Joshua Holland

Trump's campaign is in tatters — but his administration is trying to pick up the pieces

The Trump campaign, facing a cash crunch, has gone off the air in a number of swing states in the final weeks of the election. They're playing defense in states they didn't expect to have to defend, like Texas and Georgia, and are spread thin. And they're competing against a Democratic challenger who has raised a record amount of campaign cash this cycle and entered the home stretch with an $118 million advantage over the incumbent.

Trump has compensated by using taxpayer dollars to supplement his campaign's efforts, most prominently with a planned $300 million advertising blitz by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to "defeat despair" about Covid-19. According to Politico, the hyper-partisan political appointee responsible for the campaign, Michael Caputo, pitched it internally with the theme, "Helping the President will Help the Country."

That campaign appears to have fallen apart--or at least been pushed past the election--after Caputo suffered a high-profile meltdown and then took a leave of absence, and internal resistance from within the agency spilled into the press.

But HHS wasn't the only agency pushing Trump's message. In the closing weeks of the campaign, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have launched an unprecedented, coordinated campaign to advance Trump's demagoguery of immigrants and refugees "in key battleground states where President Donald Trump is trailing his opponent Joe Biden in the polls," according to Time Magazine.

As part of this push, top DHS and ICE leaders have traveled across the country to hold at least four press conferences this month in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Minnesota, shadowing the path of Trump's rallies as he makes a last-minute appeal to voters there. These public announcements by senior leaders ahead of the election, which former officials tell TIME are abnormal, if not unprecedented, have been held to publicize mostly routine immigration enforcement operations that would usually have been revealed with little fanfare.
Instead, DHS and ICE officials have used them as a platform to aggressively make the case for the president's immigration policies, often taking on a markedly Trumpian tone and echoing parts of his stump speech. At multiple events, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and his deputy Ken Cuccinelli have talked about immigrants taking American jobs, blasted Democrat-run sanctuary cities, touted "America First" and warned of "evil people who seek to travel to the United States with the intent of harming and killing Americans."

Even more blatant are the billboards. CNN reports:

When the idea of erecting billboards of immigration violators initially came up at least a year ago, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials didn't think much of it. The proposal was considered to be a low priority, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.

But just weeks from the presidential election, billboards picturing immigrants who were previously arrested or convicted of crimes are up in six locations in Pennsylvania, a critical swing state.

Buzzfeed News reported that "current ICE employees, speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said they were also concerned at the effort and what it meant for their agency and its reputation. One ICE employee said the billboards were clearly an attempt to 'pander' to Trump's base: 'It's appalling, but so much about immigration enforcement under this administration has been for that purpose alone.'"

This follows an ICE enforcement campaign this month targeting "sanctuary cities," a frequent target of Trump's mendacious attacks. The Washington Post reported in September that "two officials with knowledge of plans for the sanctuary op described it as more of a political messaging campaign than a major ICE operation, noting that the agency already concentrates on immigration violators with criminal records and routinely arrests them without much fanfare."

Absent some internal memo or emails emerging in which officials explicitly say that this effort is designed to help re-elect Trump, this is probably all technically legal. The Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from participating in campaign activities--and the use of public resources for partisan activities--is about explicit electioneering and doesn't cover acts that indirectly help a campaign advance its messaging. But it is hard to imagine a more brazen violation of the spirit of that law.

If Democrats win unified control next week, one hopes that they'll remember that these authoritarian agencies that have embraced Trump's xenophobic worldview like no others went all-in for his re-election.

Trump called military personnel 'suckers' and 'losers'--and now he's fighting to disenfranchise them

During the tumultuous fight for Florida in 2000, Mark Herron, an attorney for Al Gore's campaign, sent a memo to the team's recount observers urging them to challenge arriving absentee ballots that weren't properly postmarked. The race for Florida, and the White House, was separated by around 300 ballots at the time, and many of those mail-in votes were from overseas service-members who leaned toward George W. Bush.

The Bush campaign got ahold of Herron's memo and screamed bloody murder. CNN reported at the time that "Bush aides and Republican surrogates, including retired Persian Gulf war commander Norman Schwarzkopf, have blasted their Democratic rivals for having more than 1,400 overseas absentee ballots disqualified in Florida counties." Rep. John Sweeney (R-NY), accused Democrats of "actively and directly attempting to disenfranchise the brave men and women who are defending freedom."

Democrats moved into a defensive crouch, deploying then-Senator Bob Kerrey, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, "to call on Republicans to retract those 'unfair and irresponsible' claims." Gore's Florida campaign chief reversed course, telling election officials, "no man or woman in military service to this nation should have his or her vote rejected solely due to the absence of a postmark." Bush spokesperson Ari Fleischer's response: "They accomplished their mission and now they're running for cover. They never should have targeted our nation's servicemen and women in the first place."

Of course, everyone knew they weren't all military ballots. While military service members have been voting absentee since the Civil War, The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 guaranteed that military personnel, civilians working for the US government abroad and all other "overseas voters who no longer maintain a residence in the United States" could register and vote by absentee ballot in all elections for federal office. And all of those ballots, whether military or civilian, were to be treated the same.

But the GOP's messaging elided that fact, and it was effective.

