WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump's unfounded attacks on mail balloting are discouraging his own supporters from embracing the practice, according to polls and Republican leaders across the country, prompting growing alarm that one of the central strategies of his campaign is threatening GOP prospects in November.
Multiple public surveys show a growing divide between Democrats and Republicans about the security of voting by mail, with Republicans saying they are far less likely to trust it in November. In addition, party leaders in several states said they are encountering resistance among GOP voters who are being encouraged to vote absentee while also seeing the president describe mail voting as "rigged" and "fraudulent."
As a result, state and local Republicans across the country fear they are falling dramatically behind in a practice that is expected to be key to voter turnout this year. Through mailers and Facebook ads, they are racing to promote absentee balloting among their own.
In the process, some Republican officials have tried to draw a distinction between "absentee ballots," which Trump claims are secure, and "mail ballots," which he has repeatedly attacked. In fact, the terms are used interchangeably.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, describing a recent meeting with a group of Republican voters in Fort Payne, said he felt compelled to explain that there is only one kind of mail-in voting in Alabama, and that it is safe and secure.
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Merrill's concerns were echoed by senior White House and campaign aides, as well as GOP operatives in numerous key states including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to criticize the president.
"It is a problem," said one Republican strategist in North Carolina. "The president has oversimplified the issue to criticize the method of voting, rather than the way it's done. The details matter."
Republican National Committee spokesman Mike Reed disputed the view that Trump's attacks on mail voting are a threat to Republican turnout. "Some are going to vote absentee through the proper process as they always do, and you will see us encouraging them to do that," Reed said. "But many of our voters just prefer to vote in person."
With the novel coronavirus pandemic still raging across the United States, election officials in dozens of states have addressed fears of infection at the polls by preparing for a massive increase in mail balloting. Officials in both parties are building turnout operations geared specifically to mail voting on the belief that a majority of voters will prefer to cast their ballots this way.
At least 77% of American voters will be able to vote through the mail in the fall, according to a Washington Post tracker of state rules.
At the same time, Trump's campaign and the RNC are fighting against the expansion of mail balloting, seeking to stop efforts backed by Democrats and voting rights advocates to loosen rules, such as witness signatures and identification requirements, that would make it easier for people to vote by mail. GOP party officials argue that such restrictions are necessary to prevent fraud.
The president has gone much further, however, launching wholesale broadsides against the concept of voting by mail that have emerged as a central strategy of his campaign.
"The 2020 Election will be totally rigged if Mail-In Voting is allowed to take place, & everyone knows it," he tweeted July 26, one of more than 70 attacks he has made against voting by mail since March, according to a tally by The Post.
Senior Trump advisers, including RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, have warned the president that his broad rhetoric is complicating Republican turnout efforts, multiple strategists said. McDaniel and Justin Clark, Trump's deputy campaign manager, have repeatedly encouraged the president to promote the use of absentee ballots. McDaniel has additionally urged him to stop his blanket attacks on mail voting and present a more nuanced message.
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Trump has indicated that he has no plans to back off his attacks on the integrity of the vote, strategists said. Some advisers acknowledged privately that the president may be laying the groundwork to claim the election was rigged if he loses in November.
Just last week, Trump suggested delaying the election until Americans can safely cast ballots in person.
In recent days, Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General William Barr both spoke publicly about the risk of fraud they said was inherent in mail balloting, without offering evidence. The president also recently elevated Clark, a lawyer who has led his campaign's litigation efforts to restrict the expansion of mail voting. And the White House is expected to repeatedly emphasize the risks of "mass mail-in voting" in upcoming months, according to a senior White House official.
"He tweets about this every day," said a campaign adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking. "Clearly, it's his concerted strategy."
On Monday, the president accused Democrats in Nevada of "an illegal late night coup" after the state legislature passed a bill that would allow ballots to be sent to all active voters, while also requiring a minimum number of in-person voting locations. Trump tweeted that it "made it impossible for Republicans to win the state" and claimed the U.S. Postal Service "could never handle the Traffic of Mail-In Votes without preparation."
"See you in Court!" he added.
A campaign official said GOP officials were considering a lawsuit challenging the bill, which was signed Monday evening by Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat. Trump said later in the day that a suit would be filed Tuesday, but he has been known to threaten litigation without always following through.
