Monday, June 17, 2024

Analysis | Many election deniers faced accountability. Not the one on the ballot.

Analysis | Many election deniers faced accountability. Not the one on the ballot.

Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election created an immediate, massive marketplace for evidence — or more accurately, claims — that laws had been violated to ensure Trump’s loss. Attention was and is the currency of right-wing politics, and Trump’s insistence that he had won sparked a gold rush. Fortunes were made overnight.

A few days after the election, a postal worker in Pennsylvania came forward to say that he’d overheard a supervisor being chastised for improperly postmarking ballots — something that caught his attention because, as he said in a statement this week, he “was on heightened guard considering many allegations of ‘widespread fraud’ plaguing the 2020 Presidential Election.”

His story was picked up by Project Veritas, an organization known for using undercover tactics to expose what it says is liberal bias in the mainstream news media. The worker’s story became part of the broader narrative about fraud, with Trump referring to him on social media as a “brave patriot” — for standing up to reporting, including from The Washington Post, that he’d recanted his claims under questioning.

His claims were, in fact, false. On Monday, it was announced that he and Project Veritas had settled with the supervisor he’d impugned. Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe, who promoted the story three years ago, admitted on social media that there was no fraud in Erie, Pa., in 2020.

It is only the latest example of those who seized the opportunity to make allegations of election fraud being (often belatedly) held to account. But there is an outstanding exception to that pattern: Trump himself.

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Soon after reports about the settlement were published Monday, the right-wing cable channel Newsmax aired a taped conversation with Trump. Host Rob Schmitt asked Trump whether he was concerned about China interfering in the 2024 election. Trump often agrees with worst-case scenarios presented by interviewers, and this was no exception.

“I think that will happen. I think we have to swamp them. And I think right now we are,” he said, then pointing out polls showing him with a lead. (That “swamp them” line, by the way, is itself an element of Trump’s election fraud claims: that somehow, when his supporters cast a large enough number of ballots for him, the election can’t be stolen.)

“China will be involved. Others will be involved, too. Our elections are very unsafe,” Trump continued. “They’re not free. They’re not free and fair. There’s so much evidence. There’s so much proof. We have it all. Nobody wants to hear about it.”

This is not true. It has been more than three years! If Trump had evidence of fraud, he had many opportunities to present it. Instead, we see repeated debunkings of his claims and, as with Project Veritas, admissions that past claims were false. Last month, researchers from Stanford University published an 86-page report documenting various claims about the election and rebutting each one. In July 2022, a different lengthy report considered Trump’s frequent insistence that courts blocked his efforts to expose fraud and showed that to be untrue. But Newsmax viewers are meant to believe that Trump has all the evidence he needs.

Trump does face potential accountability for his repeated insistence that the 2020 election was stolen — or more accurately, for having tried to act as though that was the case by working to retain power despite his loss. He was indicted in Fulton County, Ga., for working with allies to subvert the results in that state, and indicted by special counsel Jack Smith in Washington for his broader effort, the one that culminated in the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

About half of Americans view the resolution of the D.C. case as “essential” before the November election, according to polling released by CNN this week. Sixteen percent indicated that they preferred the case be completed before that point, presumably because it speaks directly to the election itself. If the cases are outstanding, Trump will be freely positioned to once again make false claims about the election outcome — and potentially derail the federal probe entirely if inaugurated.

It seems very possible that the federal case will not be resolved before November, in part thanks to efforts to slow it down. On Tuesday morning, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld a ruling that Trump wasn’t immune from prosecution, an argument the former president’s attorneys had made to derail the prosecution. In doing so, the court was explicit that Trump could be held to account for his post-election efforts.

“We cannot accept former President Trump’s claim that a President has unbounded authority to commit crimes that would neutralize the most fundamental check on executive power — the recognition and implementation of election results,” the ruling reads. “Nor can we sanction his apparent contention that the Executive has carte blanche to violate the rights of individual citizens to vote and to have their votes count.”

A pointed sentiment, certainly. But Trump’s effort to claim immunity was successful in one intended way: It helped delay the proceedings for weeks. And that delay is not yet over, as Trump’s legal team has made clear it will take the fight to the Supreme Court if necessary.

We shouldn’t understate the cynicism involved in all of this. For example, one of the oft-cited reasons to be skeptical about the 2020 results is that stories about President Biden’s son Hunter were briefly muted on social media in the weeks before the election. This has been inaccurately blamed — including on Sunday by Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) — on pressure from federal agencies, an effort to suggest that the “deep state” was once again working to subvert Trump. (It’s not true, and the handling of the Hunter Biden story wasn’t why Trump lost.)

In reality, of course, there was a concerted effort by government actors to undermine the 2020 election: the one driven by Trump and his allies. The postal worker’s story about fraud was picked up by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who passed it to the Justice Department; in short order, Attorney General William P. Barr issued a memo clearing the way for investigators to probe purported election irregularities. The cascading internal effort to keep Trump in power was documented by the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot.

The architect of that, the guy who elevated false claims of fraud and then tried to use the levers of American power to act on those claims, has not been held accountable for doing so.

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