I was ready to write a muddy assessment of the first Biden-Trump debate, until the last question, which got my attention, as I wrote about at New York:
Viewers fatigued by the first Trump-Biden debate and the endless cross-talking punctuated by fights between debate moderator Chris Wallace and the president may have missed the final topic and its significance. But it was potentially a bigger deal than anything else discussed. Directly challenged to forswear an early victory claim based on his plenary dismissal of the legitimacy of slow-to-be-counted mail ballots, Trump refused, instead suggesting that the U.S. Supreme Court (buttressed by his nominee Amy Coney Barrett) resolve the election, after tossing a word salad of nearly incoherent complaints about voting by mail.
CNN reports the critical exchange:
“’Will you urge supporters to stay calm during this extended period not to engage in any civil unrest and pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified,’ asked moderator Chris Wallace.
“’I’m urging supporters to go into the poll and watch very carefully,’ Trump said tonight, beginning to slam vote by mail. ‘If it’s a fair election, I’m 100% on board. But If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.’”
Earlier today, I noted that Trump has been repeating several ludicrous arguments against voting by mail. In this one debate segment, he hit nearly all of them. He mentioned delays in counting mail ballots that his party is fighting in court to maintain, and that actually reflects an excessive focus on fraud. He touted a Pennsylvania incident of discarded military ballots that affected a grand total of nine votes. And he repeatedly suggested that random people are being sent mail ballots “without solicitation,” which isn’t true anywhere and isn’t even remotely accurate when it comes to any of the the battleground states.
Both candidates were asked by Wallace how they would reassure voters of the integrity of the election. Trump replied: “It’s a disaster … this is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen.” So much for reassurance.
Biden, by contrast, vowed to accept the results once all the ballots are counted, encouraged his supporters to vote in person if they can, and made this veiled threat to fight against any preemptive victory claim by Trump: “He cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election.”
Deliberately or not, Trump raised the stakes in the Barrett confirmation fight by admitting he’s counting on the Supreme Court to look at mail ballots, as the Washington Post reports:
“Noting that early voting has begun in many states, Wallace asked Trump: ‘Now that millions of mail-in ballots have gone out, what are you going to do about it? And are you counting on the Supreme Court, including a Justice Barrett, to settle in any dispute?’
“Trump answered: ‘I’m counting on them to look at the ballots, definitely. I don’t think we’ll — I hope we don’t need them in terms of the election itself. But for the ballots, I think so.’”
This represents more or less a presidential guarantee of a post–Election Day legal challenge to the legitimacy of mail ballots, which he expects the Supreme Court, to which he has appointed three members (assuming Barrett is confirmed by then), to address.
If you weren’t alarmed by Trump’s threats to fight against a full count of ballots before, it’s time to get worried.