WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump suggested on Thursday that the United States would need to "delay the election," claiming that mail-in voting would make the results "the most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history."
Trump has no power to unilaterally delay elections, which were set for the day after the first Monday in November through a mid-19th century law passed by Congress. Since then, it has never changed, said presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
But Trump is trailing in the polls by double digits to Democrat Joe Biden, and election experts have long worried that the president would actively try to interfere with the Nov. 3 balloting in order to prevent a potential loss.
Trump, however, has personally denied thinking about changing the date of the election. "I never even thought of changing the date of the election, why would I do that? November 3rd. It's a good number," Trump said on April 27 at the White House. "I look forward to that election."
Asked at the time about concerns Biden raised that Trump might try to delay the election, Trump replied, "That was just made-up propaganda....I'm not thinking about it at all."
As states grapple with how to help citizens vote safely during the coronavirus pandemic, many have turned to mail-in voting as a way for people to safely cast ballots without waiting in long lines at crowded polling places and risk spreading Covid-19.
But Republicans, led by Trump, have strongly objected to expanding access to mail-in ballots, claiming without evidence that voting by mail invites voter fraud. Trump's presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee are spending tens of millions of dollars this year on lawsuits to challenge state efforts to expand access to mail-in ballots.
Trump and several of his top aides all vote by mail. But the president has recently claimed that absentee mail-in ballots like the one he uses are totally different from other types of mail-in ballots, such as the ones that states could let voters apply for if they feared contracting coronavirus at a polling place.
Experts, however, say there is no functional difference between the two kinds of mail-in ballots.
Thursday is believed to be the first time Trump has publicly suggested delaying the November election, raising questions about the timing of his incendiary tweet. Moments before Trump tweeted, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that during the second quarter of this year, gross domestic product had fallen by a historic 32.9% annualized.
The stunning figure, which is exponentially larger than any previous quarterly economic loss, was made worse by the news that new weekly unemployment claims also rose last week. It was the 19th straight week in which initial claims totaled at least 1 million — indicating that the recovery Trump has long promised is not happening.
Instead, a new wave of coronavirus outbreaks has exploded in states that reopened early this spring, including Florida, Arizona and Texas. In the wake of these surges, commerce in parts of these states has ground to a halt, driven as much by individual fear of infection as by statewide closure mandates.
A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about Trump's tweet, and whether it was meant as a distraction from the bad economic numbers.
Shortly after his bombshell tweet about delayed elections, Trump was back once again to tweeting about the protests in Portland, Oregon, drug prices, and a pizza shop.
On Capitol Hill, both Democrats and some Republicans pushed back against Trump for sowing doubts about the timing of the election.
"I'm a fan of voting by mail. Secondly, of course we are going to have an election on time. It's unthinkable that that would not be the case," said Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, a frequent Trump critic.
Another Republican, Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger tweeted, "Reminder: Election dates are set by Congress. And I will oppose any attempts to delay the 2020 Election."
Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel defended the tweet, and suggested Trump knew he could not unilaterally delay an election. "Well the president obviously understands that is done by Congress, constitutionally," she told Fox Business News.
But West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who was once considered to be in the running for a post in Trump's Cabinet, dismissed the idea that there was any legitimate purpose behind Trump's tweet.
"There is no reason [to discuss delaying an election], unless you're buying into a conspiracy theory, unless you're trying to set a scenario up, in case the election doesn't go the way the president wants it to go, or thinks it should go in his favor, setting it up for 'something is awry,'" Mancin said on CNN.
"Well let me tell you, there's an awful lot of Republican secretaries of states, a lot of Republican senators and congresspeople who have been doing mail-in ballots for a long, long time and feel very secure in doing it. West Virginia is just starting it. We have a secretary of state who's a Republican, and believes it can be done and safely and secure. So this is not a justification for why we should not have an election or delay an election. I'm not in favor of that at all," said Manchin.