was right to raise concerns about fraud but added that “no way” should the election be delayed.
McConnell, the Senate majority leader, also told a Kentucky television station that voting would happen on schedule.
Lawmakers’ options are limited by the Constitution, which restricts the president and vice president to four-year terms.
If an election is not held by Jan. 20, the power of the presidency passes to the next in line of succession — currently House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Biden warned in April that Trump might try to delay the election, a prediction that the president’s campaign swiftly condemned as “the incoherent, conspiracy theory ramblings of a lost candidate,” insisting the election would take place Nov. 3.
After Trump’s tweet Thursday, his campaign had a different response.
Hogan Gidley, a spokesman, said Trump was “just raising a question about the chaos Democrats have created with their insistence on all mail-in voting.”
He added, “Universal mail-in voting invites chaos and severe delays in results, as proven by the New York Congressional primary where we still don’t know who won after more than a month.”
A deluge of mail-in absentee ballots, due to the pandemic, left several races unresolved for weeks after New York’s June 23 primary. Some ballots were disqualified for technicalities like a missing signature, or a missing postmark on the envelope, but no fraud has emerged.