Election 2020

Trump’s ‘Most Dishonest’ Speech Lays Out Assault on the U.S. Election

The president railed against “illegal votes” and “suppression polls” he thinks helped steal the election from him.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

U.S. President Donald Trump leaves after addressing the press at the White House in Washington on Nov. 5.
U.S. President Donald Trump leaves after addressing the press at the White House in Washington on Nov. 5. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

On Thursday evening, as votes were still being tallied in battleground states, U.S. President Donald Trump took to the podium at the White House to give a speech that was an incendiary mix of half-truths and outright lies as he sought to undermine the integrity of the electoral process. 

Even by Trump’s standards, it was a crossing-the-Rubicon sort of moment, with the nation on a knife-edge, National Guard units on standby, storefronts boarded up, and the potential for violent unrest simmering in cities across the country. Police arrested two men from Virginia over an alleged plot to attack the Pennsylvania election center where votes are being tallied. Several networks, including NPR, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNBC, cut their broadcasts short with some opting instead to fact-check the president’s statements. 

I’ve read or watched all of Trump’s speeches since 2016. This is the most dishonest speech he has ever given,” CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale tweeted

Below we unpack some of the most incorrect claims Trump made.

Trump began by falsely declaring victory, claiming, “If you count the legal votes, I easily win.” 

At the time of his speech, no winner had emerged, but Biden has secured more than 4 million more votes than Trump so far, the most votes ever won by a U.S. presidential candidate. By Friday morning, Biden had squeaked ahead in Pennsylvania, which, if he wins it, will secure him enough Electoral College votes to win the election.

On Thursday, the Trump campaign announced it was filing a lawsuit in Nevada alleging that “illegal votes” had been cast on behalf of dead people and by people no longer resident in the state. It’s not clear what evidence, if any, the campaign has to back up its claim. The Trump legal team has churned out a flurry of legal challenges over the past two days, but legal experts say they have little substance and are skeptical that they could meaningfully impact election results. 

Trump also railed against “late” votes being counted, a target of his and the Republican Party since before Election Day. In reality, almost two dozen states have provisions that allow absentee ballots to be counted after Nov. 3, so long as they were postmarked on or before Election Day. In Washington state, ballots that arrive up to 20 days after the election will be counted.

But Republicans have turned their focus to Pennsylvania, with its crucial 20 electoral votes. Republicans fought to ensure that the state could not process mail-in votes ahead of time, something other states did to expedite reporting. In October, the Pennsylvania Republican Party asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether the extended deadline for counting ballots should be allowed. The court could revisit the issue after the election, but legal experts note that the court would probably be cautious about wading into a bitter political fight. 

“[Chief] Justice [John] Roberts is perceived to be very protective of the court’s institutional reputation as an independent branch of the government,” said Wendy Weiser, the vice president of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

The delayed counting of mail-in ballots led to one of Trump’s other false claims: “We were winning in all the key locations by a lot, actually. And then our numbers started miraculously getting whittled away in secret.”

As counting began, Trump did in fact show a strong lead in a number of key states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, but experts described it as a “red mirage.” More Republicans turned out for in-person voting, while more Democrats opted to vote by mail during a deadly pandemic, and it takes longer to tally those mail-in ballots. And the votes aren’t being counted in secret, either: All vote tabulations are carefully monitored, and Republican officials are watching the vote count in Pennsylvania. The count is also being livestreamed online. 

Trump also claimed that “media polling was election interference in the truest sense,” describing preelection polls that showed Biden with a lead in many key states as “suppression polls.” Most pollsters do seem to have overestimated Biden’s lead—especially in some states like Wisconsin—and the industry as a whole will face a reckoning after also failing to project Trump’s narrow win in 2016. But polls are a staple of election season in countless countries around the world.

Trump further claimed that “the voting apparatus of those states are run in all cases by Democrats.” In reality, key electoral roles in those states, including the secretaries of state in Nevada and Georgia, are held by Republicans. 

In all, Trump painted a dark picture of the electoral landscape—one that he portrayed as marred by corruption, vote-rigging, and plots against him—but it wasn’t an accurate picture. In an almost 17-minute speech, Trump managed to make over a dozen false or deeply misleading statements.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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