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“The Election That Could Break America”: Inside How Trump & GOP Could Steal the Vote

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As President Trump refuses to commit to accepting the results of the upcoming election, we speak to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman, whose latest piece in The Atlantic looks at how Trump could subvert the election results and stay in power even if he loses to Joe Biden. “Trump’s strategy is never to concede. He may win, he may lose, but under no circumstances will he concede this election,” says Gellman. “That’s a big problem, because we don’t actually have a mechanism for forcing a candidate to concede, and concession is the way we have ended elections.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

For the second day in a row, President Trump refused to commit to accepting the results of the upcoming election if his rival Joe Biden wins. Trump was asked about the election as he left the White House to campaign in North Carolina.

REPORTER: Mr. President, are the election results only legitimate if you win?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So, we have to be very careful with the ballots. The ballots, that’s a whole big scam. .... We want to make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be. I don’t — I don’t know that it can be with this whole situation — unsolicited ballots. They’re unsolicited, millions being sent to everybody. And we’ll see.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump made a similar comment Wednesday when questioned at a White House press briefing.

BRIAN KAREM: Will you commit here today for a peaceful transferral of power after the election?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, we’re going to have to see what happens. You know that. I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster. And — and —

BRIAN KAREM: I understand that. But people are rioting.


BRIAN KAREM: Do you commit to making sure that there’s a peaceful transferral of power?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We want to — we want to have — get rid of the ballots, and you’ll have a very — we’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation. The ballots are out of control. You know it. And you know who knows it better than anybody else? The Democrats know it better than anybody else.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s remarks have been criticized by both Democrats and Republicans. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted, “There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792,” unquote. But at the same time, McConnell is vowing to rapidly confirm Trump’s soon-to-be-announced nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. Earlier this week, Trump admitted he wants the Senate to rapidly confirm his nominee because the election could end up before the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, The Atlantic magazine has revealed Republican Party officials are looking at multiple ways to subvert the election process to ensure Trump stays in power. One option would be to have Republican-led state legislatures claim the results of the election to be fraudulent, then choose a slate of Republican electors to vote in the Electoral College regardless of the outcome of the actual vote.

We’re joined right now by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman, staff writer at The Atlantic. His new piece is headlined “The Election That Could Break America.” Barton Gellman is the author of several books, including Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State.

Barton, thanks so much for joining us on Democracy Now! Can you lay out in detail — no soundbites, please — exactly what you found are the plans not only being talked about, but are actually being laid out all over the country, and also what, then, surprised you most?

BARTON GELLMAN: The president is running a campaign that is premised on the idea that he may not win or will not win if all the votes are counted, and he’s looking for insurance policies. It begins with traditional Republican efforts to suppress the vote on Election Day and extends to this long campaign he’s been running against mail-in ballots as a way of delegitimating them and laying the groundwork for a post-election or mid-count challenge that would be intended to stop the count, to lock in whatever results there are on election night, when, because of the way he has divided the vote along partisan lines, there will be more Republicans, he forecasts, voting in person on Election Day and more Democrats voting by mail, with counts that will continue on past election night. And so, delegitimating the mail-in vote is a way of stopping the overtime count that everyone is expecting now, because we’re not going to have an election night, we’re going to have an election week, perhaps, or longer, during which the provisional ballots and the mail-in ballots, the absentee ballots, will be counted.

Now, among the things that some Trump people are talking about is a maneuver that would start by saying that the count has been poisoned by fraud, has been rigged, is hopelessly mired in unacceptable conduct, and, therefore, that the count can’t be relied upon. And we are all accustomed to the idea that electoral votes are distributed based on the way the popular vote goes in a given state. If somebody gets the most votes in my state, then that candidate gets that state’s electoral votes. The Constitution does not actually guarantee that result. That’s a decision that’s made by each state, because the power to appoint electors is given in the Constitution to state legislatures. The idea circulating in the Trump campaign and among some of its allies is that under some circumstances they could ask state legislatures to take back that power and simply appoint Trump electors regardless of the vote count in the state.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what loyal electors are, Barton.

