With bombast, exaggeration and outright falsehoods, President Trump has made perfectly clear for months his view that expanded mail voting will assure the election is rigged against him. He's taken a fresh tack in the past 24 hours: Declaring that he's committed to defunding the Postal Service so it can't handle the coming surge of ballot envelopes.
His remarks to reporters Wednesday evening, which he expanded on Thursday, marked Trump's first explicit commitment to starve the cash-strapped USPS, still a backbone of the American economy, in order to do what he asserts is best for his own re-election prospects — not for smoothing the exercise of electoral democracy during a national crisis.
Trump said he is not willing to negotiate on either the $25 billion infusion the Postal Service says it needs to keep up with its workload starting in October — when the volume of absentee applications and completed vote-by-mail ballots will start to peak — or the $3.5 billion states say they need to conduct healthy, comprehensive and reliable elections during the pandemic.
"Now, they need that money in order to make the post office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots," Trump said in an interview Thursday on the Fox Business Network. "Now, if we don't make a deal, that means they don't get the money. That means they can't have universal mail-in voting, they just can't have it."
"It's their fault," Trump said of the Democrats in explaining his reason for totally rejecting the extra help they want to give the states, along with permission to spend the money on either mail-in or in-person election operations. "They want $3.5 billion for something that's fraudulent."
He made similar assertions at a White House briefing Wednesday. He also argued then, without evidences that allowing the USPS to play a central role in the election would mean the quasi-governmental agency was helping perpetuate "one of the greatest frauds in history."
His comments came as Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump campaign donor on the job only since this summer, unveiled another sweeping overhaul, including replacing the top two executives and nearly two dozen other agency leaders.
He had earlier directed USPS to make a series of cost-cutting moves, including eliminating most overtime and mandating that mail is kept until the next day if distribution centers are running late. On Wednesday 175 House Democrats pressed him to reverse those changes, especially an edict that election mailings no longer get automatically handled as first class.
"If implemented now, as the election approaches, this policy will cause further delays to election mail that will disenfranchise voters and put significant financial pressure on election jurisdictions," they said.
The Postal Service had been struggling for many years but reported last week that it had lost more than $2 billion in just April, May and June, largely because of declining mail volume attributed to the pandemic.
Trump's disparagement of mail-in voting as an invitation to fraud gained fresh pushback from an unlikely source: Republican Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah, the only reliably red state among the five that had switched to almost entirely mail-in elections before the Covid-19 outbreak.
"We have a really good system here," he told a Fox TV affiliate Tuesday in lauding a process in place for seven years, explaining that he recently delivered the same message to Vice President Mike Pence. "We really have seen no example of someone trying to game the system or cheat."
One in four votes in the last presidential election were cast using an absentee ballot. Predictions show that share could double or even triple in the fall, which would mean more than 100 million ballots coursing through the mail.
The fight over the USPS and election grant money has become one of the biggest flashpoints in the negotiations over the latest coronavirus economic recovery package, which essentially collapsed last week.
Congressional leaders of both parties, in both the House and Senate, now say it's unrealistic to expect talks will be revived in time for a deal before the middle of next month. At that point, if there is a new round of grants to the states, they will have only six weeks to spend the money expanding their print runs on mail-in ballots, buttressing their vote tabulating operations, hiring election workers or buying supplies to make voting sites more sanitary.
"Trump is purposely sabotaging the post office to make it harder for millions of Americans to safely cast their ballot in the middle of a public health crisis," said Tiffany Muller of the progressive group Let America Vote, which has been part of the coalition pushing Congress for the election subsidies. "It would be outrageous for any elected official to actively suppress the vote, but it's unconscionable to see these actions from the president."
Denying money to the Postal Service could create bigger political problems for the president than it solves, his critics say. Mail carriers deliver millions of prescriptions annually, for example, especially to elderly people whose votes are central to his formula for winning a second term.
"It's a health issue," Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday on MSNBC. "When the president goes after the Postal Service, he's going after an all-American, highly approved-by-the-public institution," she said.
The campaign for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, meanwhile, said Trump would rue the day he committed to "sabotaging a basic service that hundreds of millions of people rely upon."
The president has been railing without evidence that "universal mail-in voting" is a sure incubator of election cheating. But that's hardly what will happen this year. Eight states, with about 46 million voters, will deliver ballots proactively this fall. About 130 million voters will be able to get an absentee ballot if they choose — including in Florida, where the president has voted by mail at least twice. The rest, 55 million voters in eight states, will need to provide an excuse beyond fear of exposure to the coronavirus.
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