From the start, the president saw mail-in ballots as a political threat that would appeal more to Democrats than to his followers.
The trouble broke out inside the main counting room in Detroit late on the morning of Nov. 4.
It was the day after Election Day, and until then the process of tabulating votes from the city’s various counting boards had gone smoothly inside the TCF Center, the cavernous convention hall that plays host to the North American International Auto Show.
As batches of ballots came in by van, workers methodically inspected and registered them at 134 separate tables, each monitored by voting rights observers and so-called election challengers from each party.
But the posture of the Republican challengers shifted as the count swung in favor of Joe Biden and word spread that President Donald Trump would sue. One witness, a nonpartisan observer, Julie Moroney, heard a Republican organizer say, “Now we’re going to challenge every ballot.”
Republican volunteers suddenly ramped up their objections across the room: accusations that the workers doing the counting, were entering obviously incorrect birth years or backdating ballots. In some cases, the volunteers lodged blanket claims of wrongdoing.
“What are you doing?” a worker asked a Republican observer who was challenging ballots before he was able to even begin to inspect them, a Democratic observer, Seth Furlow, recalled. The Republican observer responded, “I was told to challenge every one.”
Furlow vividly recalled his discomfort with a scene in which mostly white Republican challengers were confronting the mostly Black elections workers.
Already, the police had escorted a handful of particularly disruptive observers from the room. But tensions increased when election officials noticed that the number of challengers had grown well beyond what each side was permitted and barred entry in a bid to reduce their ranks. Shouts of “stop the count” went up among Republicans.
The fraud that the Republicans claimed to observe was not fraud at all, a Michigan state judge determined on Friday in rejecting a lawsuit filed by allies of Trump. The various instances of supposed malfeasance were in fact well-established procedures for dealing with the peculiarities of data entry, the correction of minor errors and protocols for social distancing — all intended to ensure a careful and accurate vote count.
But in the fact-twisting narrative of Trump, his political allies and his supporters, the Detroit counting center was a crime scene where Democrats stole an election, a miscarriage demanding that outrage be channeled through the courts, presidential Twitter posts and cable news stemwinders.
And that was the plan envisioned by the pro-Trump forces all along.
Like similar episodes in Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the scene in Detroit was the culmination of a yearslong strategy by Trump to use the power of the executive branch, an army of lawyers, the echo chamber of conservative news media and the obedience of fellow Republicans to try out his most audacious exercise in bending reality: to turn losing into winning.
Obscured by the postelection noise over the president’s efforts to falsely portray the election system as “rigged” against him has been how much Trump and his allies did ahead of time to promote a baseless conspiracy devised to appeal to his most passionate supporters, providing him with the opportunity to make his historically anomalous bid to cling to power in the face of defeat.
That bid is now in its last throes. Judges are dismissing the president’s lawsuits, as various bits of supposed evidence — an alleged box of illegal ballots that was in fact a case containing camera equipment and “dead voters” who are alive — unravel. And yet Trump has still not given up on seeding doubt about the election’s integrity as he seeks to stain Biden’s clear victory — by more than 5.5 million votes and also in the Electoral College — with false insinuations of illegitimacy. On Sunday alone, he posted more than two dozen election-related tweets, seeming to briefly acknowledge Biden’s victory before declaring, “I concede NOTHING!”
The roots of Trump’s approach date to before his election in 2016, and he advanced his plans throughout his term. But his strategy for casting doubt on the outcome of the 2020 campaign took shape in earnest when the coronavirus pandemic upended normal life and led states to promote voting by mail.
From the start, the president saw mail-in ballots as a political threat that would appeal more to Democrats than to his followers. And so he and his allies sought to block moves to make absentee voting easier and to slow the counting of mail ballots. This allowed Trump to do two things: claim an early victory on election night and paint ballots that were counted later for his opponent as fraudulent.
The U.S. Postal Service, after coming under the leadership of a Trump ally, Louis DeJoy, made several cost-saving moves that severely slowed mail delivery rates and prompted broad concern about mail ballots arriving on time.
In the Senate, under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, Republicans blocked Democratic efforts to get more money to states so they could buy more sorting equipment to count the huge influx of mail ballots faster.
In key states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, Republican-controlled legislatures refused attempts by civil rights groups and Democrats to change or suspend statutes forbidding election workers from beginning to count ballots before Election Day. And once the counting began, the Trump campaign and the president’s allies pursued other tactics to slow or stop the count and seed doubt about the validity of the results.
Before Election Day, party officials at the state and national levels helped organize teams of observers, a role that was once a symbol of the transparency of American democracy. But in this case, Trump and his allies encouraged their observers in key states to act aggressively to stop what they portrayed as widespread cheating and provide information that could be fed into lawsuits and stoke demonstrations and coverage from friendly commentators and journalists.
As a Pennsylvania state senator, Mike Regan, a Republican, put it at a rally in Harrisburg last week, “I’ve been told in no uncertain terms by the state party and by our leaders that they are coordinating with the Trump campaign, and so far Pennsylvania has done everything that the Trump campaign has asked them to do.”
Nearly all of it would be done in the name of a falsehood: that the American voting system was so corroded by fraud that any losing result for the president could not be legitimate.
There was no greater proponent of that notion than Trump, who promoted it heavily from behind his presidential lectern or from his phone. A presidency that began with a lie — that President Barack Obama was not a citizen — is now ending with one, too.
In fact, by the time Trump acknowledged in September 2016 that Obama was indeed born in the United States, he was well along in promoting a new false narrative that the election was rigged in favor of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Facing what he and the entire political world expected to be a loss, Trump repeated the claim regularly as international and domestic allies backed him up: the ambush-video activist James O’Keefe, Russian troll networks, Sean Hannity and Infowars.
Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to Trump and a perennial Republican trickster, created an outside group, Stop the Steal, that sought to enlist poll observers to collect evidence of Democratic cheating. Trump’s advisers readied legal go-teams to jet anywhere he could press a claim.
Trump’s Electoral College victory rendered those 2016 plans unnecessary. But the incoming president had reason to cling to the falsehood as a way to cast doubt on the reality that he had lost the popular vote by a margin of nearly 3 million.
When thousands of the president’s supporters demonstrated in Washington on Saturday, the legal losses and electoral implausibilities were irrelevant. As they marched through the streets holding an enormous Trump flag flecked with white stars against a navy backdrop, they repeatedly chanted the phrase planted four years ago by Stone: “Stop the steal.”
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