WASHINGTON (AP) — The most direct attempt to undermine the integrity of the U.S. election with bad information came not from overseas sources or online liars but from a president standing behind the presidential seal at the White House and facing his defeat.
In the hours before his election loss Saturday, President Donald Trump spoke of “horror stories” in voting and counting across the land, but his stories were wrong. Election officials, Democrats and some Republicans blanched at his baseless recitation of sinister doings and his effort to delegitimize democracy's highest calling.
But he did not stop even after Pennsylvania delivered the presidency to Democrat Joe Biden.
Since the tide turned after election night and Biden gained strength on his way to victory, Trump lashed out at results he didn't like, often lapsing into all-capital letters with his hectoring. Biden stayed low for several days after the vote, making measured statements when he did appear.
Trump persisted in misrepresenting developments at ballot-counting centers, falsely tweeting that campaign observers in Pennsylvania were blocked from seeing what was going on as Biden overtook him in the vote count.
Twitter hid four of Trump's tweets behind a label warning that they contain dubious information, a step the company says significantly restricts engagement with them. The tweets made false statements about the legality of properly cast ballots and the way votes are being counted. Twitter has flagged more than a dozen of Trump's tweets and retweets this way in the past week.
Facebook applied cautionary labels to Trump's posts on its platform, too. For one Trump post claiming ballot irregularities, Facebook's label stated: “Election officials follow strict rules when it comes to ballot counting, handling and reporting.”
A sampling of the rhetoric from a transformational week:
TRUMP: “The American People are entitled to an honest election: that means counting all legal ballots, and not counting any illegal ballots.” — statement Saturday after the outcome in Pennsylvania delivered Biden the presidential election victory.
THE FACTS: Trump has not presented evidence that Americans had a dishonest election or that “illegal ballots” shaped the result.
He has portrayed the tallying of mailed ballots received after Election Day as illegitimate, but in fact that is explicitly allowed in roughly 20 states, and the Supreme Court did not stand in the way of it. He accused election officials of banning campaign representatives from voting places, but that is false, too.
Trump refused to concede and said he will press his legal challenges, despite seeing several lawsuits dismissed by courts.
TRUMP: “We’re hearing stories that are horror stories. ... We think there is going to be a lot of litigation because we have so much evidence and so much proof.” — remarks Thursday night from the White House.
THE FACTS: Trump produced no evidence of systematic problems in voting or counting. In fact, the ballot-counting process across the country has been running smoothly for the most part, even with the U.S. in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.
One of his main complaints, that counting spilled over past Election Day, is meritless. No presidential election has had all the votes counted the same day and there is no law or even expectation that that should be the case. The surge in mailed ballots and the high turnout have made the process slower than usual in some, but not all, cases.
TRUMP: “...Pennsylvania, which everyone thought was easily won on Election Night, only to see a massive lead disappear, without anyone being allowed to OBSERVE, for long intervals of time.” — tweet Saturday morning.
TRUMP: “In Pennsylvania, for example, our legal observers were not permitted meaningful access to watch the counting process. ... Only a party engaged in wrongdoing would unlawfully keep observers out of the count room.” — statement Saturday refusing to concede to Biden after his victory.
TRUMP: “Pennsylvania Democrats have gone to the state Supreme Court to try and ban our election observers. ... They don’t want anybody in there. They don’t want anybody watching them while they are counting the ballots.” — Thursday night remarks.
THE FACTS: These assertions are false. Trump is wholly misrepresenting a court case in the state and what happened at voting places. No one tried to ban poll watchers representing each side in the election. Democrats did not try to stop Republican representatives from being able to observe the process.
The main issue in the case was how close observers representing the parties could get to election workers who are processing mail-in ballots in Philadelphia. Trump’s representatives sued to allow the observers to get closer than the guidelines had allowed. A court ruled in favor of that request.
The counting in Philadelphia was being livestreamed and Trump’s lawyers admitted in court that their campaign had observers in the room — “a none-zero” number of them, as they put it.
Contrary to Trump's statement, there was no widespread belief election night that Trump had “easily won” the state. It was well-known that huge numbers of mailed-in ballots as well as in-person ballots were to be counted and that many would be from Democratic-leaning areas. That's why news organizations did not call Pennsylvania for Trump.
