Why it matters that Trump is 'running against the election itself'

Trump 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.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally at Bemidji Regional Airport in Bemidji, Minn., on Sept. 18, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP

The New Yorker's Susan Glasser wrote last week the president's campaign's strategy is now clear: Donald Trump is "running against the election itself."

To help drive the point home, consider what the president said in the White House press briefing room a day later:

"So what's going to happen on November 3rd when somebody is leading and they say, 'Well, look, we haven't counted the ballots; we have millions of ballots to count'? It's a disaster. Everyone knows it. Everyone knows it's a disaster.... Where are these ballots going? Who's sending them? Who's signing them?"

As it turns out, the rhetorical questions he asked are actually very easy to answer. What's going to happen on Nov. 3 when there are millions of ballots to count? Well, at that point, election officials will count the ballots and announce the results.

Where are these ballots going? It varies by state, but they're either going to all registered voters, or to registered voters who requested them.

Who's sending them? Local election officials.

Who's signing them? The voters casting ballots.

Election procedures can get complex, but the questions the president finds baffling are incredibly basic. Worse, what he describes as some kind of self-evident "disaster" is actually a routine electoral process.

But let's not miss the forest for the trees: Trump isn't simply asking dumb questions with obvious answers; he's also laying the groundwork for the near future. Indeed, the subtext is hardly subtle: the president specifically emphasized that "somebody" will be leading on Election Day -- an advantage that will obviously be misleading -- as if those preliminary results will have great significance.

At that point, it's easy to imagine Team Trump's strategy: the Republican may very well declare victory based on an incomplete tally, ramp up efforts to delegitimize ballots cast by mail, and then scramble to stop the count in as many places as possible.

Indeed, the president has effectively described this plan in public, telling supporters at North Carolina rally over the weekend that he expects a judiciary increasingly stacked with Republican-appointed judges to help him hold power.

"We're going to have a victory on November 3rd the likes of which you've never seen," Trump boasted to his followers. "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. Not where the votes are going to be counted a week later or two weeks later."

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.