Americans Can Undermine Their Own Election, Thank You
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Earlier this month, curious emails began arriving in the inboxes of some Florida Democrats. Claiming to be from the Proud Boys, a group known for street altercations with leftists, they warned: “Vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you.”
This had the potential to be another blow to President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. In the first debate last month, Trump declined to unequivocally denounce the Proud Boys. “Stand back and stand by,” he said. Now those very same Proud Boys were threatening Democratic voters in a swing state.
Only they weren’t. On Wednesday, the directors of national intelligence and the FBI went before some television cameras to explain that the whole thing was an Iranian disinformation campaign. The Iranians, like the Russians, have obtained some voter registration information, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe explained. And they used that information to send emails that appear to come from the Proud Boys to intimidate voters in a few states.
Ratcliffe explained that the purpose of his appearance was to use the best weapon the U.S. government has against Russian and Iranian fraudsters: the truth. “Even if the adversaries pursue further attempts to intimidate or attempt to undermine voter confidence, know our election systems are resilient and you can be confident your votes are secure,” he said.
Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray were right to knock down Iran’s Proud Boy fakery before it spread. And Wray was right to make clear that the U.S. government would not tolerate “foreign interference in our elections or criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election.”
Speaking of which: Russia, Iran, China and other foreign adversaries have a lot of company when it comes to activity that “undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election.” And the calls, as they say in the movies, are coming from inside the house.
Start with Trump himself. For several months, he has been casting doubt on the reliability of mail-in voting, rattling off random examples of error-laden ballots mailed to voters and other ballots destroyed. And while mail-in voting on the scale envisioned for the 2020 election is sure to encounter glitches, Trump’s tweets and rants at rallies are laying the ground for his followers to question the results of the election if he loses. Indeed, Trump still won’t say unconditionally that he will accept the results of the election.
There are no laws against Trump’s demagoguery. And no one should want the FBI to be able to label a president’s speech as disinformation. That said, anything a foreign saboteur is doing to undermine voter confidence pales in comparison to what the president himself is doing.
Unfortunately, the Democrats have also done their part to undermine voters’ confidence. Over the summer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi forwarded a tendentious story that postal-service reforms recommended by an Obama-appointed inspector general amounted to “a campaign to sabotage the election” by disenfranchising voters. The argument was that Trump’s refusal to agree to more funding for mail-in ballots, as well as the removal of post office boxes and mail sorters, was intended to delay the mailing of ballots.
Both parties have also unwittingly contributed to undermining confidence in elections by fighting in the courts over arcane election procedures in battleground states, where various judges have changed the rules on ballot counting as well. And don’t forget that Trump began his presidency in 2017 with a bogus claim that he lost the popular vote due to the voting of illegal immigrants, or that many Democrats still maintain that he colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election despite the failure of a special counsel to find evidence of such a conspiracy.
If it wasn’t clear already, it should be now: When Iran, Russia and China attempt to undermine voter confidence in the outcome of the election, they are pushing on an open door. It’s up to American voters — if they can see through the hype and deceptions of their political leaders — to slam it shut.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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