None of us have seen a year like 2020 — and now it has finally snapped the tether that seemed to hold it to the realm of reality. After a relatively calm Election Day, leading into a nail-biter evening that left the result very much in doubt, President Trump did exactly what many observers feared he might do, prematurely declaring victory over former vice president Joe Biden, even though millions of votes in several important states remain uncounted.
It was a rambling, incoherent and extraordinary speech even by Trump's standards, delivered in an extraordinary setting — the East Room of the White House, rather than a campaign headquarters at a Washington hotel, as would be traditional for an incumbent president running for re-election. Whether it represents a genuine attempt to subvert democracy or was just an example of "Trump being Trump" and letting off some steam depends on one's perspective. Vice President Mike Pence attempted to assert the latter interpretation, arriving on stage after Trump had concluded and making relatively normal remarks about "the integrity of the vote," while of course praising Trump in fulsome terms and urging him to "make America great again, again."
This all unfolded shortly after 2 a.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, when Trump appeared before cameras in the East Room of the White House and appeared to claim that unnamed conspirators, presumably including every major media publication and TV network, had somehow short-circuited his certain victory. He called for votes in the still-uncalled swing states across the country to go uncounted. Or at least maybe he did that — as usual with the president's lies and bluster, it was difficult to say for sure. Finally, Trump threatened to go directly to the Supreme Court to stop any further ballots from being received and counted that could shift the outcome.
To be clear, there is no imaginable legal basis for doing so. The president has no specific authority to take a case directly to the Supreme Court, and in any case federal courts have little jurisdiction over how the various states handle elections.
"Frankly, we did win this election," Trump declared to a room of maskless adoring fans, including Diamond & Silk, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and various Trump family members. He went on to undermine the legitimacy of the election, without offering anything even close to a coherent argument, as he has done for months.
"This is a fraud on the American public," Trump said, with no explanation of what that fraud might entail
Minutes after Trump falsely claimed, "As far as I am concerned we already have won it" — meaning the entire presidential election — the Associated Press called Arizona for Biden, the first state in a long and tense election night to flip from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020. While the outcome is by no means decided, losing Arizona makes Trump's path to victory exceptionally difficult
"We want all voting to stop," Trump added, asserting that it was "clear" he had won close swing states like Georgia and North Carolina, which have not yet been called by any major media outlet. "They knew they couldn't win," Trump claimed — without identifying the "they" in question — "so they said, 'Let's go to court.'"
In the realm of reality, all voting has ended. It's only a question of collecting and counting the votes, a process that differs widely from state to state and can sometimes take days or weeks. In this year of pandemic, that process is undeniably complicated, and millions of votes remain uncounted in key states like Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which now appear certain to decide the presidential election. Trump's attempt to claim there is something nefarious about the process flies in the face of election law, democratic norms and political history. One might be excused for asking what else is new.
Ironically, the president's comments will almost certainly hurt his legal team's chances in court — the path to potential re-election that Trump has long telegraphed he is banking on. Chris Christie, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who has been a frequent Trump confidant and adviser, said on ABC News that the president's extraordinary White House speech was "a bad strategic decision. It is a bad political decision."
That remains to be seen. Trump's gambit is certainly a terrible idea and an overtly anti-democratic power play that sent immediate shockwaves through the media and political classes, as inured to Trump's delusional theatrics as they have become. With the loss of Arizona and millions of Democratic-trending mail-in votes yet to be counted in major states, it appears probable that Trump is headed for a narrow electoral defeat — albeit a great deal narrower than most Democrats expected. Given that context, perhaps Trump's vicious election-night surprise is no surprise at all. It's the last and most desperate ploy of a man with no respect for the democratic process and no willingness to accept the verdict of the voters.