Now, 20 years later, demonizing voting-by-mail is central to Donald Trump's strategy to eke out a second term despite being historically unpopular and presiding over a public health catastrophe. This week, he suggested that counting ballots after November 3 would be "totally inappropriate" and, in his eyes, illegal. Meanwhile, Republicans across the country have filed a flurry of lawsuits asking courts to limit absentee ballot counts on various grounds, and in a much-derided opinion issued this week, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that Election Day mail-in deadlines are devised "to avoid the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after election day and potentially flip the results of an election."

But according to a report by a military voting rights group, 29 states and the District of Columbia "accept mailed military absentee ballots after election day, if the ballots are sent before the close of polls." According to the report, "more than 75 percent of the available votes in the Electoral College will come from states that will count military ballots after election day."

Millions of Americans will vote absentee because of the pandemic, and among them will be hundreds of thousands of ballots cast by service members. (Most military personnel vote by mail, whether stationed at home or abroad.) It isn't clear why Democrats, having been vilified for "actively and directly attempting to disenfranchise the brave men and women who are defending freedom" 20 years ago aren't making this a major issue today.

Trump is vulnerable to these charges after reportedly calling military personnel "suckers" and "losers," and attacking a number of his top generals. A Military Times poll conducted in late August found that he was trailing Joe Biden by four percentage points among active-duty service men and women. And they have families.

Trump and his party are fighting tooth-and-nail to prevent military ballots from being counted after November 3. That should be an easy layup for Democrats.

A right-wing powder keg: How conservative media is convincing Trump fans that he's winning bigly

Over the weekend, NPR interviewed some anxious voters. One, a Trump-supporter, said that his biggest worry was that Trump needed to win in a landslide to keep the left from claiming that the election was stolen. That Trump would win wasn't in doubt.

For those who get their news from the conservative media, there is ample evidence that Trump is cruising to victory. In a National Review piece pushing back on such reports, Kevin Williamson writes that "many conservative media figures are predicting . . . a Trump landslide. This wish-casting is based on increasingly imaginative reading of the political terrain: Comedian Jimmy Failla of Fox News, for example, called a Trump "lawnslide" based on — hold your breath, now — an informal poll of truckers who were giving their estimates of the ratio of Trump yard signs to Joe Biden yard signs." Boat parades, truck caravans, how many people believe their neighbors are supporting Trump and other quicky metrics have all been the basis of arguments that the "liberal media" is lying about Trump's bleak position in the race.

On a press call earlier this month, Trump campaign advisor Corey Lewandowski told reporters that based on the campaign's internal polling, as well as grassroots enthusiasm within Trump's base, it was quickly becoming "mathematically impossible for Joe Biden to win this campaign." Pro-Trump media outlets ran with it.

Serious election observers agree that it's always best to focus on the polling averages rather than individual surveys because the former aren't as noisy or prone to sampling errors. But throughout October, The Washington Examiner columnist Paul Bedard has written a series of posts painting a picture of Trump surging from behind to take a clear lead in carefully cherry-picked polls conducted by firms that are known for their strong pro-GOP "house effect," or lean. Most of them are write-ups of the latest Rasmussen polls. Rasmussen currently has Trump's approval rating at 51 percent, a very different picture than his 42.5 percent approval rate in FiveThirtyEight's polling average or the 44 percent in RealClearPolitics'. On Monday, when Rasmussen's tracking poll gave Trump a narrow lead nationally and pegged Trump's approval at 52 percent, Bedard noted that being over 50 percent is "a key factor to winning reelection. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were both at 50% when they edged out reelection victories."

Trump could win this election--his chances are probably better than the 12 percent likelihood FiveThirtyEight's forecast model gives him due to issues with mail ballots and potentially adverse rulings by partisan courts--but it's hard to overstate how unmoored from reality the view that he's presently leading in the race really is. Trump is the first president in the modern polling era whose disapproval rating exceeded his approval rating in his first month in office and he has remained under water in that metric for his entire presidency, usually by around ten points. The presidential race has been historically stable, with Joe Biden leading Trump nationally by an average of 6 points all of last year, and expanding that lead to around 9 percentage points at present. Biden's also been ahead in the top battleground states for every day of the race.

The shared goal of the Trump campaign and its sprawling propaganda network in presenting an alternate reality of the race is to keep donors writing checks and the Republican base engaged. Amid a raging pandemic, it's not hard to imagine some voters who support a candidate trailing by a large margin deciding they'll sit this one out, especially if they face long lines at the polls to cast a vote.

But in doing so, they're creating a powder keg. The narrative that Trump is poised to win a second term is being pushed by the same politicians and media outlets that have spent years advancing a big, consequential lie that voter fraud is widespread in the United States. Taken together, they are telling millions of perpetually angry Trump supporters that he can only lose as a result of foul play.

This reckless effort to keep their voters engaged is coming at a time when experts are sounding alarms over the potential for violence surrounding this election. In this case, their habitual dishonesty is incredibly dangerous.

Voting Rights Roundup: Supreme Court poised to upend federalism itself to gut voting protections

LEADING OFF

Pennsylvania: The U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 on Pennsylvania Republicans' request to stay two state Supreme Court rulings that had sided against Republican requests to restrict voting access and enable voter intimidation, leaving the state court's orders in place.

The decision, however, has catastrophic implications for the future of voting rights in the likely event that Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed to the bench, signaling that the justices are prepared to eviscerate long-settled doctrines of federalism in the service of actively undermining fair elections.

The rulings in question saw the Democratic majority on Pennsylvania's top court reject the GOP's request to block counties from setting up drop boxes for returning mail ballots. The court also turned back Republican demands that ballots only count if received by Election Day (the state will accept ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within three days).

