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Trump’s attacks on vote counts seem to follow an authoritarian playbook

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/6/2020 Anne Gearan
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President Trump is fond of the phrase “law and order,” which he sometimes tweets in all-caps as a succinct projection of strength and control. His relationship with the related concept of the “rule of law” is more complicated.

Trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the unresolved presidential contest, Trump is pulling out a playbook perfected by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other authoritarians. It relies on sowing doubt about the institutions of law and government, spreading misinformation or outright lies that serve a leader’s political ends, and relying on a cadre of loyal supporters to believe what they are told, Putin scholars said.

Trump’s attempts to brand legal election practices as fraud and to use the courts — one pillar in the nation’s democratic architecture — to intervene in the counting of votes — another pillar — are the latest examples of what has long been his malleable view of the democratic system.

“STOP THE COUNT!” Trump bellowed Thursday on Twitter as he deployed lawyers on what appeared to be a long-shot bid to stop the counting of ballots in Nevada and Pennsylvania. Electoral college votes from either state could resolve the presidential election now in limbo.

As president, Trump has sought to personalize and control the three branches of government to varying degrees. His top-down approach is far less expansive than the autonomy enjoyed by Putin and other authoritarian rulers he admires, and Trump has joked about how much easier those leaders have it.

At home, Putin has gradually consolidated power and undermined the independence of the judiciary and legislature. Critics have accused him of enriching himself in office and changing laws to suit himself and his family. He has also assured that he can remain in power until 2036. A hallmark of his dealings with the West, however, is to point to international rules and procedures he claims Russia is following and others are not.

Like Putin, Trump takes a selective approach to the rule of law that shifts to suit his perceived advantage, said Georgetown University professor Angela Stent, author of “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest.”

“In Russia, the law bends to the will of those who are in power,” Stent said. “And we have seen under Trump a desire, for example, to make the Justice Department his Justice Department as opposed to the Justice Department for the American people. He would prefer to have a system where the laws are applied differently depending on who is in power.”

The president does not have that system but often behaves as though he does, Stent and others said.

As he ran for reelection this year, Trump baselessly called for Biden, former president Barack Obama, 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and several other Democrats to be prosecuted or jailed.

He has branded House impeachment manager Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) a criminal and called the investigation fraudulent.

He leaned publicly on Attorney General William P. Barr to pursue political investigations or actions and complained that Barr didn’t do enough to deliver results of a probe into how the Obama administration investigated possible collusion between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign. Trump wanted that report before the Nov. 3 election.

Barr has the job because Trump had complained that Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, had not blocked an ensuing special prosecutor investigation of ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Sessions said he had followed the rule of law.

Trump was livid and called Sessions “weak.”

“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” he fumed to aides and friends, referring to the legendarily ruthless New York lawyer.

The president was blunt about his reasons for wanting to quickly install a replacement for liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September. He wanted his conservative nominee to be on the high court in time to hear any election-related cases, he said. Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed last month.

Trump used federal authorities to clear protesters from the park in front of the White House in June, calling the group an anarchist mob.

But he has tiptoed around intimidation carried out by his supporters, declining to directly condemn the far-right group the Proud Boys or demonstrators who stormed Michigan’s legislature earlier this year over coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

Trump also cast doubt on the federal investigation of an alleged kidnapping plot against Michigan’s Democratic governor, saying last month that people “should have the right” to decide for themselves whether the alleged plotters were guilty of anything.

After a caravan of supporters surrounded and delayed a Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway last week, Trump cheered them on.

“In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong,” Trump said in a tweet Sunday. “Instead, the FBI & Justice should be investigating the terrorists, anarchists, and agitators of ANTIFA.”

Now trailing Biden in electoral college votes, Trump has claimed baselessly that delays in counting outstanding ballots represent an attempt to steal the election. His campaign is arguing to stop counts in some states where additional ballots seem likely to benefit Biden but to keep it going or recount ballots in others where Trump might make up ground.

Ahead of the election, Trump insisted that the results must be known on Election Day for fear of “fraud.” Now allies such as former counselor Kellyanne Conway argue there is no rush to “count every legal vote” in some states.

“All of the recent Biden claimed States will be legally challenged by us for Voter Fraud and State Election Fraud,” Trump tweeted Thursday.

As with previous claims of widespread voter fraud, he provided no evidence.

Bob Bauer, a lawyer for the Biden campaign, said Trump’s claims amount to an effort to “message falsely what is happening in the election process.”

Consistency is irrelevant to Putin and other authoritarians accustomed to controlling the levers of government by diktat, said Evelyn Farkas, a senior Defense Department specialist on Russia and its region under Obama.

“The Russian mentality is, ‘Whatever truth works for you in that moment is the truth you embrace in that moment,’ ” Farkas said. “Even if you say something different two minutes later, it doesn’t matter. You call on that second truth for your immediate need, and your followers don’t care.”

Trump has similarly conditioned his supporters to accept his claims at face value, Farkas said, or to regard some of his outlandish suggestions as entertainment.

“Cherry-picking your facts,” isn’t a new idea with Trump, Farkas said. “He did learn something from Putin.”

But Trump can’t assume he can bluff his way past judges deciding whether any of his election complaints have merit, said political science professor Andra Gillespie, director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University.

Trump may not really be trying to win on the strength of his legal arguments in places such as Georgia, she said. A judge tossed a Trump challenge in the state Thursday.

“This is an appeal to the court of public opinion of his base,” Gillespie said. “There is his desire to maintain a certain posture of strength, that he is standing up to the powers that be. And he has supporters who are already primed to agree with him, who have suspicions about bureaucracy and the ‘deep state.’ ”

Trump claims that “deep state” cabals of career government employees are thwarting his political agenda, and he has repeatedly complained about “liberal judges” or “Obama judges.”

“It plays into the narrative he has created,” about battling an array of enemies, Gillespie said. “The problem is when the rhetoric comes into contact with the facts.”

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a flag: President Trump speaks to supporters at the White House early in the morning on Nov. 4. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post President Trump speaks to supporters at the White House early in the morning on Nov. 4.
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