WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Thursday said he opposes both election aid for states and an emergency bailout for the U.S. Postal Service because he wants to restrict how many Americans can vote by mail, putting at risk the nation’s ability to administer the Nov. 3 elections.
Trump has been attacking mail balloting and the integrity of the vote for months, but his latest broadside makes explicit his intent to stand in the way of urgently needed money to help state and local officials administer elections during the coronavirus pandemic. With nearly 180 million Americans eligible to vote by mail, the president’s actions could usher in widespread delays, long lines and voter disenfranchisement this fall, voting rights advocates said.
Trump said his purpose is to prevent Democrats from expanding mail-balloting, which he has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, would invite widespread fraud. The president has also previously admitted that he believes mail voting would allow more Democrats to cast ballots and hurt Republican candidates, including himself.
In an interview Thursday with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo, Trump said he opposes a $25 billion emergency injection sought by the U.S. Postal Service, as well as a Democratic proposal to provide $3.6 billion in additional election funding to the states. Both of those requests have been tied up in congressional negotiations over a new coronavirus relief package.
“They need that money in order to make the post office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” said the president, claiming again that mail ballots would be “fraudulent,” one of more than 80 attacks he has made against the election’s integrity since March, according to a tally by The Washington Post. Many of his assertions have been misleading or unfounded.
“If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money,” he added. “That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting. They just can’t have it.”
Later Thursday, Trump told reporters at the White House that he would not veto legislation that has funding for the Postal Service, but added that “the reason the post office needs that much money is they have all of these millions of ballots coming in from nowhere and nobody knows from where and where they’re going.”
If Democrats agree to a deal, the president continued, “the money they need for the mail-in ballots would be taken care. If we agree to it. That doesn’t mean we’re going to agree to it.”
Trump’s remarks prompted swift outcry from Democrats and even some Republicans, while voting-rights advocates denounced what they described as an unprecedented threat by a sitting president to undermine the election for his own political benefit.
“The president is afraid of the American people,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “He’s been afraid for a while. He knows that, on the legit, it’d be hard for him to win.”
“Pure Trump,” offered Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, in response to the president’s remarks. “He doesn’t want an election.”
As Trump has lagged in the polls behind Biden, the president and his allies have ramped up their rhetoric questioning the integrity of the vote and intensified their actions in the courts, revealing a far-reaching strategy to restrict mail voting and challenge the results if he loses.
The Republican National Committee and conservative groups are pursuing an unprecedented effort to limit expansion of mail balloting before the November election, spending tens of millions of dollars on lawsuits and advertising aimed at restricting who receives ballots and who remains on the voter rolls.
The party is also working to train as many as 35,000 poll-watchers to monitor both in-person voting and ballot counting, mostly in key battleground states.
And the RNC and Trump campaign advisers are now mapping out their post-election strategy, including how to challenge mail ballots without postmarks, as they anticipate weeks-long legal fights in an array of states, according to people familiar with the plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
The campaign plans to have lawyers ready to mobilize in every state and expects legal battles could play out after Election Day in such states as Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan and Nevada, they said.
Trump’s claims about voting by mail have been echoed by Attorney General William Barr, who has repeatedly said without evidence that mail-in voting could lead to a “high risk” of fraud and interference by foreign countries.
At the same time, changes put in place at the U.S. Postal Service by a top GOP donor have sparked mail delays across country, sparking fears that ballots will not be delivered in time to count in November.
Many of the president’s critics said he crossed a line with Thursday’s remarks by admitting his willingness to hold back funds necessary to make the election both secure and accessible to all Americans.
“If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it,” he said.
Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, described Trump’s statements as a “line in the sand” that Congress must not let him cross.
“It is outrageous,” Weiser said. “It is an attack on the very foundations of our democratic system. And he’s daring people to let him get away with it or to stand up to him. The gauntlet’s been thrown down, and people now need to stand up for our system.”
Trump’s opposition to the $3.6 billion in election funding could put him at odds with some Republicans, including Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who has indicated his support for some additional money to help the states carry out the vote during the pandemic.
“We need to have enough money to do our best to be sure that the November elections are held safely and results are available,” Blunt told reporters Wednesday.
Democrats have proposed the election money for the states, saying the resources are necessary to pay for a wide range of preparations to assist both in-person and mail voting in the health crisis.
“We have to make it easier and doable,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a top advocate for the additional election funds.
State and local officials say they need money for protective equipment to prevent infection among poll workers and sanitizing supplies for polling locations, along with paper stock, printing costs and high-capacity ballot scanners for an expected surge in mail voting.
Roxanna Moritz, the auditor and commissioner of elections in Scott County, Iowa, said she may have to choose between offering early-voting satellite locations and paying for a second or even third round of mailing voters absentee ballot request forms.
“Depending on my budget I usually do early voting satellites at five libraries for three full weeks,” Moritz said. She said she received $19,000 in funding from the first relief bill, but “$19,000 goes real quick” when you’re purchasing plastic shields and protective equipment for the more than 60 polling locations her office opened in the primary.
