Trump Can’t Delay the Election

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

At 8:30 this morning, the Commerce Department announced a record economic decline during the second quarter of this year — a drop that was stunning in its severity and breath.

Sixteen minutes later, President Trump tweeted. No, not about the historic drop in the gross domestic product or the 1.4 million Americans filing for unemployment.

What the president wanted to talk about was the election. Specifically, he wanted to float the idea that it could be delayed, an action that would mark an extraordinary breach of democratic norms.

Before we get all wound up about this incendiary tweet, let’s spend a minute talking about what we know to be true.

  • The president cannot delay the election. Article II of the Constitution empowers Congress to choose the timing of the general election, and a federal law mandates that it must be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

  • The explosive statement came during a really, really bad news day for Mr. Trump. (Check out this astounding graph.) Stock indexes — a key measure by which Mr. Trump assesses his presidency — slid after the release of the economic numbers. Meanwhile, his three immediate predecessors were honoring Representative John Lewis, delivering soaring eulogies at a nationally televised event Mr. Trump did not attend. Trying to change the news cycle when it doesn’t suit him is a hallmark of the president’s politicking.

  • As a campaign message, this tweet makes no sense. Mr. Trump has spent weeks arguing, essentially, that everything is going to be fine — workers should return to their jobs, states should reopen their economies, and children should attend school. Now he’s saying the pandemic has caused so much chaos that the election must be postponed.

I don’t want to minimize the real risks of Mr. Trump’s remark. Already, this election has been messy, with many voters worried about voting in person and uncertain about how to cast ballots by mail. There’s plenty of evidence that state and local election officials are unprepared for a potential deluge of early and absentee voting this fall.

Mr. Trump has tried to exacerbate the confusion, sowing doubt that the election will be conducted fairly and working to undermine voting by mail, which many Republicans believe will hurt their electoral chances. (There is no evidence to back up the argument from the right that all-mail elections favor Democrats.)

Mr. Trump is dragging behind in polling, so raising doubts about voting may be a way for him to lay the groundwork to question the legitimacy of the election should he lose. At a White House briefing later in the day, Mr. Trump defended his suggestion that the election be delayed, falsely warning that “hundreds of millions of mail-in ballots” would be cast and saying he didn’t want to wait for the results of the election.

Yet, even Mr. Trump’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill seemed uncertain what to make of Mr. Trump’s suggestion — that is, those who didn’t completely avoid answering questions about it. None supported the idea of postponing the election.

“I think it’s a joke, I guess,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas. “I don’t know how else to interpret it.”

“If you guys take the bait, he’ll be the happiest guy in town,” said Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, a staunch Trump ally who suggested that the comment was a political maneuver to bolster Mr. Trump’s base. “I thought, my gosh, this is going to consume a lot of people, except real people. And it was clever.”

If Mr. Trump’s comment is a joke, it’s not particularly funny. And if it’s a distraction, it’s not particularly well calculated. But whatever the rationale behind the tweet, the reality is that Mr. Trump does not have the authority to follow through on his threat. And congressional leaders made it pretty clear that they’re not even entertaining the idea.

“Never in the history of the country, through wars, depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time, and we’ll find a way to do that again this Nov. 3,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, told WNKY-TV in Bowling Green, Ky.

My advice: If you’re worried about the integrity of the election, spend some time figuring out how you can vote safely in November. And then make sure your neighbors can do the same.

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President Trump called Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, on Wednesday night for a conversation that Mr. Inhofe put on speakerphone to hear better as he sat in a Washington restaurant.

The conversation, overheard and recorded by someone in the room, ranged from a discussion about Anthony Tata, the retired Army brigadier general whose nomination for a top Pentagon policy position has become complicated, to Mr. Trump’s desire to preserve the name of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general, on a military base. (Here’s the audio.)

“We’re going to keep the name of Robert E. Lee?” Mr. Trump asked Mr. Inhofe, 85, who was sitting at Trattoria Alberto, a Capitol Hill Italian restaurant that is a favorite haunt of Washington Republicans, as he took the call. Mr. Inhofe put the phone to his ear but put Mr. Trump on speakerphone, and the president’s voice was audible to people sitting at other tables.

Mr. Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, replied, “Just trust me, I’ll make it happen.”

Mr. Trump went on: “I had about 95,000 positive retweets on that. That’s a lot.” That appeared to be a reference to a Twitter post last Friday in which he said that Mr. Inhofe had assured him that he wouldn’t change the names of “Military Bases and Forts” and that the senator “is not a believer in ‘Cancel Culture.’”

Mr. Trump, in the Wednesday night phone call, could be heard criticizing “cancel culture” and then told Mr. Inhofe that people “want to be able to go back to life.” He then appeared to dismiss the focus on the cultural shift taking place across the country with an expletive.

Earlier in the conversation, Mr. Trump and Mr. Inhofe discussed the possibility of someone’s “resigning” and putting that person into another appointment. That appeared to be about Mr. Tata, whose nomination for the Pentagon job has become immersed in criticism over his inflammatory Twitter posts about Muslims, his description of Mr. Obama as a “terrorist leader” and his embrace of conspiracy theories.

Mr. Inhofe could also be heard discussing “divorces” and personal issues that could become a focus of news coverage. That again appeared to be a reference to Mr. Tata.

Mr. Inhofe announced on Thursday morning that a hearing scheduled for later in the day to advance Mr. Tata’s nomination would be delayed.

An aide to Mr. Inhofe declined to comment on their conversation. Aides to Mr. Trump did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Representative John Lewis left this earth as he lived, with respect, dignity and some powerful words.

Thanks for reading. On Politics is your guide to the political news cycle, delivering clarity from the chaos.

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