WASHINGTON — It was a startling declaration about one of the pillars of American democracy, all the more so given its source.
The president of the United States last week publicly predicted without evidence that the 2020 presidential election would be “the most corrupt election in the history of our country.”
“We cannot let this happen,’’ Donald Trump told an audience of young supporters at a Phoenix megachurch. ‘‘They want it to happen so badly.”
Just over four months before Election Day, the president is escalating his efforts to cast doubt on the integrity of the vote.
It’s a well-worn tactic for Trump, who in 2016 went after the very process that ultimately put him in the White House. He first attacked the Republican primaries (“rigged and boss controlled”) and then the general election, when he accused the media and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s campaign of conspiring against him to undermine a free and fair election.
‘‘The process is rigged. This whole election is being rigged,’’ he said that October when polls showed him trailing Clinton by double digits as he faced a flurry of sexual misconduct allegations.
Then, as now, election experts have repeatedly discredited his claims about widespread fraud in the voting process.
In a country with a history of peaceful political transition, a major-party candidate’s efforts to delegitimize an election amounted to a striking rupture of faith in American democracy. But to do the same as president, historians say, would be unprecedented.
“Never,’’ said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley when asked whether any past US president had used such language. “What you’re seeing is someone who’s an autocrat or a dictator in action.’’
This year, Trump has seized on efforts across the country to expand the ability of people to vote by mail. It’s a movement that was spurred by the coronavirus, which has infected more than 2.4 million people in the United States, killing more than 125,000 nationwide. The virus is highly contagious and especially dangerous for older people, who typically vote in higher numbers and have been advised by federal health authorities to limit their interactions with others.
There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud through mail-in voting, even in states with all-mail votes. Trump and many members of his administration have themselves repeatedly voted via absentee ballots. But that hasn’t stopped Trump from accusing Democrats of trying to “rig the election by sending out tens of millions of mail-in ballots, using the China virus as the excuse for allowing people not to go to the polls.”
“People went to the polls and voted during World War I. They went to the polls and voted during World War II. We can safely go to the polls and vote during COVID-19,’’ he said in his Phoenix speech.
Trump’s complaints come as he has been lagging in both internal and public polls. The criticism is seen by some as part of a broader effort by Trump to depress turnout by making it harder for people, especially in cities, to vote safely, and to lay the groundwork for a potential challenge to the results in November if he loses. Trump and his campaign vociferously deny this.
Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, said Trump may be trying to preempt the sting of a humiliation if he fails to win a second term. But Zelizer said Trump also appears to be “setting up the foundation for taking action.’’
“What I do think is very realistic is a replay of 2000,’’ he said, referring to the legal saga in which the Supreme Court stepped in to resolve a dispute over which candidate had won Florida. Republican George W. Bush’s ultimate win in the state gave him a general election victory over Democrat Al Gore.
If this year’s election is close, Zelizer said, Trump could turn to the courts “and wage a political campaign to say this is being stolen and tie up efforts to count the votes.”
Brinkley was even more alarmist, questioning whether Trump would vacate the office if he lost.
“Trump is laying down his markers very clearly that he’s not going to leave the White House. I think that he’s just setting the stage,’’ Brinkley said, to say “‘I’m not leaving. It was a fraudulent election.’”
Americans already have widespread concerns about the security and integrity of elections. A February poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only about one-third have high confidence that votes in the 2020 election will be counted accurately.
Americans’ support for mail-in voting has jumped amid concerns over the virus, with 6 in 10 now saying they would support their state allowing people to vote by mail-in ballot without requiring a reason, according to an April survey. Democrats are far more likely to support it than Republicans, a partisan split that has emerged since 2018, suggesting Trump’s public campaign may be resonating with his GOP backers.
Trump takes down tweet approving racist chant
WASHINGTON — President Trump on Sunday tweeted approvingly of a video showing one of his supporters chanting “white power,’’ a racist slogan associated with white supremacists. He later deleted the tweet and the White House said the president had not heard “the one statement” on the video.
The video appeared to have been taken at The Villages, a Florida retirement community, and showed dueling demonstrations between Trump supporters and opponents.
“Thank you to the great people of The Villages,” Trump tweeted. Moments into the video clip he shared, a man driving a golf cart displaying pro-Trump signs and flags shouts ‘white power.’’ The video also shows anti-Trump protesters shouting “Nazi,’’ “racist,’’ and profanities at the Trump backers.
“There’s no question'’ that Trump should not have retweeted the video and ‘‘he should just take it down,” Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina told CNN’s “State of the Union.” Scott is the only Black Republican in the Senate.
“I think it’s indefensible,” he added.
Shortly afterward, Trump deleted the tweet that shared the video. White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement that “President Trump is a big fan of The Villages. He did not hear the one statement made on the video. What he did see was tremendous enthusiasm from his many supporters.”
The White House did not respond when asked whether Trump condemned the supporter’s comment.
Rolling Stones theaten suit over Trump’s use of songs
LONDON — The Rolling Stones are threatening President Trump with legal action for using their songs at his rallies despite cease-and-desist directives.
The Stones said in a statement Sunday that their legal team is working with music rights organization BMI to stop use of their material in Trump’s reelection campaign.
“The BMI have notified the Trump campaign on behalf of the Stones that the unauthorized use of their songs will constitute a breach of its licensing agreement,’’ the Stones said. “If Donald Trump disregards the exclusion and persists, then he would face a lawsuit for breaking the embargo and playing music that has not been licensed.’’
The Stones had complained during Trump’s 2016 campaign about the use of their music to fire up his conservative base at rallies.
The Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was a popular song for his events. It was played again at the close of Trump’s recent rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma — an indoor event criticized for its potential to spread coronavirus.