In addition, the court determined that ballots lacking a postmark would "be presumed to have been mailed by Election Day" unless there is strong evidence to the contrary. Finally, the justices rejected allowing "poll watchers" from serving in counties where they were not registered to vote, a thinly veiled attempt at voter intimidation by Trump, who has repeatedly incited his supporters to harass voters at polling places in Philadelphia and other localities with large Black populations.

While Chief Justice John Roberts' decision to side with the Supreme Court's three liberals leaves the Pennsylvania court's orders in place for now, that's no guarantee they'll remain in effect much longer. Republicans swiftly filed a new federal lawsuit seeking to block the mail ballot return deadline in an attempt to get the question back before the U.S. Supreme Court soon after Barrett is confirmed. Barrett could therefore cast the deciding vote, potentially even after Election Day, to overturn the state court's ruling and throw out thousands of ballots that were postmarked by Election Day but not received until afterward.

It has been a cornerstone of American federalism for more than two centuries that when state courts make decisions based solely on state constitutional grounds that don't conflict with federal law—as is the case here—those decisions are insulated from federal review. However, Republicans argue that the U.S. Constitution's Elections Clause giving the "legislature" in each state the power to set the "times, places, and manner of holding" federal elections means that only the legislature itself may exercise that power, not those tasked with setting or interpreting state laws, such as state courts.

In other words, Republicans are arguing that state courts—as well as voter-initiated ballot measures and potentially even governors—lack the power to set election laws when they disagree with the legislature. Such a notion would shatter the principle of judicial review at the state level. In a state such as Pennsylvania, where the GOP holds gerrymandered legislative majorities despite Democrats winning more votes in 2018, it would cement minority rule by removing any real check on ill-gained legislative power. This outcome would eliminate any real recourse that voters have to end gerrymandering when lawmakers won't act.

The last few months have seen the U.S. Supreme Court and federal judges appointed by Republicans repeatedly rule against voting rights. This Pennsylvania case is an ominous indicator that right-wing judges will go to new extremes to eviscerate voting protections to entrench the GOP in power for the foreseeable future. Should Democrats overcome these barriers next month and win the presidency and Senate, they will likely soon face the difficult choice of either reforming the structure of the courts or watch voting rights wither away under an unrelenting judicial assault.

BALLOT MEASURES

Ballot Measures: Daily Kos Elections takes a look at 24 ballot measures going before voters around the country that would reshape how elections and voting work, with some seeking to protect fair elections while others attempt to undermine them. Major issues include redistricting reform, the adoption of voting systems that promote majority winners, efforts to lower the voting age in local elections, and Republican-backed efforts to restrict future ballot initiatives.

Key contests include whether to adopt redistricting reform in Virginia or variations of instant-runoff voting in Alaska and Massachusetts; Colorado's membership in the National Popular Vote Compact for the Electoral College; and Puerto Rico's latest referendum on statehood. Be sure to bookmark our spreadsheet for Election Night as results come in.

REDISTRICTING

Arizona: Democrats have filed a lawsuit in state court arguing that Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has illegally undermined the impartiality of Arizona's independent redistricting commission by injecting partisanship into the process for selecting members of the panel.

In 2000, Arizona became the first state to adopt an independent redistricting commission enshrined in its constitution after voters passed a ballot initiative by a wide 56-44 margin. That development, however, deprived Republicans of their expected control over redistricting, prompting the GOP to fight the commission's existence nonstop for years.

The commission is made up of two Democrats, two Republicans, and one unaffiliated member. All are selected from a pool of 25 applicants screened by the state's commission on appellate court appointments, a panel that was established as a way to help insulate judicial appointments from partisan politics. Legislative leaders from both parties in the state House and Senate each get to pick one member. Those four commissioners then choose an unaffiliated tiebreaker. The commission's maps are required to adhere to nonpartisan criteria and prioritize political competitiveness.

While this system is supposed to remove either party's ability to ram through gerrymandered maps, that is just what Republicans appear intent on doing. Democrats say that Ducey has illegally stacked the applicant pool by stacking the court appointment commission itself. Indeed, Ducey has refused to nominate any Democrats to the judicial nominating commission despite a rule that no more than eight of its 15 members can belong to the same party. That has left the panel with only Republicans and independents, some of whom have ties to the GOP.

Thanks to Ducey stacking the judicial nominating commission, multiple candidates from the five supposed independents approved by the appellate court commission appear to be decidedly Republican-leaning. Democrats want the state court to disqualify gun store owner Robert Wilson for having hosted a rally for the Trump campaign, as well as utilities attorney Loquvam because he was a lobbyist registered with the state's Corporation Commision, which regulates utilities. Arizona's constitution prohibits commissioners who have served as a lobbyist within the past three years.

Ducey's efforts are only the latest attempt to thwart the will of voters. After independent commissioner Colleen Mathis chose proposals put forward by Democrats in 2011, Republicans claimed she was a closet Democratic partisan and tried to impeach her, only to be rebuked by the state Supreme Court. But the partisanship of the maps she selected can be measured by statistics, which showed no unfair advantage for the GOP and are among the fairest nationally, especially when considering the commission's competitiveness mandate.

Republicans then twice sued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking both to strike down the commission itself and the maps it produced. However, in a 2015 ruling in which former swing Justice Anthony Kennedy cast the decisive vote, the court upheld the constitutionality of using ballot initiatives to enact laws such as Arizona's redistricting commission.