The president appeared to try to clarify his position on mail voting, telling reporters during a briefing at the White House that "absentee is great," but that "universal mail-in ballots is going to be a great embarrassment to our country."
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"President Trump was quite clear that universal mail-in voting, as Democrats are pushing, is ripe for fraud, while normal absentee voting by mail is completely different," Murtaugh said. "There's a vast difference between voting absentee for people who can't get to the polls on Election Day versus mailing every registered voter a ballot, even those who didn't request one."
In fact, only a handful of states are planning to proactively send mail ballots to all voters. They include three that have successfully conducted virtually all-mail elections for years: Washington, Oregon and Colorado.
Democrats are not seeking mail-only elections in most states, in part because many of their voters, especially people of color and younger Americans, have historically been less likely to vote by mail.
Meanwhile, there are now growing signs of a palpable impact on GOP enthusiasm for mail voting.
A Monmouth University poll of registered voters in Georgia taken late last month found that 60% of Democrats are at least somewhat likely to vote by mail this fall, compared to 28% of Republicans.
Glen Bolger, a pollster with the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies, said that in one swing state he declined to identify, only 15% of voters planning to cast ballots by mail were Trump supporters. "Republicans are skeptical about voting by mail, and that's a problem up and down the ballot," he said.
Similarly, an analysis of current absentee ballot requests in North Carolina shows that Democrats have vastly outpaced Republicans, even though roughly the same numbers of Republicans and Democrats voted by mail four years ago.
"Everybody's up," said Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., who conducted the analysis. "It's just that Democrats and unaffiliateds are through the roof, and Republicans are not even on the second floor."
Bitzer said Trump's "mixed messages" about absentee balloting are probably one factor, along with more enthusiasm and greater coronavirus concerns among Democrats.
Republicans have been working in creative ways to try to counter the effects of Trump's words. State and national Republicans are inundating their voters with Facebook ads and mailers promoting the message that absentee balloting is safe. Some of the messages claim that Trump is criticizing only the practice of "universal" mail-balloting - sending ballots to all registered voters.
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"Please don't confuse North Carolina's absentee system with other states' all-mail elections," read the message from party chairman. "NCGOP and JoCo GOP agrees with the President that our current absentee ballot request system is safe and secure."
The assurance was met with skepticism from many commenters. "Burned it! I will go in person to vote straight Republican," wrote one.
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Another recent ad, from the Alaska GOP, lamented how few Republicans have requested absentee ballots and urged supporters to submit their request "NOW."
Reed, the RNC spokesman, said there is a "clear difference" between what Democrats are seeking this cycle and a typical absentee ballot request process.
"Washington Democrats and the media may not understand these distinctions or be willfully misconstruing them, but our voters understand it," he said.
However, some of Trump's advisers don't think he has done a good job explaining the distinction - while others have admitted there really isn't a difference. In one lawsuit pending in Pennsylvania, the president's lawyers argued that "the terms 'mail-in' and 'absentee' are used interchangeably."
More than 30 states - including Florida, where Trump voted absentee in the primary this year - allow any voter to cast a ballot by mail.
For their part, Democrats are challenging measures that they argue create unfair hurdles to voting, such as rules limiting who can cast absentee ballots, while also pushing to extend early in-person voting and ensure that all Election Day voting locations are able to open with full staffs.
Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer who is leading voting litigation in 18 states this year, said the president's muddled messaging has "sawed off the limbs of every House and Senate candidate in America" trying to maximize voter turnout during a pandemic election.
Some Republicans actions amount to an admission that Trump's rhetoric might be confusing.
In Florida, Republicans have begun encouraging their supporters to vote early in person - an apparent concession to the mistrust of mail balloting Trump has sown.
And a GOP mail piece, sent to voters in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Michigan, quotes part of a July 10 tweet by Trump, in which he wrote: "Absentee Ballots are fine because you have to go through a precise process to get your voting privilege." But the flier blurs out the second part of the tweet: "Not so with Mail-Ins. Rigged Election!!! 20% fraudulent ballots?"
Reed defended the mailer, describing it as "completely in line" with Trump's position, but he declined to address the blurring of the president's tweet. The fliers were paid for by state parties but produced in coordination with Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee that includes the RNC.
