As his rival closed in on the White House, President Donald Trump on Thursday sought to undermine confidence in the nation’s election, making unsupported accusations about the integrity of the results.
Some TV networks cut away from his 17-minute appearance; in other TV studios, the president was castigated for what was seen as an assault on US democracy. And some Republican officials condemned his comments.
His path to victory narrow, Trump first pushed unsupported allegations of electoral misconduct in a series of tweets and insisted the ongoing vote count of ballots submitted before and on Election Day must cease.
Then, in his first public appearance since late on Election Night, he amplified the conspiracy theories amid the trappings of presidential power, with a 17-minute monologue filled with unsupported allegations, smears of his political rivals and election officials, threats of legal action, and an ominous warning that people who he claimed were being prevented from observing the vote count were becoming violent.
“This is a case when they are trying to steal an election, they are trying to rig an election,” said Trump of Democrats, whom he accused of corruption while providing no evidence.
“If you count the legal votes, I easily win,” he claimed. “If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.”
He claimed without evidence that election officials in states such as Pennsylvania were “trying obviously to commit fraud” and keeping observers from overseeing the tabulation process. And he warned that people who are being banned from observing the vote count “are very unhappy and become somewhat violent.”
Several major US television networks cut away from live coverage of Trump’s event soon after it started, with MSNBC citing the need to correct false claims by the president.
Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, watching Trump’s speech in the CNN studio, said “No Republican elected official is going to stand behind that statement. None of them will.”
“Much of that statement was incendiary,” added Santorum, “and not something that the president of the United States should say…. The votes in Pennsylvania need to be counted. People voted. You need to count their votes.
“If there are instances where we find some kind of fraud, you investigate them,” he goes on. If the claims are true, “prove it,” Santorum said. “But counting absentee ballots and counting mail-in ballots is not fraud.”
Others in the studio accused the president of debasing American democracy. Correspondent John King said Trump was attacking “the most sacred institution of our democracy from its most sacred building.” Counting the vote, echoed anchor Wolf Blitzer, “is not fraud; it’s democracy.”
“Counting every vote is at the heart of democracy,” Senator Mitt Romney of Utah tweeted. “Have faith in democracy, in our Constitution, and in the American people.”
A group of former US attorneys who served under Republican presidents later released a joint statement condemning Trump’s legal threats, fraud allegations and false declarations of victory as “premature, baseless and reckless.”
“We hereby call upon the president to patiently and respectfully allow the lawful vote-counting process to continue, in accordance with applicable federal and state laws, and to avoid any further comments or other actions which can serve only to undermine our democracy,” the 19 attorneys wrote.
The letter was signed by former US attorneys from the District of Columbia, Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas and elsewhere. One of the signatories, Greg Brower, a former US attorney for Nevada, also served during the Trump administration’s early years as the FBI’s assistant director for congressional affairs.
Trump had made similar claims about election integrity during the 2016 campaign, which he went on to win. This time, he was speaking not as a candidate, but as the sitting president of the United States.
Democratic challenger Biden responded with a tweet of his own: “No one is going to take our democracy away from us.”
Before Trump’s speech, speaking briefly to reporters after attending a COVID-19 briefing, Biden had declared that “each ballot must be counted.”
“I ask everyone to stay calm. The process is working,” said Biden. “It is the will of the voters. No one, not anyone else who chooses the president of the United States of America.”
Trump’s campaign engaged in a flurry of legal activity to try to improve the Republican president’s chances, requesting a recount in Wisconsin and filing lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia. Judges in Georgia and Michigan quickly dismissed Trump campaign lawsuits there on Thursday.
Trump’s legal challenges faced long odds. He would have to win multiple suits in multiple states in order to stop vote counts, since more than one state was undeclared.
There were no obvious grounds for the Justice Department to attempt to intervene to stop a vote count at the state level, unless the federal government could somehow assert a violation of federal voting laws or the Constitution. The department could theoretically file a brief in support of a Trump campaign lawsuit if it believed there were federal concerns at stake, but that intervention would be extraordinary.
Biden attorney Bob Bauer said the suits were legally “meritless.” Their only purpose, he said “is to create an opportunity for them to message falsely about what’s taking place in the electoral process.”