Below is my column in the Hill newspaper about ongoing speculation about President Donald Trump delaying or canceling the 2020 election. This conspiracy theory emerged shortly after Trump's election and became angry when Vice President Joe Biden predicted that Trump would try to stop the election (and try to steal the election through the postal service). Despite the overheated reporting, Trump did not try to delay the election. He cannot delay the choice. He asked if there should be a delay in what Congress can do legally. However, as I said immediately after the tweet, this question is politically absurd and legally unfounded. The only ridiculous thing, however, was the answer to this question with eleven words. It's all part of the panic disorder that seems to be triggered daily by Trump tweets.
Here is the column:
This week, American democracy either died or not, but you couldn't tell from the coverage. Some commentators and members of Congress warned that we are looking at "nothing less than a coup d'état". Others called for organized protests and proclaimed that it was now clear that President Trump's "anti-democratic intent was bloodily real." A leading scientist called for Trump to be removed from office immediately as a fascist to destroy our constitutional system.
We haven't seen such rhetoric since Aaron Burr tried to pull out all of the southwestern territory of the United States. The cause this time was an 11-word Twitter question from President Trump. Returning to his favorite subject of denouncing mail-in voting as a disaster, he ended his July 30 tweet with the question, "Are you delaying the vote until people can vote correctly, safely, and securely?"
As I said then, the tweet was ruthless and repulsive. The screams of a Twitter-based coup, however, weren't related to reality either. I have repeatedly written about this conspiracy theory that Trump will never allow 2020 an election that has been raging on liberal websites and cable news soon after he took office.
Trump is not authorized to postpone the election. Even if he could persuade Congress with implausible support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to change the date, the constitution stipulates that his term ends on January 20 at 12 noon. In the meantime, not only do citizens have to vote, voters also have to cast ballots in the electoral college, and those votes must be approved and counted by Congress.
It's not a big coup if you don't extend your term. It doesn't matter what Trump wants; it is what the constitution allows. The call to postpone the election has the same effect as Trump's declaration that he will change his name to "Joe Biden" if necessary to achieve victory or that he will adopt Neptune's calendar to to extend his four-year term to 660 years.
That's why this conspiracy theory was so crazy. In a column in April, I criticized former Vice President Joe Biden when he took up the theory and triggered another round of panic. Biden added a second theory to this groundless fear, suggesting that Trump's opposition to US postal funding was part of a plan to steal the elections. (I later wrote an equally caustic criticism of Jared Kushner when he defied election day.)
At the time, while I was portraying Biden as a virtual nut for the elevation of this conspiracy theory, many have proclaimed him a virtual Nostradamus after Trump's tweet. Biden was not right – neither was Trump today. It's no surprise – and no sign of a conspiracy – that Trump is proposing something outrageous on Twitter like a late election. Such behavior is an established fact that many of us are concerned with every day. The "conspiracy theory" says Trump could actually stop or delay the election.
In order to do justice to Trump, he did not say that he could delay the election unilaterally, but asked whether we should do it. He later denied actually wanting a delay. Nevertheless, the tweet still showed terrible judgment and sparked this conspiracy theory on the Internet.
Usually sensible people seemed to say goodbye to their constitutional senses. Steven Calabresi, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote a column for the New York Times calling for Trump's immediate impeachment on his question. Calabresi said this "latest tweet was fascist and itself prompted the House to remove the President immediately and the Senate remove him."
After testifying against Clinton and Trump, I have no illusions about how often impeachment is a magnet for allegations of high crime and misdemeanor. In fact, various experts and members of Congress have called for impeachment for everything from Trump's tweets to his criticism of the football player "knee pads" in recent years.
Still, Calabresi is not an internet idiot. He is a respected academic who suggests that the question of whether a pandemic election should be postponed is a reason to remove. Remember that it is legal for Congress to postpone the election, so Trump proposed something that can be done constitutionally. It would be practically illogical and politically impossible, but it would be legal. Can a president be removed if he proposes legal or illogical measures? Think of this as the standard in history. I would rather accuse him of using three consecutive question marks in his question.
As so often, Trump's loose rhetoric overshadowed what could have been a clear point. Trump contested that switching to post-election mail-in voting will result in delays and challenges. I have reported on presidential elections as a legal analyst for several decades. Each election had challenges, including the ongoing controversy over the Bush Gore Competition in 2000, which the Supreme Court ultimately resolved. While we did postal voting for a long time, we haven't done that much mail-in voting. It will inevitably add a new level of problems and potential challenges. Trump is also right that it will likely delay the final vote count.
There is every reason to be concerned. We have a relatively short window of time for challenges and recounting before the electoral college meets on December 14th to confirm the results. Although this date could also be changed, it would soon collide with another legal date – January 6th – on which Congress will have to meet to confirm the results. There is a real possibility of ground combat in the certification of certain states' votes and the possible non-certification of some states involved in litigation. It is even possible that such challenges will continue until January 20th. However, what is not in doubt is that Trump remains in office: on that day, he is no longer president unless he is re-elected.
Indeed, for Trump, the only thing more nightmarish than losing is if a properly elected president cannot be determined. In theory, Pelosi could become the incumbent president next in a row. You'd think that would be enough incentive for the Trump administration to make sure the postal service is fully prepared for election day. So we have to put this conspiracy theory to bed. Trump cannot unilaterally delay the election. Our real concern should be what will happen when the election takes place on November 3rd.
Jonathan Turley is Shapiro Professor of Law of Public Interest at George Washington University. You can find his updates online at JonathanTurley.