But thanks to the GOP's unrelenting assault on judicial independence, the independence of Arizona's redistricting commission may now be at risk. That's because in 2016, Ducey packed the state Supreme Court by adding two seats to cement a hardline conservative majority, leaving in doubt whether Democrats have a chance to succeed with this lawsuit. But even if Democrats do prevail at the state level, the U.S. Supreme Court could still overturn its 2015 precedent and strike down the commission now that Justices Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are no longer on the court.

Redistricting: Next month's elections are the last that will take place before states are required to redraw their congressional and state legislative districts to reflect population changes in the 2020 census. That makes them critical in the fight against gerrymandering. In a new article, Daily Kos Elections looks at what are the key elections for governors, state legislatures, state supreme courts, and ballot measures in the states that could change who's in charge of the redistricting process for the coming decade. Be sure to bookmark the spreadsheet version of this info since we'll update it as results come in.

As things stand today, Republicans would get to draw three to four times as many congressional districts as Democrats if nothing changes in 2020, and the picture is similar for state legislative maps. But Democrats are well-positioned to flip a number of key races that would break GOP's control over redistricting in important swing states. In just four states home to one-fifth of the House's seats, control over Ohio's Supreme Court and the state houses in Florida, North Carolina, and Texas could decide whether the GOP has unfettered power to gerrymander there or whether Democrats will have a seat at the table.

VOTER SUPPRESSION

Michigan: A 6th Circuit Court of Appeals panel has ruled 2-1 along ideological lines to overturn a lower court decision that had blocked Michigan's unique law banning third-party organizations from hiring paid transportation to take voters to polling places, with the panel's two GOP appointees siding with Michigan Republicans.

Texas: A panel of three GOP-appointed judges on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court ruling that required Texas to adopt a uniform process statewide for giving voters a chance to fix purported problems with their signature on absentee mail ballots. The plaintiffs appeared to concede defeat, saying they would now try to persuade counties to voluntarily change their procedures to avoid disenfranchising voters.

VOTING ACCESS

New Jersey: Democrats in a state Assembly committee have passed a bill along party lines to establish two weeks of in-person early voting for general elections beginning with next year's state elections. Democrats in the state Senate passed a similar bill in committee earlier this year.

2020 CENSUS

2020 Census: A federal district court in California has become the second lower court to block Trump's executive memo ordering the census to exclude undocumented immigrants from the counts used to determine the apportionment of congressional seats and Electoral College votes among the states after the 2020 census, prompting Trump to appeal to the Supreme Court. In the other case that saw a ruling against Trump in this matter, the Supreme Court has set oral arguments for Nov. 30 over Trump's appeal.

ELECTION CHANGES

Please bookmark our litigation tracker for a complete summary of the latest developments in every lawsuit regarding changes to elections and voting procedures as a result of the coronavirus.

Alabama: The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with Republicans and blocked a lower court ruling that had suspended Alabama's ban on curbside voting.

Alaska: A state court judge has refused to require that officials notify voters and give them a chance to fix purported problems with their mail ballot signature instead of rejecting their ballots.

Indiana: A panel of three GOP-appointed judges on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has blocked a lower court decision that had ruled that ordinary voters had standing to sue in court to seek an extension of Election Day polling hours in the event of voting problems, meaning once more that only county election boards will have that ability. Indiana's polls close at 6 PM, making it the earliest state in the country alongside Kentucky.

Iowa: Iowa's conservative-dominated state Supreme Court has upheld a law passed by Republicans earlier this year that bars county officials from using the state's voter database to fill in missing information on mail ballot applications such as a voter's "PIN" when their identity is otherwise known.

The law instead requires that officials individually contact voters to fill in missing data, increasing the turnaround time for processing and potentially risking that some voters will not receive their ballots in time. Republicans have used this law to throw out tens of thousands of partially pre-filled mail ballot applications that voters had already submitted.

Maine: The Democratic-appointed majority on Maine's Supreme Court has refused to require that mail ballots be counted so long as they're postmarked by Election Day and received within a few days afterward, instead requiring they be received by Election Day. The court additionally rejected the plaintiffs' request that it order local officials to notify voters and give them a chance to fix supposed problems with mail ballot signatures; Democratic Secretary of State Matt Dunlap had previously issued an order directing local election officials to take such steps, but the plaintiffs wanted further assurance in court.

Missouri: A federal appeals court has blocked a lower court ruling that would have allowed mail voters in Missouri to return their ballots in person. Under an almost unparalleled state law, such voters can only return their ballots via U.S. mail.

Mississippi: Voting rights advocates who had sued Mississippi officials in federal court over expanding voting access have reached a settlement that will allow curbside voting for those with COVID symptoms and give absentee voters whose ballots are rejected the chance to fix any problems. The agreement leaves in place the state's requirement that voters who request an absentee ballot present an excuse in order to do so. Mississippi is one of just five states with such a requirement still in place this year and the only one that also lacks any form of in-person early voting.

Nevada: Donald Trump's campaign has filed a suit in state court demanding that election officials in Clark County, Nevada stop counting mail ballots, claiming that officials are not following proper procedures "that facilitate transparency," but a lower court denied Trump's request for a temporary restraining order on Friday while the case proceeds. This year, Nevada is conducting its elections almost entirely by mail for the first time, an approach that is being followed statewide. Clark County, which is home to Las Vegas and roughly two-thirds of the state's registered voters, is a Democratic stronghold.