Political operatives across the country say banking early and absentee votes is crucial to avoid leaving turnout to chance, including the vagaries of weather on Election Day as well as the potential of an autumn spike in coronavirus infections.
A shift to Election Day voting also costs campaigns money, several operatives said; ballots cast by mail shrink the universe of voters who still need to be persuaded with expensive mail pieces, robocalls and TV ads in the final days of the race.
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In Iowa, the GOP-controlled legislature passed a law earlier this year blocking the secretary of state, Republican Paul Pate, from sending ballot request forms to all registered voters without lawmakers' permission.
But in July, after several Democratic counties in Iowa announced they would send request forms themselves, legislative leaders granted the state permission to do so, as well.
Democrats, meanwhile, believe Trump's rhetoric has given them a potential turnout advantage - but they are also preparing for the possibility that the president is laying the groundwork to contest the results after Nov. 3.
It's possible that the Democratic advantage among absentee votes, and the potential Republican advantage in Election Day voting, will mean that the president will appear ahead that night - only to potentially lose as mail ballots are tallied in subsequent days.
The flood of mail votes could also prompt a barrage of litigation over which ballots should be counted.
"Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later!" Trump tweetedlast week.
On voting issues, Elias, the Democrats' lead tactician said: "Their sole purpose is to mount a cynical effort to undermine the elections and people's confidence in the outcome."
Even after he was widely rebuked last week for floating the idea of delaying the election, Trump did not repudiate the idea. Stephen Miller, the president's senior policy adviser, defended his boss in a Fox News interview, falsely claiming that the identities of voters who cast ballots are not confirmed, allowing noncitizens to vote.
"This will be catastrophic for our nation," the president said at the White House on Friday. "You'll see it. I'm always right about things like this."
WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump further disparaged his senior health advisers on Monday even as the pandemic deepened its hold on the nation, as the White House's top coronavirus coordinator, Deborah Birx, joined Anthony Fauci and other scientists on the receiving end of the president's ire.
Birx - who built a career leading public health efforts against HIV/AIDS - quickly garnered Trump's favor earlier this year for publicly championing the administration's coronavirus response, becoming a prominent figure inside and outside the White House.
But she soon lost support within swaths of the scientific and medical community for seeming to minimize the virus and to enable Trump's rosy view of the pandemic. This past weekend, Birx lost the backing of the nation's top Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who privately called Birx "the worst" and publicly said she had no confidence in her.
On Monday morning, Birx appeared to lose ground with perhaps her most important constituency, Trump himself, who dismissed her as "pathetic."
"So Crazy Nancy Pelosi said horrible things about Dr. Deborah Birx, going after her because she was too positive on the very good job we are doing on combatting the China Virus, including Vaccines & Therapeutics," Trump wrote in a tweet. "In order to counter Nancy, Deborah took the bait & hit us. Pathetic!"
Trump was especially incensed that she did not strike a more optimistic tone about states that are doing well and by her praise for Pelosi, an ardent Trump critic, said one senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of private discussions. When asked about Pelosi's lack of confidence in the handling of the pandemic, Birx replied, "I have tremendous respect for the speaker. And I have tremendous respect for her long dedication to the American people."
In the interview, she also did not rule out the possibility that the nation's coronavirus death toll could double by the end of the year to 300,000 and seemed to suggest that, contrary to the president's stated desires, some schools should offer only distance learning this fall.
Trump was especially incensed by her praise for Pelosi, an ardent Trump critic, said one senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of private discussions. When asked about Pelosi's lack of confidence in the handling of the pandemic, Birx replied, "I have tremendous respect for the speaker. And I have tremendous respect for her long dedication to the American people."
In a news conference Monday, Fauci defended Birx's statements about the pandemic, pointing to "insidious" community spread.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden took to Twitter in response to Trump's tweet attacking Birx: "It's hard to believe this has to be said, but if I'm elected president, I'll spend my Monday mornings working with our nation's top experts to control this virus - not insulting them on Twitter."
Trump's criticism of Birx was another reminder that, while he demands absolute loyalty, he rarely repays it in kind. With more than 4.6 million Americans infected, more than 150,000 dead and the economy in shambles, Birx finds herself isolated with increasingly few allies even as she remains responsible for overseeing the nation's response to a cataclysmic crisis.