TRUMP: “In Pennsylvania, partisan Democrats have allowed ballots in the state to be received three days after the election and we think much more than that and they are counting those without any postmarks or any identification whatsoever.” — Thursday night.
THE FACTS: “Partisan Democrats” didn’t ordain this. It was the state Supreme Court that ruled ballots mailed before the end of Election Day could be received up to three days later and still be counted. His accusation that mailed ballots without postmarks are being counted is also false. Election officials are weeding out ballots postmarked after Nov. 3.
The U.S. Supreme Court examined the case and did not stand in the way of the three-day time frame. It may review the matter again later.
A number of other states have also made accommodations for the crush of mailed ballots.
TRUMP: “Tens of thousands of votes were illegally received after 8 P.M. on Tuesday, Election Day, totally and easily changing the results in Pennsylvania and certain other razor thin states.” — tweet Saturday morning.
THE FACTS: This is groundless. Many states allow votes received in the mail after Election Day to be counted. It's not illegal. And Trump has presented no evidence that “tens of thousands” came in after poll closings.
In Pennsylvania, ballots received after 8 p.m. on Election Day were only a fragment of the total vote count. Across the state, counties reported receiving fewer than 8,000 after Tuesday, though some were still assessing how many they had.
Most of those ballots were sitting segregated waiting to be counted and were not included in vote totals, and officials were weeding out ballots that weren’t postmarked by Nov. 3.
TRUMP: “Our campaign has been denied access to observe any counting in Detroit.” — Thursday night.
THE FACTS: That’s false.
Absentee ballots were counted at a downtown convention center, where some 134 counting boards were set up. Each party was allowed one poll watcher per board, said City Clerk Janice Winfrey.
She said she was not aware of any Republican poll watchers being removed but noted some had been “very aggressive, trying to intimidate the poll workers and processors.”
Mark Brewer, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said he was inside the convention center and access was cut off to some people from both sides at one point because of capacity restrictions related to the pandemic.
TRUMP: “The election apparatus in Georgia is run by Democrats.” — Thursday night.
THE FACTS: No, the state’s elections are overseen by a Republican, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
TRUMP: “The 11th Circuit ruled that in Georgia the votes have to be in by Election Day, that they should be in by Election Day. And they weren’t. Votes are coming in after Election Day.” — Thursday night.
THE FACTS: That’s not an accurate description of the ruling in question or what happened in the election in Georgia.
Although the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that votes must be in by 7 p.m. Election Day for them to count, an exception was made for ballots from the members of U.S. military serving overseas. Those could be received until 5 p.m. Friday and still count. Election officials in Georgia are still counting votes, but they are votes that have been lawfully received.
TRUMP: “If you count the legal votes, I easily win. if you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.” — Thursday night.
THE FACTS: This is baseless.
Neither Trump’s campaign aides nor election officials identified substantial numbers of “illegal” votes, much less the mammoth numbers it would take to ruin an easy win by Trump in an election where more than 140 million people voted.
He frequently speaks as if mail-in voting itself is illegitimate. But it unfolded in accordance with state voting rules, in some cases adapted by officials to help voters get through the pandemic safely.
TRUMP: "We were winning in all the key locations by a lot, actually. And then our number started miraculously getting whittled away in secret.” — Thursday night.
THE FACTS: He has no foundation to make this accusation. The change in fortunes he speaks about is explained by the nature of vote counting in the states, not by any sudden surge of malfeasance that others have not seen. And it does not happen in “secret” any more than his initial leads developed in secret.
Often, big cities are slower to report their numbers, and those votes tend skew Democratic. Likewise, many states tend to count mail-in ballots at the end of the process. That portion of the vote tended to favor Biden, particularly because Trump urged his supporters in advance to avoid mail-in voting and to vote in person either early or on Election Day.
Trump finished election night with leads in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia, among the states most in play, then saw his advantage begin to fray Wednesday and past that.
TRUMP: “ANY VOTE THAT CAME IN AFTER ELECTION DAY WILL NOT BE COUNTED! — tweet Thursday.