BARTON GELLMAN: Well, electors are pledged to one candidate or the other. Which electors are appointed depends usually on the outcome of the election. When I say “usually,” I mean for the past 150, 175 years. But in theory, and depending on state law and all kinds of other complexities, the Republican legislature of a state like Pennsylvania could choose to simply appoint electors who are pledged already to Trump, based on their assessment that the vote count in that state is fraudulent or marred by fraud, and therefore that they are going to protect the will of the people by appointing Trump electors.

In the 2000 recount between Bush and Gore, the Republicans actually started down this road. The recount was still under litigation and the date for the Electoral College vote was approaching in December, when the Republican House in Florida passed a resolution to appoint electors in Bush’s name, and the Senate was going to vote on the same day that Gore conceded the election.

And since I mentioned concession, it’s the premise of my article — and I try to explain why — that Trump’s strategy is never to concede, that he may win, he may lose, but under no circumstances will he concede this election. That’s a big problem, because we don’t actually have a mechanism for forcing a candidate to concede. And concession is the way we have ended elections. There is no grand umpire who has jurisdiction over the whole election, who can blow a whistle and say, “The election is over. You won. You lost,” and make that stick. We have relied instead on the loser to accept reality when the time comes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you mention in your article that this will be the first election in 40 years to take place without a federal judge requiring the Republican National Committee to seek approval in advance for any ballot security operations at the polls. Why is this oversight so crucial, Barton?

BARTON GELLMAN: Well, let me just give a back story that helps explain that. In the 1981 gubernatorial election in New Jersey, the Republican National Committee organized what it called a Ballot Security Task Force — that was the euphemism — and it composed of a lot of off-duty law enforcement officers, sheriffs and so forth, wearing guns, talking into radios, wearing ballot security armbands, who went to polling places in neighborhoods, predominantly people of color, in Trenton and Newark, and, just bluntly, to suppress the vote. They challenged people’s credentials. They gave stern warnings against — about penalties for unlawful voting. They, generally speaking, intimidated the voters and some poll workers, barging into closed areas, giving instructions to poll workers, in some cases physically preventing poll workers from assisting voters who needed help physically filling out their ballots, which is a normal function.

And the Democratic National Committee sued and, after introducing evidence, quickly won a consent decree, in which the judge forbade a whole long list of intimidation techniques and required that the RNC would submit any plans it had for Election Day operations to the judge for prior approval. And that lasted almost 40 years.

The RNC persuaded the judge in 2018 to lift this consent decree, to lift the preclearance order, because there had been no recent violations by the RNC of the consent decree. So, it was — the logic was that this consent decree is no longer needed, because it worked. So the RNC is now free to choose its own forms of Election Day operations, its own ballot security. And we’ll have to see what happens. But the Trump campaign and the Republicans are recruiting what they’re calling an “Army for Trump” of 15,000 or so volunteers who will monitor security of the polls, and that means going into Democratic areas and looking for suspicious people.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Donald Trump has — Donald Trump Jr. has taken to social media to call, quote, “able-bodied” people to join an election security army for his father.

DONALD TRUMP JR.: [The radical left] are laying the groundwork to steal this election from my father, President Donald Trump. They are planting stories that President Trump will have a landslide lead on election night, but will lose when they finish counting the mail-in ballots. Their plan is to add millions of fraudulent ballots that can cancel your vote and overturn the election. We cannot let that happen. We need every able-bodied man, woman to join Army for Trump’s election security operation.

AMY GOODMAN: “Every able-bodied man and woman.” And then Trump calls into Fox News to Sean Hannity saying, “We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement, and we’re going to have, hopefully, U.S. attorneys” to keep close watch on these polls in states more likely to vote Democrat or contested states like Florida and Texas. When you say you’re going have sheriffs there, you’re going to have attorneys there, people are going to be afraid.

BARTON GELLMAN: Well, you are forecasting a physical confrontation, talking about law enforcement officers, talking about “able-bodied” people. Why did they need to be able-bodied? What are they facing here? What kind of atmosphere are they trying to create?

AMY GOODMAN: So, when you started this piece to now when you published it, did you change your attitude? I mean, when people were saying, “Oh, if President Trump were to lose, he’ll never leave the White House,” others weren’t that deeply concerned, you know, whether he could be taken out of the White House. But this is a whole different story, when you have an army of something like a thousand Republican lawyers around the country who are going to challenge votes at every level, particularly focusing on mail-in votes. Yet at the same time Trump is not quite sure if he’s being too discouraging of mail-in voting for Republican voters, so at the same time he’s telling Republican voters, “You can mail in your votes.”

