A few weeks before President Trump was impeached last December for attempting to blackmail Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden, Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan warned the House Judiciary Committee of a future in which the president used similar tactics on his own country:
“Imagine living in a part of Louisiana or Texas that’s prone to devastating hurricanes and flooding. What would you think if you lived there and your governor asked for a meeting with the president to discuss getting disaster aid that Congress has provided for? What would you think if that president said, ‘I would like you to do us a favor? I’ll meet with you, and send the disaster relief, once you brand my opponent a criminal.’
Wouldn’t you know in your gut that such a president has abused his office? That he’d betrayed the national interest, and that he was trying to corrupt the electoral process? I believe the evidentiary record shows wrongful acts on those scale here.”
It didn’t take long for Karlan’s hypothetical to sidle up next to reality. Trump has repeatedly criticized Democratic governors throughout the coronavirus crisis, the implication being that there could be repercussions if they fail to cooperate with the administration or show their gratitude to the president. In late March, Trump came pretty close to laying out a quid pro quo during an interview with Fox News. “It’s a two-way street,” the president said while discussing states in need of federal assistance. “They have to treat us well, also.”
On Wednesday, Trump’s demands grew more specific. As part of his morning Twitter movement, he posted that he will withhold funding from Michigan and Nevada, two key swing states, if they expand voter access ahead of the 2020 election.
Michigan sends absentee ballot applications to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election. This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 20, 2020
State of Nevada “thinks” that they can send out illegal vote by mail ballots, creating a great Voter Fraud scenario for the State and the U.S. They can’t! If they do, “I think” I can hold up funds to the State. Sorry, but you must not cheat in elections. @RussVought45 @USTreasury
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 20, 2020
Trump initially accused Michigan of sending out vote-by-mail ballots to residents, before later posting a corrected tweet (and deleting the earlier one) specifying that they’re sending out vote-by-mail applications. But so are Republican-controlled states like Georgia. Nothing remotely “illegal” is taking place here. But these types of distinctions — or, facts — are immaterial to Trump’s continued effort to restrict voter access and sow doubt in the legitimacy of the electoral process.
Just to be clear: There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, either by millions crossing state lines to vote multiple times, a nonexistent scheme Trump has cited in explaining his popular-vote loss to Hillary Clinton, or through vote-by-mail. According to a recent survey published by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, there’s no evidence vote-by-mail helps Democrats, either. The only thing expanding vote-by-mail means is more people will be able to vote, especially as the coronavirus has heightened the risk of standing in lines.
Lambasting the practice has nevertheless become a tent pole of Trump’s 2020 campaign, the goal being to ensure as few Americans as possible are able to make it to the polls. Trump believes that the more people who vote, the worse his chances are. He said as much while discussing Democrats’ efforts to increase funding for absentee ballots and vote-by-mail in the coronavirus relief package. “They had levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he told Fox News on March 30th.
Now, Trump is trying to blackmail crucial swing states into suppressing their vote-by-mail initiatives. One of them, Michigan, is not only struggling with COVID-19, but with historic floods in the center of the state. How could Trump be so brazen? Well, he already got away with trying to blackmail a foreign nation into interfering in the 2020 election. Why wouldn’t he do it again?
Karlan tried to warn the House of Representatives that this could happen. After Trump was impeached, Democrats issued similar warnings to the Senate Republicans voting on whether to remove him from office. “The president solicited a personal political benefit in exchange for an official act,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said during the impeachment trial. “If this Senate were to say, ‘That’s acceptable’ … [this] could take place all across America in the context of the next election, with grants allocated to cities or towns or municipalities all across the country.”
But Senate Republicans did indeed deem it acceptable, many of them arguing that Trump having to endure the impeachment process was punishment enough. “I believe that the president has learned from this case,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told CBS News after Trump was acquitted. “The president has been impeached. That’s a pretty big lesson.”
Three months later, the lesson appears to be that that even if Trump flagrantly abuses his office, Senate Republicans will vote to protect him.