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, said that as a scientist, Birx has most damaged her credibility by seeming to dismiss some of the publicly available evidence.
"She's ignored the evidence and gone in the media and said things that are not based in evidence at all and even the most generous understanding of what she's said can't be justified by the data we have," Rasmussen said. "When you do something like that, you're not doing your job competently and it's really difficult to gain the respect of your colleagues when you're all scientists and you've shown such willful disregard for the science."
Birx first emerged as a household name in the early days of the pandemic, appearing at coronavirus news briefings alongside Fauci, an infectious-diseases expert. The duo formed a reassuring team of medical elders - Birx sometimes talked about her children and young granddaughter - who sought to assuage public fears while also offering public health expertise in an administration frequently dismissive of science. Her elegant and colorful scarves prompted their own social media accounts and, more recently, praise from the president.
Unlike Fauci, who raised Trump's ire with frequent contradictions and by eclipsing him in public opinion polls - her relationship with the president was easy and warm. Two former administration officials who watched the two of them interact said she managed the president well, briefing him in terms he understood and often holding his interest longer than other aides.
But more than five months into the pandemic, Trump has grown exhausted by the dismal coronavirus news and just wants the issue to be behind him, the two former officials said, adding that he now associates Birx with the failures.
Administration officials said Birx has privately argued against Trump's push for the reopening of all schools, citing studies that show there could be outbreaks and problems.
In recent weeks, her time in the Oval Office has dropped, officials said, and she is not always part of decision-making meetings led by Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
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In a news conference Monday evening, Trump said that he has "a lot of respect" for Birx and that he thinks Pelosi has treated her "very, very badly."
A senior Trump aide said Trump had a "positive" meeting with Birx later Monday afternoon.
Birx's reputation has been harmed, however, in the public health community where she has spent much of her life. The turning point, several experts said, was when she began effusively praising Trump in interviews.
"He's been so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data," Birx said in a Christian Broadcasting Network interview in late March, praising Trump's "ability to analyze and integrate data."
At the time, Trump was pushing the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, an unproven medical treatment for the coronavirus, and was arguing in favor of reopening the country by Easter despite surging cases across the country.
Another controversial moment came when Birx defended Georgia's reopening in April, which included tattoo parlors and hair salons, where people cannot keep enough distance from one another. Public health officials were dismayed at reports that Birx was questioning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's official coronavirus death count as too high, when nearly all experts believe it is too low.
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"What kind of nefarious spirit possessed the Debbie Birx that AIDS activists have loved and adored for years?" asked Peter Staley, a longtime HIV/AIDS activist. "Where did she go? We no longer recognize her, and it's too late for an exorcism."
Within the administration, several current and former senior officials described Birx as a politically shrewd power player who keeps close tabs on developments in the president's orbit. Her name was at one point floated for Health and Human Services Department secretary.
But some of these same officials also noted that Birx has made enemies within the White House, in part because a growing number of aides believe she takes different positions with different people and because of sharp attacks on some colleagues.
Her allies, meanwhile, argue that Birx - who served as a physician in the Army - respects the chain of command and is more of a team player than Fauci. They say Trump has generally favored her over others, praising her television appearances and charts.
One White House official argued that Birx is in a difficult situation generally, and also likely the recipient of sexism; this person noted that Birx - who sends around a morning email complete with slides outlining her latest models - provides much of the data upon which the rest of the largely male team relies.
Some experts also praised Birx's use of data to explain the state of the outbreak at various points and acknowledged that she has a difficult job balancing the demands of political leaders with public health considerations.
"It's not an easy job to be sharing a podium with political leaders who may say something you don't agree with," said Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "You have to make a choice - do you choose to correct what you just heard, choose a different moment to correct it in a different way? You can see the challenge that she and Dr. Fauci have with trying to clarify things that are said that they don't agree with."
Birx was at a vacation house in Delaware this weekend when White House officials specifically asked her to appear on the Sunday shows. She expected to face difficult questions but was stung by Trump's scathing tweet, in part because it could limit her ability to do her job, according to one person familiar with her reaction.
"If she doesn't have the president's support," said one ally, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment, "where does her power come from?"
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