North Carolina: The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, with all 15 judges sitting en banc, has upheld a settlement made by the Democratic majority on the North Carolina Board of Elections extending the absentee ballot receipt deadline from three days after Election Day to nine days after (ballots must still be postmarked by Election Day). Republicans are appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile in a separate state-level lawsuit, the Democratic majority on North Carolina's Supreme court has rejected issuing a stay in the GOP's attempt to overturn the state board's settlement in state court, leaving provisions in place making it easier for voters to fix purported signature problems on mail ballots. Republicans have not indicated if they will also appeal this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which has a 5-2 Democratic majority, has unanimously ruled that election officials may not reject mail ballots because of alleged signature mismatches.

Tennessee: A federal appeals court has declined to overturn a lower court order that put on hold a Tennessee law forbidding first-time voters who register by mail or online from voting absentee and instead requiring them to vote in person.

Texas: The Texas Supreme Court, which is entirely Republican, has rejected a Republican lawsuit that had sought to block curbside voting in Harris County, the most populous in the state. Meanwhile, a state Court of Appeals panel has upheld a lower court order that blocked GOP Gov. Greg Abbott's order limiting counties to only one location for dropping off mail ballots regardless of population size. Republicans said they would appeal to the state Supreme Court, which would suspend the ruling from going into effect while the appeal is pending.

The danger of laughing off Trump's fascist blather

"As President Trump entered the final stretch of the election season," reports The Washington Post, "he began making more than 50 false or misleading claims a day." Since then, "it's only gotten worse — so much so that the Fact Checker team cannot keep up."

Trump's relentless mendacity and constant ridiculousness numbs reporters and the larger public to just how dangerous his inclinations are when paired with the power of the presidency. Every day, he says something that would result in a major scandal for any other president, of either party, and after years of hearing this stuff, there's a natural tendency to dismiss it as 'Trump being Trump.'

On Wednesday, The Washington Post ran a story illustrating why this is so dangerous. While we shake our heads at Trump's favorite rhetorical gambit--accusing political opponents and reporters who ask him questions he doesn't like of committing unspecified crimes--the report reveals that he says the same things in private; it is more than just campaign gibberish.

President Trump and his advisers have repeatedly discussed whether to fire FBI Director Christopher A. Wray after Election Day — a scenario that also could imperil the tenure of Attorney General William P. Barr as the president grows increasingly frustrated that federal law enforcement has not delivered his campaign the kind of last-minute boost that the FBI provided in 2016, according to people familiar with the matter.
The conversations among the president and senior aides stem in part from their disappointment that Wray in particular but Barr as well have not done what Trump had hoped — indicate that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden or other Biden associates are under investigation, these people say. Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal discussions.
In the campaign's closing weeks, the president has intensified public calls for jailing his challenger, much as he did for Hillary Clinton, his opponent in 2016. Trump has called Biden a "criminal" without articulating what laws he believes the former vice president has broken.
People familiar with the discussions say Trump wants official action similar to the announcement made 11 days before the last presidential election by then-FBI Director James B. Comey, who informed Congress he had reopened an investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of state after potential new evidence had been discovered.
[...]
The attorney general has been drawn into some of those disputes as the president has complained that a hoped-for report from Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, who is scrutinizing the Russia investigation's origins, is not expected to surface before Election Day.
The president has stopped praising Barr and instead strikes a more critical tone toward him. Trump declined to answer a Newsmax reporter recently when asked if Barr would be kept around for a second term.
Trump was so focused on the Durham report that he would turn up the television volume when segments would air about it, people around him said. Trump has told allies that he once believed Barr would deliver "scalps" in the form of Durham's findings, according to an adviser who recently spoke to Trump about it. "But they aren't doing s---," the president said, according to this person.

Fortunately, with Trump trailing Joe Biden by a significant margin and unlikely to occupy the Oval Office after January, nobody in law enforcement is fabricating bogus charges against Trump's foes.

But keep in mind that Trump is hectoring the most corrupt Attorney General in memory--a guy who has turned the country's top law enforcement agency into Trump's personal law firm and probably obstructed justice on Trump's behalf--for perceived disloyalty. And recall that Trump picked Barr after his first choice, wingnut Matthew Whitaker, became a laughingstock when his past as a toilet-scammer became public. FiveThirtyEight currently gives Trump a one-in-eight likelihood of winning the Electoral College, and if he does, you can bet that Trump would find someone in MAGA world who wouldn't similarly frustrate his authoritarian impulses.

Trump's clownishness would be comical if he were a fictional character. But he controls the executive branch--and holds the nuclear codes--and we should take him both seriously and literally and understand that it's no laughing matter.

Trump forced Republicans into the dumbest corner

Republicans are stuck on the wrong side of public opinion on Covid-19, and that's probably the biggest reason why they've struggled to make up any ground against their Democratic opponents. Back in March, I noticed a trend that was unusual in our polarized times: GOP voters were telling pollsters that they believed Donald Trump's various claims about the origins of the pandemic and bought that the media and Democrats were exaggerating its danger, but when asked about how they themselves were responding to the outbreak, majorities made it clear that they took it very seriously. They were concerned about its impact on their families and communities, were taking precautions to avoid contracting the virus and supported most if not all public health measures to contain it.

