When Jared Kushner speaks in public, very often he reveals the most dangerous truths about the Trump administration. The latest jaw-dropper came on Tuesday, when the son-in-law and top adviser to President Donald Trump casually cast doubt on whether the next presidential election will absolutely take place, as scheduled, and as mandated by law, on November 3.
Listen closely. His phrasing alone hints at what should be among every American’s worst fears. In an interview with Time magazine, he was asked if he was willing to “commit that the elections will happen on November third.” Kushner’s reply: “I’m not sure I can commit one way or the other, but right now that’s the plan.”
Kushner can’t commit? “Right now” that’s the plan? At best, the statement oozes arrogance, disdain for democracy; at worst ignorance of the law: the US Constitution.
This last — ignorance of the law — is what some found most striking. It was noted by the prominent conservative commentator Bill Kristol in a widely publicized tweet in which he noted Kushner’s “utter lack of understanding of his very subordinate role in our democracy.” (In fact, neither the President nor his staff can postpone the election, even in an emergency, according to a 2004 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.)
Is Kushner ignorant of the law, or did he let us know about the swirl of ideas being batted around in a nervous White House?
This is not the first time the specter of presidential interference with the election has been raised. Last month, in a discussion of actions that could threaten the ability of some Americans to safely vote during the pandemic, the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, told donors at a virtual fundraising event, “Mark my words, I think he is going to try to kick back the election some, come up with some rationale why it can’t be held.”
At the time, President Donald Trump’s campaign spokesman, Tim Murtaugh, rebutted the claim, with a characteristic smear of Biden. He called the claim, “the incoherent, conspiracy theory ramblings of a lost candidate who is out of touch with reality.” Trump himself has said he has no intention of postponing the election.
So why, when the question was put to Kushner, did he refuse to rule it out? Why didn’t he just dismiss the question as absurd? After the social media firestorm that followed Tuesday, Kushner tried to clarify his statement later in the day. Listen to the phrasing of his follow-up statement. “I have not been involved in, nor am I aware of, any discussions about trying to change the date of the presidential election.”
Is there some reason he could not just reassure America: the election will not be postponed? A senior official told CNN that there are no conversations in the White House about altering the date because that’s Congress’ decision.
Can the election be postponed? The experts say it cannot, “No laws passed by Congress have delegated these powers to the president, even in an emergency, so Congress is the only entity that has the power to change the date of the election,” noted Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, in the Washington Post.
The 1875 law that established that Election Day occurs “the Tuesday next after the 1st Monday in November” is derived from congressional legislation, not the Constitution. That means Congress has the power to change it. Could Trump persuade Congress to do that? Republicans in the Senate might go along, but Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, would never permit it.
At least one powerful Republican senator, Rules Committee chairman Roy Blunt, shut down the idea. “We’ve had elections in the middle of the Civil War and in the middle of World War II,” he said, “I can think of no justification for changing the elections.”
The day of the election is not in the Constitution, but that document does establish when the current presidential term ends: January 20, 2021. That’s when the Trump presidency will end, unless he wins reelection.
Rescheduling the elections would indeed be the longest of longshots, but one can see the theoretical appeal for Trump. Delaying elections may or may not help him buy time to pull the economy out of its rut, but discouraging turnout — especially in Democratic-leaning states — could prove more useful.
More than 80,000 Americans have died in a pandemic that surveys show most Americans believe he has mishandled. With 30 million suddenly unemployed and the economy in free fall, the polls show him running behind Biden nationally (though ahead in some key battleground states). There is little doubt Trump will do almost anything he thinks might help him dominate and save his reelection.
When Kushner, exuding unearned authority, explained why he can’t “commit one way or the other,” he was acknowledging that there may be problems for voters to come to the polls in November.
That raises a critical issue. Trump can’t postpone an election, but he may be pondering other options anyway. Already, voters have struggled to cast their vote in some primaries. Trump is transparently working to block mail-in voting efforts, claiming falsely that mailed votes are rife with fraud. That is a lie.
If there is any question that an election can take place in normal fashion in November — and there most certainly is, as the coronavirus sweeps an unpredictable path through the country — the administration and Congress need to give top priority to ensure that mail-in voting can occur smoothly.
American democracy depends on preventing Trump from toying, in any way, with the right of citizens to easily vote on November 3.
Kushner just let us know the administration may consider nothing sacrosanct — not even an assurance that Election Day will go on completely as planned — as it plows toward the end of this catastrophic presidential term.
Editor’s note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.