Imagine that the White House chief of staff wrote a secret memo, at the behest of the president of the United States, to the Treasury secretary and the director of the Office of Management and Budget. In the carefully hidden memo, the chief of staff directs the two to secretly and illegally cut off all federal funding to two key swing states, both led by Democratic governors, with the goal of rigging turnout in favor of the president’s party in the 2020 election.
Now imagine that the memo leaked to The Wall Street Journal, which splashed the story across its front page. The other major papers would quickly follow. Cable news would cover it wall to wall. There would be congressional investigations.
Now imagine that instead of conducting all this skulduggery in private, the president just openly tweeted it out. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. You can just surf over to Donald Trump’s Twitter feed this morning:
Breaking: Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election. This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 20, 2020
State of Nevada “thinks” that they can send out illegal vote by mail ballots, creating a great Voter Fraud scenario for the State and the U.S. They can’t! If they do, “I think” I can hold up funds to the State. Sorry, but you must not cheat in elections. @RussVought45 @USTreasury— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 20, 2020
Here we have two cases of Trump tweeting threats to states that have sought to expand access to voting by mail as a response to the pandemic sweeping the nation, which has already killed nearly 100,000 Americans (you know, the one Trump has repeatedly declared victory over). And for good measure, he’s tagged Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, OMB Director Russ Vought, and the Treasury Department.
This is one of the many things that makes Trump’s Twitter feed such a bizarre phenomenon. If he did this privately, it would—rightly—be a massive scandal. Yet when he does it as part of a few dozen wildly varied tweets over the course of a morning, it’s written off as just another wacky missive from the wacky president. Becoming numb to Trump’s tweets is easy, as I’ve written of myself, but these show just how dangerous that is.
It’s a crime to try to withhold funds appropriated by Congress in order to interfere with voting. The effort to expand access to mail-in voting is an obviously reasonable response that’s designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while also allowing the most people to exercise their right to vote. Ideally, this wouldn’t be a partisan matter. Yet Trump is threatening to withhold federal funds from these states because he contends that sending out absentee-ballot applications will benefit Democrats.
One oddity of this tantrum is that there’s no evidence that voting by mail actually helps Democrats, nor is there evidence that it is a major risk for fraud. What Trump is really thinking is hard to know. He has continued to espouse blatantly false claims about voter fraud in 2016, and he may believe them, or perhaps he has simply calculated that higher turnout in 2020 could doom his reelection chances. Trump has left the burden for most of the pandemic response to the states; only when the fallout threatens him politically does he start to throw his weight around. (As Michigan’s secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, noted in reply, Republican officials in several more decidedly red states have taken similar actions, without being threatened.)
In short, Trump is trying to use the force and funds of the federal government to enhance his reelection chances—and if that sounds familiar, it’s because he was impeached in December for doing much the same. In that case, he tried to strong-arm Ukraine behind closed doors to investigate the Biden family; today, it’s just another tossed-off tweet.
These particular messages are part of a new genre Trump seems to be trying out: the tattletale tweet, in which he tags in some other authority and demands that they take action. He recently tagged Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai in complaints about NBC’s Chuck Todd, seeming to call for the FCC to “fire” Todd, a power it does not have. More successfully, he demanded that Senator Lindsey Graham investigate the so-called Obamagate scandal, and while Graham has demurred (so far) on calling Barack Obama to testify, he quickly hopped to and said he would hold hearings, subpoenaing a raft of other officials.
These messages are a little strange on their face, since Trump could easily call Vought or Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and order him to withhold funds to Michigan or Nevada; he could call Pai or Graham privately too. But they would probably tell him that his requests are illegal, and he’d be deprived of a chance to grandstand. Since everyone knows that the president is more interested in performance than execution, and that he often loses interest before following through on things he talks about—remember when he asserted absolute authority over states just a month ago?—he derives some sort of perverse plausible deniability. But dismissing this as another idle Trump threat or musing lets him off too easy and enables his lawlessness.
First, even if Trump doesn’t follow through on his threats against Michigan and Nevada, he could deter other states from following their lead. Any governor or secretary of state who wants to ensure that voters can get ballots in November will have to weigh whether taking action might imperil federal funding to their state. Sure, any embargo would probably be illegal, but states would have to go to court and might see an interruption of funds at a time when they can least afford it. Even if they don’t, do these officials want to risk the ire of the president and his loyal hordes? Michigan has already canceled a legislative session over violent threats by protesters encouraged by Trump.
Second, even if Trump writes off his threats as bluster—he often claims that his gaffes were really “sarcasm” or jokes, most recently and implausibly when he suggested using disinfectants or UV light inside the body to kill the coronavirus—legions of executive-branch employees are ready to interpret his whims and try to act on them. Like an earlier ill-tempered, ginger-haired nepotistic ruler, Trump need only ask offhand for appointees to rid him of a turbulent state.
As my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg has noted, Trump runs the executive branch with a Mafia mentality, and is careful to never be too explicit, even when his intentions are clear. Consider again the impeachment. Ambassador Gordon Sondland clearly understood Trump to demand that Ukraine announce an investigation into the Bidens as part of a quid pro quo, but Trump countered that he never told Sondland it was a “quid pro quo.” Trump’s treatment of officials in the aftermath of his impeachment also demonstrated to appointees that those who follow the law but buck Trump’s whims are vulnerable to public attack and ouster, while those who break the law but indulge the president will be rewarded and protected.
This morning’s tweets are, it is true, just more wild rambling from the president. That doesn’t mean they can’t also be a grave threat to the integrity of the 2020 election.