White House struggles to explain, defend Trump's new extortion scheme

After Trump threatened Michigan with an extortion scheme, the White House was pressed for answers. It didn't go especially well.
Image: Kayleigh McEnany
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks during a press briefing at the White House on May 1, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP
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By Steve Benen

Michigan's Democratic secretary of state this week announced plans to send the state's voters an application for an absentee ballot, so that the Michigan electorate can vote from the safety of their own homes during the pandemic. Donald Trump was not pleased.

In fact, the president responded to the news by tweeting an extortion scheme: either Michigan makes it harder for the state's voters to cast a ballot or he'd take steps to cut off the state's federal support. Trump added that mailing applications for absentee ballots is "illegal." (In a follow-up tweet tied to this missive, the Republican cc'd White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, White House Budget Chief Russ Vought, and the U.S. Treasury Department.)

Since none of this made any sense, reporters naturally had a few questions for White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who had to know this would be an important topic of discussion. This was the line she came up with:

"So, you know, I won't get into exactly what the funding considerations are.... With regard to the illegality and legality of it, that's a question for the campaign as to their voting and ballot practices."

Ah. Trump explicitly threatened to curtail federal funding for a state struggling with two simultaneous crises, but the White House "won't get into" the practical implications of the presidential warning. Why not? Just because.

As for referring questions to Trump's re-election campaign, that makes far less sense than the White House seems to realize. In fact, the president's re-election operation has literally nothing to do with yesterday's threat: Trump said he's prepared to use his presidential authority to strip a state of federal support unless that state altered its ballot-access plans.

Unless Trump plans to defer governing decisions to his campaign operatives, the president's campaign HQ has nothing to offer on this story.

As yesterday's briefing progressed, McEnany was repeatedly asked to explain what was "illegal" about Michigan's plan. The press secretary wouldn't say.

And that's not surprising. By some measures, it's not even her fault, at least not entirely. Throughout his term, Trump has said ridiculous things, leaving the president's team to try to clean up his mess. It's clearly a struggle, of course, to come up with a coherent defense, because there are no coherent defenses.

As for allegations of "fraud" surrounding mail-in balloting, McEnany went on to argue, "There's evidence. You can go look this up on ProPublica."

That's not what ProPublica said.