That disconnect has persisted throughout the course of the campaign. Trump and others have mocked Joe Biden for "hiding in his basement" and wearing a mask when out on the campaign trail, but a survey released earlier this month found that, "despite noisy no-mask protests, 92 percent of 2,200 Americans polled say they wear a face mask when leaving their home, with 74 percent saying they 'always' do." Another survey released this week found that voters favored a national mask mandate by a 20-point margin. While Trump assures Americans that the coronavirus is nothing to fear, another recent poll found that two-thirds of respondents "say they are worried that someone in their family will be exposed to the virus."

Any minimally competent campaign strategist would tell you that it has always been imperative for Trump to project a seriousness about Covid-19 to the American public and, if possible, shift the conversation to more friendly ground. But he and his party seem intent on doing the opposite. They've created a steady stream of news stories about their own carelessness--from the Rose Garden reception for Trump Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett turning into a super-spreader event to picking fights with Anthony Fauci to multiple elected officials violating airline mask mandates. Conflicting reports about Trump's health status, that goofy ride around Walter Reed Medical Center and now Trump touring the country holding rallies, many in Coronavirus hotspots, have all assured that Covid and the regime's reckless and anti-scientific responses to it would remain the media's primary focus in the final stretch of the campaign.

And even as numerous prominent Republicans and White House staffers tested positive for the disease, the conservative media continued to relentlessly downplay the severity of this historic public health crisis and openly mock those who take it seriously. It's hard to overstate how wide the divide between the movement and a significant majority of the public--voters Trump needs to win over--has become.

For a party that was once hailed for its messaging prowess, it is confounding. But it makes sense in context. Trump set the course for his party to navigate the pandemic months ago, and he simply does not have a plan B.

Way back in March, when Trump was calling warning about the severity of the pandemic a "hoax," I wrote that his "[Covid] strategy is clear."

He's incapable of even considering any political approach other than firing up his base, and he hopes to deepen the existing partisan divide on the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then blame the media and Democratic governors for the economic tsunami that's about to break over our shores... This is all about laying the groundwork to claim that he desperately tried to keep the economy humming but was thwarted by others.

When I wrote that, 602 Americans had died, and while I thought the strategy was doomed from the start, it made at least a modicum of sense at the time. If the outbreak did turn out to be less widespread than the experts were saying it would be, Trump might have been able to shift responsibility for the economic downturn to Democratic governors and the media, and run on his stewardship of the economy prior to the pandemic hitting.

That he hasn't made a course correction as the death toll rose through the thousands to the tens of thousands and ultimately to over 210,000, is no doubt related to the fact that Trump is ensconced in the same conservative media bubble that has defended and protected him since he won the Republican nomination in 2016. He believes in his mythical political skills, and knows better than any advisors and pollsters who tell him he's making serious strategic errors, if any of them do.

But a simpler explanation would be that Trump just doesn't have another strategy to which he can pivot. He has always been a bullshit artist whose carefully cultivated image obscures a lack of substance. The coronavirus crisis was a test that he couldn't spin away but PR is really all he knows. It has seemed from the start that he's thoroughly overwhelmed by circumstances and has frozen up like a deer in the headlights.

And having settled on a remarkably self-destructive strategy early on, Trump has taken virtually the entire Republican Party--and the broader conservative movement--with him. They've persistently downplayed the pandemic, cheered all of Trump's claims about miracle cures and portrayed those popular public health measures as acts of tyranny. It's an example of the deference they've given Trump throughout his time in office, but it's important to keep in mind that isn't only a result of their instincts. They are feckless in large part because Trump has wielded the most effective tools of quelling dissent within his own party of any president in modern history. Not only can a tweet storm from him lead to elected Republicans being ousted in primaries, but it also unleashes a torrent of abuse from his belligerent hardcore base.

The enduring irony of this bizarre election cycle is that Trump decided early on to wish the pandemic away in order to prop up the markets and maintain his positive ratings on handling the economy, and if he'd taken it seriously would probably be in a much stronger position today. It isn't the only reason that he's running a historically awful campaign, but it's a big one.

Trump campaign invents a foreign policy debate and then whines when it doesn't happen

Donald Trump really doesn't want to talk about his regime's catastrophic mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. He is desperate to shift the conversation to #HunterBidenghazi, and has always run against the press with as much zeal as he does against his political opponents.

So on Monday, campaign manager Bill Stepien--Trump's fifth, and the second to not be arrested--sent a scathing letter to the non-partisan Presidential Debate Commission accusing them of bias and expressing outrage that the affair would not focus on foreign policy. "We write with great concern over the announced topics for what was always billed as 'The Foreign Policy Debate' in the series of events agreed to by [the campaigns] many months ago," he wrote.

If you don't recall reading anything about the third debate focusing on foreign policy before yesterday, you are not alone. As The New York Times reports, "in some campaign years, the third presidential debate has focused on foreign policy. But the debate organizers did not announce such a plan in 2020, saying that the third debate would mirror the format of the first, with six subjects selected by the moderator."

This isn't a matter of Stepien making an assumption based on past election cycles. Every detail of these debates were exhaustively negotiated by the campaigns months ago. But in this world of post-truth politics, the campaign did not hesitate to baldly lie in order to advance their grievance-based campaign.

And while it's clichéd to draw comparisons to Orwell, the conservative media ran with the narrative and millions of Trump supporters are now convinced that the debate was always supposed to be centered on foreign policy and that the Presidential Debate Commission changed it up at the last moment in order to help Joe Biden.