THE FACTS: Not true. Despite the tweet shout, votes received in the mail after Tuesday were counted in many places, and legally. Roughly 20 states allow for late-arriving ballots.
KELLYANNE CONWAY, unofficial Trump adviser: “Why are we in such a rush to finish this election prematurely? Let’s be patient. Let’s take a deep breath. Let’s count every legal vote. I think it’s a time to be methodical and not emotional.” — Thursday on “Fox & Friends."
TRUMP, less than an hour later: “STOP THE COUNT!” — tweet.
THE FACTS: The count went on. A president doesn't control ballot counting. But if state and local officials had somehow stopped counting all at once, that would have frozen a tally that had Biden ahead in electoral and popular votes.
In reality, Trump wanted counting stopped only in undecided key states where he was ahead and Biden might catch up, not the reverse. A variety of Trump's advisers insisted the president wanted a full and fair count, only to be flatly contradicted by his tweets and other statements.
TRUMP: “We want all voting to stop.” — statement to supporters in the White House early Wednesday morning.
THE FACTS: This was not a coherent demand or complaint. Voting stopped everywhere on Tuesday, Election Day. Voting had even stopped in Hawaii, where the clock is five hours behind Washington, when he appeared in the East Room after 2 a.m.
He may have meant counting should stop. But state and local officials have never counted all the votes in a presidential election in one day, there is no obligation for them to do so and they did not stop in response.
“IF YOU COUNT THE LEGAL VOTES, I EASILY WIN THE ELECTION! IF YOU COUNT THE ILLEGAL AND LATE VOTES, THEY CAN STEAL THE ELECTION FROM US!” — statement released Thursday.
THE FACTS: He presented no calculation to back this up, or evidence of late votes or illegal ones.
People could not vote after Election Day. If by late votes he meant ballots counted after Tuesday, it’s routine and legal to finish counting in days ahead. The great number of ballots cast by mail in the pandemic and the intense interest in the election gave officials far more to count and they never finish in one day in normal times anyway.
TRUMP: “We have claimed, for Electoral Vote purposes, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (which won’t allow legal observers) the State of Georgia, and the State of North Carolina, each one of which has a BIG Trump lead. Additionally, we hereby claim the State of Michigan if, in fact ... there was a large number of secretly dumped ballots as has been widely reported.” — tweets Wednesday.
THE FACTS: Presidents don't get to “hereby claim” election victories. No candidates for office do.
The U.S. government does not count the ballots in a U.S. election or conduct the vote. State and local officials do that. The winner of a presidential election is determined by the number of electoral votes gained in each state. Legal challenges are settled by courts, and may be by the Supreme Court.
As for the rest of his tweet, his leads at the time in Georgia and North Carolina were not “Big” and his substantial opening lead in Pennsylvania vanished as more mail ballots and other ballots were counted in Democratic-leaning areas.
He was wrong to say Pennsylvania did not let observers from the campaign watch the processing of votes; it did. But a judge sided with Trump in ruling campaign observers could get closer to the processing of ballots than they had been allowed, so they could see it better.
He offered no evidence about “secretly dumped ballots” in Michigan but has generally tried to assign nefarious motives to voting procedures that actually were carried out according to authorized guidelines.
His campaign manager, Bill Stepien, also told fabricated stories of shenanigans, asserting to reporters Thursday that “every night the president goes to bed with a lead” and every night new votes “are mysteriously found in a sack.” That day, courts in Georgia and Michigan dismissed complaints from the Trump campaign.
TRUMP: “For the first time ever, we lost zero races in the House. I was talking to (House Republican leader) Kevin McCarthy today. He said he couldn’t believe it: zero races. Very unusual thing. Zero.” — Thursday night.
THE FACTS: Far from zero. Republicans lost more than 200 House races. But no GOP incumbents lost their races in counting so far.
Associated Press writers Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia, Amanda Seitz in Chicago, Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta, Tali Arbel in Phoenix, David Klepper in Providence, Rhode Island, and Colleen Long, Brian Slodysko and Hope Yen in Washington contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE — A look at the veracity of claims by political figures.
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