Moritz said she doesn’t understand the president’s position on mail balloting, given how many Republicans are also likely to vote absentee.
“At some point in time, the Trump administration or the Republican Party is going to have to realize that if there are 60 to 75 percent of people voting by mail, those are their voters, too,” she said.
Tom Ridge, a Republican and former homeland security secretary under George W. Bush, said in an interview that with “absolutely no historical anecdotes” for the type of massive fraud that Trump claims could occur, it’s impossible not to conclude that the president’s real concern is losing.
“To subvert the process and discredit the use of absentee ballots is a shameful exercise,” Ridge said.
GOP Rep. Tom Cole, who hails from rural Oklahoma and once oversaw the state’s elections systems as secretary of state, said Thursday that he was not concerned about fraud in the election.
“That just doesn’t happen to the degree that a lot of people seem to think it does,” he said, adding that election administrators are “a very able and honorable group of public servants and usually have operations that are above reproach.”
Trump’s opposition to funds for the Postal Service comes as the agency is in a precarious spot. It has struggled with its finances for years as volumes of first-class and marketing mail – the agency’s most profitable items – have steadily declined.
The onset of the pandemic turned that challenge into a full-blown crisis. The economic shutdown caused a steep drop in mail volumes, and postal leaders originally predicted the agency could run out of money by October.
Congress agreed in an early round of pandemic relief spending to grant the Postal Service $13 billion in emergency funding, but Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said they would reject any proposals that included direct aid, instead agreeing to a $10 billion loan.
The House approved $25 billion in postal aid in April, and a bipartisan bill in the Senate introduced by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, would do the same, along with stripping conditions from Treasury’s loan.
On Thursday, the Senate’s final day of the summer session, the few Republicans on hand did not want to comment on Trump’s latest assault on the Postal Service.
“I have no comment on that,” Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said as he left the near-empty chamber.
As he entered the floor, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., ignored a question about funding for the Postal Service.
At least one Republican senator on Thursday spoke out against the president’s opposition to funding for the agency. Collins told the Portland Press Herald that even before his remarks, she sent a letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy demanding an explanation for the service cuts she’s been hearing about in her state.
“And so I do disagree with the president, very strongly, on that issue,” said Collins, who is facing a tough reelection bid. “The Postal Service is absolutely essential, particularly to a large, rural state like ours.”
In a letter to postal workers Thursday obtained by The Post, DeJoy said he remains committed to returning the Postal Service to solvency but also said he intends to protect service for the fall election.
He confirmed recent reports of delivery delays but called them “unintended consequences” of shifts that ultimately will improve service. We are working feverishly to stabilize this,” he said, adding: “This will increase our performance for the election and upcoming peak season and maintain the high level of public trust we have earned for dedication and commitment to our customers throughout our history.”
Trump told reporters Thursday that he would not tell DeJoy to reverse changes that have slowed the mail, saying, “I want the post office to run properly.”
The administration, led by Mnuchin, began courting DeJoy, a billionaire and Trump donor, long before the pandemic began, but since his installment he has become a central figure in the election controversy, ushering in dramatic changes within the Postal Service, banning overtime and shuffling seasoned executives as well as sorting equipment. The changes have already prompted reports of delays along with worries about the potential impact on voting.
“Louis’s position on this is that he is going to make the Postal Service solvent, and that it is not going to be a money-loser anymore,” said a friend of DeJoy’s. “And he’s willing to do whatever it takes.”
Campaign officials, meanwhile, have said Trump is opposed only to universal mail balloting – states that send actual ballots to all registered voters. They said they will spend more in upcoming months convincing the president’s supporters to vote absentee, claiming that they are not worried that Trump’s actions could suppress GOP turnout.
But the president has attacked mail voting broadly, warning it will lead to a “rigged” and “corrupt” election. Trump has asked aides if he possesses executive powers that can be invoked to block universal mail balloting, according to people familiar with his inquiries, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
At a time when voters are growing more concerned about the reliability of the Postal Service, Republicans are also fighting the placement of ballot drop boxes in Pennsylvania, claiming they are not sufficiently secure.
Ridge said the assault makes little sense given the historical popularity of mail balloting among Republicans as well as Democrats. The practice is especially popular among older voters in Florida, where the practice has been widespread for years. However, multiple polls published in recent weeks show that Republicans are now far more suspicious of mail balloting than Democrats – a sign that Trump’s campaign to limit mail balloting may have prompted an unintended consequence.
Trump’s rhetoric on mail voting has frustrated his advisers, who say the president is often incorrect and could discourage their own voters.
“There isn’t an inherent political advantage to either party. There never has been and there never will be,” Ridge said. “The advantage goes to the party that is most effective in identifying those voters.”
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The Washington Post’s Erica Werner, Jacob Bogage, Elise Viebeck, Rachael Bade and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.