Here's the simple truth about the fake Hunter Biden scandal Team Trump wishes was a 'smoking gun'

Donald Trump is trying hard to recreate the perfect storm that landed him in the White House in 2016 despite being the most unpopular candidate in the modern polling era. That year, the Clinton campaign's hacked emails were dribbled out over the final six weeks of the race. There wasn't much to them, but internal campaign communications tend to be frank and are easily mined for scandalettes. Having established the storyline that Clinton was as corrupt as Trump, they provided a steady stream of stories with "emails reveal" in the headlines which served to reinforce the right's narrative.

We can expect a similar stream of stories of ostensible "smoking guns" stemming from Hunter Biden's emails (whether hacked or fabricated) to come our way in the final weeks of this race. And some people who want to see themselves as fair will inadvertently amplify the right's preferred narratives by assuming that there must be something there.

So it's very important to keep in mind that the "scandal" is supposed to be that then-Vice President Joe Biden pushed for the removal of Ukraine's top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, to stave off an investigation into Burisma Holdings--the Ukrainian gas company whose Board Hunter sat on--in order to protect his son. It is supposed to be a story about conflict of interest--of the elder Biden using the office of the Vice Presidency to help his son.

There is not a shred of truth to those claims. The effort to get Shokin fired "was prompted by a push for anti-corruption reforms developed at the State Department and coordinated with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund," The Washington Post reported. And according to CNN, a bipartisan "letter from 2016 shows that Republican senators pushed for reforms to Ukraine's prosecutor general's office and judiciary, echoing calls then-Vice President Joe Biden made at the time."

Shokin was corrupt, and that was a problem. Vitaliy Kasko, a former deputy of Shokin's who resigned over his boss's habit of stymieing corruption probes, told Bloomberg that Shokin was not investigating Burisma during the period in question. "There was no pressure from anyone from the U.S. to close cases against" the firm or its owner. "It was shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015," Kasko said. And Daria Kaleniuk, a prominent Ukrainian anti-corruption crusader, told The Washington Post that "Shokin was fired not because he wanted to do that investigation, but quite to the contrary, because he failed that investigation."

Without some impropriety on Joe Biden's part, Hunter Biden's business ventures aren't a story. He isn't running for office. Like many, if not most children of the powerful, the younger Biden leveraged both his family name and the connections he'd made at Yale to land various business deal and secure a cushy, high-paying position on a corporate board. Both Hunter and Joe Biden have acknowledged that associating himself with a shady Ukrainian gas company--as opposed to, say, a reputable American or Western European firm--was an error of judgment, but it was neither illegal nor unethical. This isn't a meritocracy, and this is one way that wealth and power are reproduced from one generation to the next. It's distasteful and unfair, but that's a class issue, not a scandal. Hunter isn't running for office and his judgment, or lack thereof, isn't a matter of public concern.

Joe Biden spent years in the Senate, and year after year he ranked among the least wealthy members of that body. We know how he came into his wealth--mostly through a multi-million dollar book advance and speaking gigs after leaving office. Biden may not be everyone's cup of tea, but there's no evidence that he's corrupt.

It's been one faceplant after another as Trump and the GOP try to recreate 2016's perfect storm

Donald Trump is very, very bad at politics. In 2016, he lost the popular vote in both the GOP primaries and the general election. His net approval rating (approval minus disapproval) in FiveThirtyEight's average went underwater on his 15th day in office, and has remained right around -10 ever since. He's hemorrhaged support among women, college-educated whites and even white Evangelicals. And he's trailed Biden--and, during the Democratic primaries, all of Biden's rivals--for the entirety of the race. He's currently by a historic margin for an incumbent.

In 2016, he got very, very lucky. With 45 percent of the GOP primary vote, he beat a fractured, hapless field of establishment candidates who never figured out how to deal with him. Democrats nominated a woman whom the right had spent 30 years softening up and was widely distrusted by the left flank of the Democratic Party. A credulous media that thought he had no chance of winning harped on every baseless Clinton controversy his campaign stirred up. Wikileaks dribbled out his opponents' hacked emails for the final six weeks of the campaign. And then, 11 days before voters headed to the polls, then-FBI Director James Comey delivered the coup de grâce by violating FBI protocols and announcing that he was reopening an investigation into Clinton's emails, which proved decisive in the Rustbelt. It was a perfect storm.

Now, as he seeks re-election amid a historic plague and after losing more jobs than any president on record, Trump and his party are clearly overwhelmed. They can't run on their record--at least not without departing from reality-- so they've been trying desperately to get the old band back together and recreate the conditions that snuck them into the White House the last time.

It's not going well.

Trump and his supporters had pinned their hopes on reprising Comey's role in 2016 on an investigation into the roots of the Russia probe by US Attorney John Durham yielding arrests before the election. Last week, Trump was reportedly apoplectic when Attorney General Bill Barr announced that Durham would not wrap up his work before November 3. And he wasn't alone. "This is the nightmare scenario," a GOP congressional aide told Axios. "Essentially, the year and a half of arguably the number one issue for the Republican base is virtually meaningless if this doesn't happen before the election."

Then on Wednesday, Rupert Murdoch's New York Post tried to get the kind of traction former Breitbart editor Peter Schweizer enjoyed with his 2016 book, Clinton Cash, which spawned the now-thoroughly-debunked Uranium One "controversy." This story, which alleges that emails prove Hunter Biden leveraged his father's connections for something or another--something Burisma-related--comes complete with an email server, or at least a hard-drive.

But while The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN all laundered and added credibility to Uranium One, this one's landed with a thud. The Times' Maggie Haberman earned so much scorn on social media for credulously tweeting about the story that she later tried to redeem herself by noting some of its obvious flaws and Facebook limit its reach on their platform.


