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Trump Questions Election Again After White House Walked Back His Earlier Remarks

At a news conference on Sept. 23, President Trump declined to promise a peaceful transfer of power after the November election.
Evan Vucci
At a news conference on Sept. 23, President Trump declined to promise a peaceful transfer of power after the November election.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others rebuked President Trump's equivocation about whether he might transfer power peacefully against a backdrop of uncertainty about the ongoing election.

No votes have been counted in the election of 2020 but a battle already is raging over the integrity of the tally and the process that will follow.

President Trump suggested he might not accept the election results if Democratic nominee Joe Biden is declared the winner.

"We're going to have to see what happens. You know that," he said on Wednesday evening in response to a question about whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

"I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster," Trump said, once again pushing his unsubstantiated claimsabout mail-in ballot fraud.

Shortly after his remarks, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, tweeted his vehement disapproval: "Fundamental to democracy is the peaceful transition of power; without that, there is Belarus. Any suggestion that a president might not respect this Constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable."

Other top Republicans followed suit Thursday morning. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrote: "there will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792."

The third-ranking House Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., also shared her rejection of Trump's remarks, writing, "The peaceful transfer of power is enshrined in our Constitution and fundamental to the survival of our Republic. America's leaders swear an oath to the Constitution. We will uphold that oath."

Also pushing back was Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeting, "As we have done for over two centuries we will have a legitimate & fair election."

Opponents flabbergasted

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Democrats' nominee and Trump's challenger, told reporters on Wednesday he was both vexed and worried about the president's remarks.

"What country are we in?" Biden said. "I'm being facetious ... Look, he says the most irrational things. I don't know what to say."

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a close Biden surrogate, told NPR's Steve Inskeep on Thursday that he thought Trump's remarks should be taken seriously.

"When a head of state anywhere in the world with authoritarian tendencies tells you they intend to do something outrageous and not an accept a peaceful transition after an election ... believe them," Coons said.

Backdrop of uncertainty

Trump's remarks on Wednesday followed months' worth of rhetoric casting doubts on the integrity of American elections, delivered during a time when U.S. government officials say they're also being targeted by foreign enemies.

U.S. intelligence officials warned this week how closely foreign powers are watching the political environment within the United States and about possible schemes to raise doubts about the results of the election.

"Foreign actors and cybercriminals could create new websites, change existing websites, and create or share corresponding social media content to spread false information in an attempt to discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions," read one announcement from the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Because of the increased use of mail-in ballots this cycle, the announcement explained, foreign actors or cybercriminals could use the additional time required to certify and announce election results by "disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections' illegitimacy."

Continued the announcement: "The public should also be aware that if foreign actors or cyber criminals were able to successfully change an election-related website, the underlying data and internal systems would remain uncompromised."

In other words, even if a county faithfully and correctly tabulated a result for Candidate X, an attacker could try to make voters believe, falsely, that Candidate Y won. Untangling those accounts from the reality might take hours, days or more.

Local governments could work combat this and strengthen voters' confidence by solely using websites that end in .gov. Domains ending in .com or .org could be used by bad actors to pose as official websites to defraud the public.

But cyberspecialists say many counties aren't taking that step.

Voting and results themselves likely safe

In a subsequent announcementon Thursday, the FBI and CISA said there has been no reporting to indicate any cyber activity by bad actors has prevented Americans from casting a ballot or changing actual vote tallies.

"However, even if actors did achieve such an impact, the public should be aware that election officials have multiple safeguards and plans in place—such as provisional ballots to ensure registered voters can cast ballots, paper backups, and backup pollbooks—to limit the impact and recover from a cyber incident with minimal disruption to voting," the announcement said.

Chris Krebs, the director of CISA, has stressed the importance of recognizing that election results may take some time to count and that patience while waiting for them "goes a long way."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.