Trump aides hope the President will talk more about election confusion rather than fraud
Posted October 8, 2020 5:09 p.m. EDT
CNN — As President Donald Trump recovers from coronavirus and reprises his inflammatory rhetoric about voting on social media, some aides and allies are quietly hoping to shift the conversation away from fraud and toward a more nuanced warning that the greater threat to the election is confusion and incompetency on the local level.
Their efforts have yielded little so far from a President intent on using headlines about mail-in voting growing pains as fodder for his conspiracy theories.
Speaking to Fox Business by phone Thursday at the White House, Trump cited recent ballot printing issues to argue -- without evidence -- that local officials are working to steal the race from him.
"These are cheaters, these are these are con men, these are cheaters that we're dealing with," he said. "It's a corrupt system, because they're sending out millions of ballots and when you send out millions of ballots; when you're the sender you can send them wherever you want -- you can send them to Democrat areas, Republican areas. You don't have to send them at all."
The President's casual treatment of the facts and conflation of small issues that arise every election with fraud underscore the problem that multiple sources described to CNN: his message on mail-in voting is getting lost in a sea of fact checking and making things more difficult for them in court.
That was on display during a recent White House press briefing, when press secretary Kayleigh McEnany struggled to answer questions about the President's vague claim in the debate that an unspecified "they" had found ballots in a "river," a claim Trump repeated in the interview Thursday.
Refusing repeatedly to engage on precisely where the river was or who discovered the ballots, McEnany argued Trump's reference was meant to draw attention to a broader problem with untested voting systems rather than the specific incident he had cited.
"You are missing the forest for the trees," McEnany said in response to multiple questions "This is what is happening here. You are ignoring the problem here."
His rhetoric around fraud has also caused issues in actual court. In legal battles, the campaign has waged against changes to voting rules in some states, the Trump team has struggled to present evidence of the fraud the President has routinely raised.
For example, the Nevada Supreme Court, in striking down a challenge to the state's new voting law, said Wednesday there's no "concrete evidence" that its plan to send mail-in ballots to all active voters would be "susceptible to illegitimate votes." Trump has frequently cited Nevada's law as an example of the "fraud" he has ranted about to his supporters.
One source close to the Trump campaign said the mistake the campaign and White House have made is pinning issues on fraud instead of what would be the more likely cause: states struggling with an untested system. That has allowed the President's message to be dismissed frequently on the grounds that his assertions lack accuracy -- preventing his warnings from getting the attention his advisers want to see.
That task could be made easier if Trump pinned the problems on rampant errors and incompetence, rather than the high legal bar of fraud -- one his campaign has repeatedly failed to clear in court.
But advisers argue the President's constant references to a stolen election are meant to sway public opinion, particularly among his supporters who are predisposed to believe whatever he says. He's setting the stage for a narrative that could serve him well politically after the election -- either by preserving an early victory in the face of mail-in ballot tallies that are tipping the results toward Biden, or by claiming Biden has taken a rightful victory away if early counts show Trump trailing.
Attorney General William Barr, who has also warned of fraud with no evidence, has pointed to the rule changes some states have made as a reason to doubt the integrity of the results this year, describing those changes as "reckless and dangerous" in an interview with CNN in early September.
The mind meld between Trump and Barr was on display recently when the White House touted an investigation the Justice Department had opened into nine improperly discarded ballots in Pennsylvania. The Justice Department disclosed that seven of the nine ballots had been filled out for the President as part of its announcement of the probe, raising concerns of politicization.
Although local officials clarified that a preliminary review pointed toward the mistakes of a rookie election worker, Trump used the episode to undermine his supporters' confidence in the upcoming results.
His attempt to paint the case as proof of the fraud he has long alleged was quickly dismissed by critics who noted the facts of the investigation so far supported incompetence, not illegal vote-stealing.
State officials have pushed back against Trump's claims there will be problems that spark chaos come Election Day. Alicia D'Alessandro, the New Jersey Division of Elections spokesperson, says that state has taken steps to minimize confusion for voters -- such as adding more secure drop boxes where people can leave their ballots, allowing county Boards of Election to start processing (but not tabulating) ballots 10 days early, and accepting ballots up to one week after Election Day as long as they were postmarked by November 3.
In Wisconsin, election officials have been so concerned about these baseless attacks, they asked an advertising agency to make up social media-friendly graphics aimed at combating misinformation related to voting, said Reid Magney, spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Magney told CNN his office is well aware the smallest misstep at the local level can mushroom into a national story that shakes confidence in the integrity of the results -- which is why he says election officials in his state are "constantly on the lookout" for areas where mistakes could be made or voters could get confused.