Senate Republicans do the old dance around Trump and racism, while Biden presses his case in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Plus, a Q. and A. with Jim Rutenberg about his explosive voter-suppression investigation. It’s Thursday, and this is your politics tip sheet. Sign up here to get On Politics in your inbox every weekday.
Where things stand
President Trump’s debate performance on Tuesday has done nothing to quiet the fears among his opponents that he may try to suppress the true outcome of the election, as he stopped barely short of encouraging his supporters to take up arms on his behalf.
“Proud Boys — stand back and stand by,” he said in the most inflammatory moment of the debate, apparently offering a nod to a far-right extremist group. Later in the debate, he refused to say that he would accept the election’s official results as legitimate.
Senate Republicans sought to distance themselves from the “Proud Boys” comment, even as they essentially pleaded with the president to walk it back. Tim Scott, the chamber’s only Black Republican, said he thought Trump had probably “misspoke,” and said “he should correct it.”
Trump eventually gave reporters the answer senators were looking for, in a pattern that has grown familiar: He reluctantly walked back comments seeming to defend or endorse extremists only after a full news cycle had played out.
“I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” he said Wednesday as he left the White House. “I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”
As my colleague Lisa Lerer wrote in yesterday morning’s newsletter, the big loser of the debate was you — all of us, really — the viewers of that chaotic, painful spectacle. But if there was a winner Tuesday night, it was clearly Joe Biden, at least according to a batch of snap polls conducted after the event.
CNN’s poll found that by roughly two to one, those who had watched (a group whose makeup included slightly more Democrats than Republicans) saw Biden as the winner.
Women and people of color both started out the evening expecting Biden to outperform Trump, and after the debate they saw him as the winner with about the same frequency.
But for white voters and male voters, groups considerably more inclined to see the president favorably, it was a different story. Those voters started the night about evenly split on whom they expected to win. But by the end of the debate, less than one-third of either group said the president had won.
Biden was quickly back on the trail yesterday, using a train tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania — two battlegrounds where he has built a slight but consistent polling lead — to pin a target on areas Trump won four years ago.
In Biden’s busiest day of campaigning in months, he began with a speech at the Amtrak station in Cleveland, flanked by a teacher whose husband had worked at the General Motors plant in rural Lordstown, Ohio, before it closed.
Trump headed to Minnesota yesterday, and he’s planning to hold two large outdoor rallies in Wisconsin this weekend — even though the White House coronavirus task force recently put Wisconsin on a list of “red zone” states, warning that until case rates went down, strict social distancing should be embraced “to the maximal degree possible.”
Photo of the day
Joe Biden left Cleveland during his train tour yesterday.
Jim Rutenberg discusses his investigation into the G.O.P.’s long history of vote suppression.
If you haven’t yet seen Jim Rutenberg’s thorough, powerfully written New York Times Magazine investigation into the Republican Party’s efforts to suppress voting and strike people from voter rolls across the country, it’s worth reading right now.
Read on for our interview with Jim about what he learned while reporting the story.
Hi Jim. For this investigation — which is pretty devastating — you spoke to over 100 people and pored through thousands of pages of documents. Voter suppression is a topic you’ve covered a lot over the years, but how long did you spend on this article in particular? And did you have any revelatory breakthroughs in the process you can tell readers about?
I basically spent five months on this story, four of them pretty much full time, just diving into court records and government documents and talking to people — and talking and talking and talking.
What most surprised me was the continuity of the players and the breadth of the effort to prove that voter fraud is so widespread that it’s a threat to the fabric of the democracy when it simply is not. Everywhere I looked, there was someone who was involved in some other, earlier effort involved in pushing this voter-fraud idea to gain partisan advantage, from the pre-Trump era.
Election 2020 ›
What You Need to Know About Voting
- How to Vote: Many voting rules have changed this year, making it a little trickier to figure out how to cast your ballot. Here’s a state-by-state guide to make sure your vote is counted.
- Three Main Ways to Vote: We may be in the midst of a pandemic, but whether you vote in person on Election Day, a few weeks early, or prefer to mail in your ballot this year, it can still be a straightforward process.
- Do You Still Have Time?: Voters in 35 states can request ballots so close to Election Day that it may not be feasible for their ballots to be mailed to them and sent back to election officials in time to be counted. Here’s a list of states where it’s risky to procrastinate.
- Fact-Checking the Falsehoods: Voters are facing a deluge of misinformation about voting by mail, some prompted by the president. Here’s the truth about absentee ballots.
But then there is the level to which Trump jumped on the bandwagon and directed the full resources of the federal government to get behind the effort — touching the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, the Postal Service and even, it would seem, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. My eyes popped out of my head when I learned that the C.D.C. had quietly dropped its clear endorsement of mail-in ballots in the summer.
As you describe it, the never-completed recount in Florida in 2000 — when supporters of George W. Bush led the so-called Brooks Brothers riot, helping to prevent a number of ballots in Miami-Dade County from ever being counted — was a kind of turning point in the modern era of voter-fraud politics. What did that incident show to Republican operatives, in terms of what might be possible when it comes to using fraud claims as a political tool?
I’d always been fascinated with the Brooks Brothers riot, how a bunch of Republican operatives in pleated khakis stormed the Miami-Dade counting room and actually managed to stop canvassers from tallying votes that had not been registered — votes that would have, on balance, gone to Al Gore over Bush.
As I started reporting this story, I went back to the old clips and video and noticed what they were chanting: “Stop the fraud.” They were effectively arguing that the counting board, which had moved to a more private room to do its work, was hiding because it was committing fraud. There was no evidence whatsoever to support the charge. It was made up. The board stopped counting and didn’t pick it back up before the Supreme Court weighed in and Bush was named the winner (his margin was 537 votes).
A lot of factors were involved in Bush’s win. But the Brooks Brothers riot had an important lesson in it — you can do a lot in the name of fraud in a chaotic, contested-election situation, which we may very well be headed for this year; it can very well help determine the outcome of an election.
As you note, the coronavirus has introduced a huge X factor into the election process. What can we learn from Wisconsin in particular, where a fight over mail-in voting played out in the primary this spring?
The coronavirus has presented huge challenges to Trump’s re-election, obviously. But it has also given him new opportunities to exert pressure on the voting system.
The Wisconsin election in the spring showed how. With Covid cases surging, much of the vote moved to the mail, where more Democrats voted than Republicans in the big race in the spring, for the State Supreme Court. Unfortunately, tens of thousands of mail-in votes went unregistered or uncounted because they didn’t get delivered on time, coming in after delivery deadlines. So it showed that the mail-in vote is seriously dependent on speedy mail delivery.
The speed of mail delivery rests with the Postal Service. As it happens, that is now run by an ardent Trump supporter, Louis DeJoy. Policies that came into being during his tenure resulted in slower mail, a concern for Democrats who see the Postal Service as abetting Trump’s attacks on mail-in balloting.
The Postal Service and the president say Trump isn’t involved any decisions about mail delivery. But Democrats and civil rights lawyers are watching it carefully. There’s more, still, but you’ll have to read the story.
New York Times Events
Hillary Clinton gets dramatic
Readers of this newsletter know Hillary Clinton for many reasons. But they may not be aware that she is a lifelong theater fan who, in the wake of the 2016 election, has seen 39 plays and musicals in New York. Mrs. Clinton talked with our theater reporter, Michael Paulson, about seeking solace in the theater after her defeat in the last presidential election, and about why she won’t see shows in which she is a character.
The interview is part of “Offstage,” a digital series about theater during the pandemic, and it streams on Thursday, Oct. 1, at 7 p.m. Eastern. It’s free, and you can R.S.V.P. here.