BARTON GELLMAN: He is. Republican organizers were distressed, and some of them still are very much distressed, by the campaign against mail-in ballots, because they have relied for years on mail-in ballots to lock in votes before Election Day. If you’re trying to get out your own vote, it’s a big advantage if, in the days and weeks leading up to the election, you can induce people to send in their ballots, tell you they’ve done so, and therefore you’re very confident. You’ve already got now, let’s say, 25% of your vote; you can focus all your efforts on Election Day on the rest. And there are many senior voters who have relied on mail-in balloting for years. You don’t want to tell your own voters, if you’re a Republican, that this method is now forbidden. So, there’s been a bit of a mixed message, where they’ve prevailed upon Trump to say, well, these mail-in ballots are good, the other kind are bad. He’s leaving himself lots of room to challenge the ballots as fraudulent.

And the way his son described it in the clip you played is that Trump will be winning on election night, and then sort of thousands and millions of fraudulent votes will be added fraudulently to the results in order to steal the election from his father. He’s referring to a phenomenon, that’s beginning to become fairly well known, known as the “blue shift,” in which you have one vote count, let’s say, on the morning after the election, that is provisional, that is up to that point, and then you have an overtime count, which is counting all the latest reporting precincts, the provisional ballots, which come from people who need to prove that they’re eligible to vote — perhaps they’ve recently changed address or there was a name discrepancy that needs to be resolved — and then there’s all the mail-in ballots.

And they’re slower to count because they’re more elaborate. They are sealed in outer envelopes. The election authorities have to review the envelope, check the signature, scan a barcode, authenticate other details so that they know it’s a valid ballot, before they even open it. Then they have to physically open up the ballot, remove an inner security envelope, which is sealed, you know, discard the outer shell, put the security envelope in a pile to be opened again so that the ballots can be scanned. That’s just a whole process that doesn’t exist for in-person ballots. And most states forbid election authorities to start doing this review and opening the outer envelope until Election Day itself. And so there’s no way that they can handle the anticipated volume of mail-in ballots now. And so those are going to come in overtime, in the days following the election.

For some reason, that’s not fully explained, these overtime counts have trended Democratic in recent years, since about the past 20 years. And so, it is known and predictable that the overtime count is going to shift blue. And that’s why Trump is trying to delegitimate the idea of mail-in ballots at all. And by doing so, he is actually skewing the blue shift even more. He is guaranteeing that his own voters will avoid mail-in ballots, because they believe him.

And let’s just emphasize that what he’s saying about mail ballots is fabricated. It’s made up out of whole cloth. Mail ballots have been used successfully and with vanishingly rare attempts at fraud for decades. So, he’s just making that up. He is —

AMY GOODMAN: And especially Democrats voting more mail-in at this point during the pandemic because they see COVID as real, and more Republicans see it as a conspiracy.

BARTON GELLMAN: That’s right. That’s right. But the advantage for Trump of dividing the electorate in this particular way is that he can challenge mail votes without worrying very much that he is invalidating his own voters’ ballots, that just by the odds, if you manage to squelch a mail-in ballot, every single one that you manage to invalidate is much more likely to be a Democratic vote than a Republican vote.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute to go, but what are Democrats, and Republicans who are deeply alarmed about this, and independents and Greens doing to counter this?

BARTON GELLMAN: Well, they’re trying to win the battle for public opinion about the validity of mail-in ballots. And it’s not clear how well that works. The president is extremely good at creating impressions of chaos. They are fighting a 41-state legal battle, that’s been going on all year, to ensure that mail-in ballots are counted, to try to get them counted early, to — there’s this sort of beneath-the-surface struggle over the rules, to make sure that every ballot is counted. And they are trying to imagine what Trump will do, that is out of the norm, on Election Day and afterward, during this interregnum between Election Day and Inauguration Day. And that’s the crucial 79-day period that I focus on in my piece for The Atlantic.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Barton Gellman, we thank you so much for being with us, staff writer at The Atlantic. We’re going to link to your piece there, called “The Election That Could Break America.” And congratulations on your new book, Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State.

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