This followed a similarly high-profile faceplant by Sens. Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley when they tried to weaponize Hunter Biden's work with Burisma and ended up on the defensive after taking fire for disseminating Russian disinformation.

Also on Wednesday, an investigation into Obama officials "unmasking" the identities of Americans caught in foreign surveillance operations that the right has long promised would blow the lid on their silly "Obamagate" conspiracy theory ended with a fizzle when John Bash, the US attorney William Barr tapped to oversee the probe (who left the DOJ last week), not only failed to bring charges against anyone but didn't issue a report.

That was an unhappy end for a line of attack that the GOP has been developing for years, most famously with Rep. Devin Nunes' infamous "memo" that was chock full of nonsense and widely greeted with appropriate derision.

The big difference in how these contrived scandals played out is that in 2016, they were treated like legitimate controversies while in 2020, the regime's clumsy attempts to drop contrived opposition research into the race, some of it originating with adversarial foreign actors, has become a persistent storyline in itself.

And of course, all of this follows Trump's impeachment for attempting to coerce the Ukrainian government to lend weight to a line of attack that has gone nowhere. That's a big difference from 2016, when he asked Russia to produce Clinton's emails, they obliged and he won the Electoral College.

The efforts by Trump and his allies to recreate the conditions that allowed him to sneak into the White House despite winning almost 3 million fewer votes than Clinton were always doomed to fail. Voting for Trump in 2016 was an experiment. Many believed he'd take the job seriously, and be constrained by his staff and Republican lawmakers. Some bought his promises on trade and immigration.

This time, he is a known quantity. Even before the pandemic, voters had seen what Trump's style of governance looked like and most of them don't like it. Now, with the death toll resulting from his bungling of Covid-19 approaching a quarter-million, nobody who wasn't already supporting him could even care about investigations stemming from the last election or Joe Biden's son acting like a typical child of DC's power elite.

Trump needed to reach beyond his base this year, and he's way behind in this race because it turns out that he doesn't have a different set to play and is just recycling his old hits.

Trump destroyed the legitimacy of the judiciary by trying to entrench far-right minority rule

Late Monday night, after the first day of Amy Coney Barrett's nomination hearings had wrapped up in Washington, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court and gave a green light to Texas Governor Greg Abbott's order limiting the number of drop-boxes for absentee ballots in the Lone Star State to one per county. The result is that big, urban counties where Democrats are competitive--Harris County (Houston), Dallas County, Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Bexar County (San Antonio) and Travis County (Austin)--will each have a single drop-box for between one and five million residents just like the 87 rural counties in Texas that have fewer than 10,000 residents.

The judges who issued the 3-0 ruling were all appointed by Donald Trump. Their average age is 49.7. One of them, James Ho, was profiled by NPR in a piece titled, "Legal Opinions Or Political Commentary? A New Judge Exemplifies The Trump Era." The panel found that Abbott's order had actually increased voters' access to the ballot box. Up is down in this packed federal judiciary.

As a result of Republicans' unprecedented blockade of Barack Obama's nominees, he was only able to appoint three judges to the 5th Circuit during his 8 years in office. Trump has appointed six in under four years. When Trump won the Electoral College, he tapped Ho--along with the other members of the panel that ruled on Monday night, Don Willett and Kyle Duncan--to fill three of the 116 vacancies on the federal bench that Mitch McConnell and his caucus had held open for the final years of Obama term in office.

With Barrett's confirmation barreling along, it's likely that the last guardrails will be removed from the nation's highest court. Chief Justice John Roberts' concern for the legitimacy of the institution will no longer be an effective constraint on a majority that includes Justices Barrett, Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Those justices are now poised to relitigate broad swaths of what had been long-settled law.

The last shreds of the Court's legitimacy as a politically neutral body will soon be torn apart. It will be the culmination of the GOP's long campaign to counter demographic headwinds by insulating itself from democratic accountability--through extreme gerrymandering, voter ID laws and other means of suppressing minority votes and turning the federal judiciary into a third political branch dominated by Republican appointees.

The result will be intolerable in a democratic republic, and if Democrats win the White House and Senate, the most pressing question they'll face is how a legitimate, democratically-elected government should handle a judicial branch packed with young, activist jurists with lifetime appointments to the bench and a clear hostility to every aspect of the Democrats' agenda. Something must break.

Joe Biden says he is "not a fan of court-packing," but a campaign is underway, Barrett hasn't yet been confirmed and if she is, it won't only be the left flank of the Democratic Party advocating for structural reform of the federal courts. There would be an intra-coalition debate if Dems find themselves with unified control next year, and with the Republicans' relentless destruction of the norms surrounding judicial appointments, ideas that used to be considered radical--like expanding the Court, or rotating justices back and forth from the appellate courts--are fast becoming mainstream, liberal propositions.

I favor expanding the Court in keeping with Republicans' philosophy that a party can and should do anything within the bounds of the Constitution to advance its agenda--or to create a deterrent against that kind of thinking. But that shouldn't be the end of the conversation. Last year, I wrote about a number of different potential reforms that would not only rebalance the courts over the near-term, but also lower the temperature of nominations in the future and in some cases, limit the judicial branch's power to veto laws enacted by the elected branches.

All of them carry some risk. But the danger of living in a country with entrenched rule by a far-right minority party is much greater.

BRAND NEW STORIES
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.