So why did the president of the United States do it?
Why did Donald Trump, in broad daylight, with cameras rolling, suggest that the good people of North Carolina vote twice?
He knew full well that this would cause a media freakout, that journalists and pundits would rise up in unison and denounce him for promoting such a blatantly illegal act.
And that was precisely the point.
Had Trump merely issued his 130th warning about mail ballot fraud, it wouldn’t have made much news, maybe one paragraph in a story. But he knows from long experience that when he crosses the line, goes over the top, the resulting furor can last several days, even a week, getting the media and political world chattering about the very issue he wants to spotlight.
If he takes heat, if he has to backtrack, so be it. That still means lots of cable segments and front-page stories about the possibility of mail fraud as opposed to, say, a thousand Americans dying each day from Covid-19.
Now I’m not defending the outrageous suggestion that Americans somehow test the system by voting twice. (Or why stop there, maybe five times.) I just don’t think Trump is serious. He has a well established pattern of saying questionable things to push a broader narrative, in some cases admitting privately he’s changing the subject from some other controversy. He is trolling the press.
Here are the president’s exact words to Jon Evans of North Carolina’s WECT:
“Well they’ll go out and they’ll vote, and they’re going to have to go and check their vote by going to the poll and voting that way, because if it tabulates, then they won’t be able to do that. So, let them send it in and let them go vote, and if the system is as good as they say it is, obviously they won’t be able to vote. If it isn’t tabulated, they’ll be able to vote so that’s the way it is. And that’s what they should do.”
He repeated a similar message last night in Pennsylvania.
I haven’t found anyone, including on Fox News, defending this maneuver. In fact, when Sandra Smith pressed Kayleigh McEnany on why Trump made the comments, the press secretary said he wasn’t suggesting people do anything illegal but to make sure their mail ballot was tabulated–and if not, go vote. “He wants verification,” she said.
The second round, as these things spread across the cableverse, was when Bill Barr appeared on CNN.
When Wolf Blitzer said it sounds like “Trump is encouraging people to break the law and try to vote twice,” the attorney general replied: “Well, I don’t know exactly what he was saying, but it seems to me what he’s saying is he’s trying to make the point that the ability to monitor this system is not good.”
When Wolf pressed again, Barr said he didn’t know the law in that particular state, but that the whole mail-ballot system is like “playing with fire.”
That formulation–that Barr doesn’t know the specifics but here’s why Trump is right on the larger point–is one the AG used more than once in the CNN interview. (He said Trump was speaking “colloquially,” not using a legal term, when he accused Barack Obama and Joe Biden of “treason.”)
This touched off a fresh wave of attacks on Barr by pundits on CNN and MSNBC, giving the story legs.
Trump knows how to push the media’s buttons. In a memo leaked to the New York Post, he ordered federal agencies to look into cutting off funding to such cities as New York, Washington, Portland and Seattle that “allow themselves to deteriorate into lawless zones.” This brought an unusually harsh counterattack from Andrew Cuomo, who said Trump would need an “army” to protect him if he were to walk down New York City streets.
Now I don’t believe the feds will end up terminating this aid, any more than the administration slashed aid to schools that don’t physically reopen, as Trump threatened earlier. But it’s another way for him to appear strong by vowing to retaliate against those grappling with urban violence.
In the meantime, anyone who follows the Trump suggestion about voting more than once does so at his or her own risk.