The fear among Donald Trump's detractors is that he has a dangerous post-election scheme in mind. They've described a possible scenario in which the Republican president will appear to have an early lead on Election Day among voters who cast ballots in person -- before mail-in ballots are counted -- at which point Trump will declare victory based on an incomplete tally.
From there, the president and his team will ramp up efforts to delegitimize ballots cast by mail, and turn to the courts to stop the vote-count in as many places as possible.
Part of the problem with this imagined series of events is that Trump keeps hinting that his critics are right about his plans. At a campaign rally in North Carolina over the weekend, the Republican boasted, "We're going to have a victory on November 3rd the likes of which you've never seen. Now, we're counting on the federal court system to make it so that we can actually have an evening where we know who wins.
In other words, the president wants to say he won before the votes are counted, and he expects Republican-approved judges to help deliver a victory, whether he's earned it or not.
During a brief White House Q&A with reporters yesterday, Trump echoed the point, tying his plan to his upcoming Supreme Court nominee.
"We need nine justices. You need that. With the unsolicited millions of ballots that they're sending, it's a scam; it's a hoax. Everybody knows that. And the Democrats know it better than anybody else. So you're going to need nine justices up there. I think it's going to be very important. Because what they're doing is a hoax, with the ballots. They're sending out tens of millions of ballots, unsolicited -- not where they're being asked, but unsolicited. And that's a hoax, and you're going to need to have nine justices.... And the Democrats know what they're doing is wrong, and all they want to do is go forward with it. So I think you're going to need the nine justices."
To the extent that reality still has any meaning, it's probably worth emphasizing that sending ballots to voters -- especially during a deadly pandemic -- is neither a "scam" nor a "hoax." Those words have actual meaning, though the president doesn't seem to know that.
But far more important is the scenario Trump appears to be describing: he wants nine justices in order to address "millions of ballots that they're sending." There was surprisingly little subtlety to the president's comments: he noted the ballots, then the Supreme Court, then the ballots, then the Supreme Court, then the ballots, and then the Supreme Court.
We don't need a decoder ring to translate Trump to English: the president, if he doesn't win the election the proper way, expects the judiciary he's helped fill with far-right ideologues to hand him a second term.
Matt O'Brien joked, "Trump is like a Bond villain who can't help but tell us about his plan to rig the election."
Ezra Klein added, "The president keeps making clear that unless Democrats win by an unquestionable landslide, he will fight the results of the election and trigger an unprecedented legitimacy crisis, unless he's allowed to simply steal power. We are in such dangerous territory."
I couldn't agree more.
Postscript: During his brief Q&A yesterday afternoon, Trump referenced the need for nine justices five times, but let's not lose sight of the high-court arithmetic. As a result of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's passing, conservative justices now enjoy a 5-3 advantage.
It's hard not to wonder whether the president is concerned that his election scheme will be so brazen and so hostile toward democracy that one of the conservatives may not be comfortable, so Trump wants a 6-3 advantage, just to make sure the high court will be corrupt enough to keep him in power.