President Trump threatened to withhold federal aid from Michigan and Nevada on Wednesday if the two battleground states move ahead with plans to expand vote-by-mail options because of the coronavirus crisis, a move the president warned will lead to voter fraud.
At the same time, the Republican National Committee urged Nevada’s attorney general to investigate a suspected “backroom deal” on voting by mail between national Democratic Party leaders and Democratic commissioners of Clark County, where thousands of ballots reportedly have been sent to inactive voters.
Trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden in Michigan polls, the president objected to the announcement by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, that all 7.7 million registered voters in the state will receive an application to vote by mail in the August primary and the November general election. She cited public health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The president erroneously said in a Twitter posting that Ms. Benson was sending absentee ballots instead of applications. He later corrected his tweet.
“This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State,” the president tweeted. “I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”
Mr. Trump tagged Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and Russ Vought, acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, in his tweet.
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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said the president’s comments were “disheartening” and that she will aggressively seek federal assistance for a “500 year” flood this week when two dams were breached.
“To see Twitter this morning and to see rhetoric like that is disheartening,” she said.
In a meeting with the governors of Arkansas and Kansas, the president said he wasn’t sure whether withholding federal aid would be necessary but insisted: “Mail-in ballots are a very dangerous thing. They’re the subject of massive fraud.
“They harvest, I guess the word is harvest them,” he said of mail-in ballots.
Ms. Benson responded in a tweet that her office “sent applications, not ballots. Just like my GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia.”
“By mailing applications, we have ensured that no Michigander has to choose between their health and their right to vote,” she said.
Trump campaign officials said Ms. Benson doesn’t have the legal authority to send absentee ballot applications to all voters.
The president was clashing with Ms. Whitmer’s administration a day before he was scheduled to visit Michigan, which he narrowly won in the 2016 election. Mr. Trump is set to travel to Ypsilanti, where he will tour a Ford factory that has shifted to production of ventilators and personal protective equipment to help fight the coronavirus outbreak.
The president also took a dig at Ms. Whitmer’s lockdown orders, which have fomented waves of protests.
“We have sent our best Military & @FEMA Teams, already there,” he said. “Governor must now ‘set you free’ to help. Will be with you soon!”
Mr. Trump said he probably will return to the state to tour the flood damage.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany wouldn’t say what funding the president might withhold. She said the president’s tweet was meant to alert administration officials in charge of budgeting decisions “about his concerns with trillions of dollars going to the states, and his noted concerns about a lot of fraud that is potentially at play when you have mass mail-in voting.”
She pointed to a report in 2005 by the bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, headed by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, that said, “Absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud.”
Sherikia Hawkins, a Democratic city clerk in Southfield, Michigan, who had been honored by the state party for her work, was charged this week with multiple felonies related to discrepancies in absentee ballots for the 2018 elections. The charges included forging public documents and misconduct in office.
Half of Americans say they would vote by mail if their state allows it, according to a PBS/NPR/Marist Institute poll released Wednesday. More than 23% voted by mail or absentee ballot in the 2016 general election.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, called on the president to wear a face mask during his visit to the factory. She said it’s Ford policy and that the president has “a social and moral responsibility to take reasonable precautions to prevent further spread of the virus.”
But Erik Kiilunen, a Michigan businessman leading a rebellion against the governor’s stay-at-home orders, said of the president’s visit, “I hope he doesn’t wear a mask.”
“The whole world is overreacting to something that’s, in my opinion, less deadly than the flu,” Mr. Kiilunen said in an interview. “I started doing the math. You take the total people dead in the state of Michigan from COVID — it’s 5,017. We’ve got 10 million residents, and the [mortality rate] is .005%. We’re letting ‘perfect’ get in the way of the good.”
Mr. Kiilunen, who owns a contracting business in Ahmeek in the state’s upper peninsula, started agitating last month against Ms. Whitmer’s restrictions on businesses. His protest involves a GoFundMe page and statewide movement including billboards proclaiming “All Business Is Essential.”
He is defying the governor’s business restrictions and is encouraging others to do the same.
“I’ve really dedicated the last three weeks of my life to trying to get Michigan to wake up,” Mr. Kiilunen said. “It’s just insanity what’s going on here. It’s Orwellian right now.”
The governor announced this week that bars, restaurants and some stores in the upper peninsula and parts of the lower peninsula could open with limited capacity on Friday. Other restrictions will remain until at least next week.
On the issue of vote-by-mail, the president also criticized Nevada, which is sending absentee ballots to all active registered voters for the state’s June 9 primary.
“State of Nevada ‘thinks’ that they can send out illegal vote by mail ballots, creating a great Voter Fraud scenario for the State and the U.S. They can’t! If they do, ‘I think’ I can hold up funds to the State. Sorry, but you must not cheat in elections,” the president said.
Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, announced in March that the state’s June 9 primary would be conducted entirely by mail. This month, county election officials began sending absentee ballots to all active registered voters.
Other states are expanding vote-by-mail options as well so voters aren’t required to go to the polls in person. Mr. Trump has been wary of those efforts, saying voting by mail is prone to fraud.
Ms. Whitmer and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada Democrat, have been mentioned as possible vice presidential picks for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden.
In a letter Wednesday to Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and the state Republican Party demanded an investigation into “troubling events in Clark County that may have violated Nevada’s open public meeting and election laws.”
The Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the liberal Priorities USA dropped a court request for immediate relief in a lawsuit against Clark County after local officials agreed to changes in the June primary including sending ballots to inactive voters.
The RNC accused Democrats of “seizing on the coronavirus pandemic in an attempt to push through their long-sought partisan election agenda.”
“The Democrat National Committee and other liberal groups have sued the Nevada secretary of state to willfully ignore and violate Nevada election law by suspending prosecution of ballot harvesters, sending ballots to all inactive voters, suspending verification procedures for absentee ballots such as signature matching, and demanding more than one in-person voting center, despite the state’s all-mail order for the June 9 primary,” the RNC said. “This is particularly troubling as media reports have confirmed that an excess of ballots sent to inactive voters are now littering Las Vegas’s streets, piling up in trash cans and apartment complexes, leaving Nevada’s elections open and vulnerable to fraud.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, criticized Mr. Trump for threatening to withhold federal funds from states that allow absentee voting.
“It’s unconscionable that President Trump would threaten to withhold funding from certain states that are making it easier for people to exercise their right to vote during this pandemic,” she said. “States have considerable discretion in determining how their elections will be conducted. California, like many other states, has allowed votes to be cast by mail for nearly 60 years. Despite false claims and debunked conspiracy theories, there has not been widespread voter fraud.”
She said voting rights “should be strengthened, not weakened, during this pandemic.”
“Republican and Democratic governors should be working to ensure every voter has the opportunity to safely, securely and easily cast a ballot in November, and they shouldn’t be threatened for doing so,” she said.