Trump, allies are laying the groundwork to contest potential election loss

By Nathan Layne and Alexandra Ulmer

(Reuters) – Donald Trump and his allies are laying the groundwork to contest a potential loss in November, stoking doubts about the election’s legitimacy even as opinion polls show the Republican presidential candidate leading in battleground states.

In recent interviews, Trump has refused to commit to accepting the election results. At his rallies, he has portrayed Democrats as cheaters, called mail-in ballots corrupt and urged supporters to vote in such large numbers to render the election “too big to rig.”

He also backed a new Republican-sponsored bill aimed at keeping foreigners from voting, seeking to link his false election fraud claims with the issue of illegal immigration, even though voting by non-citizens is already unlawful and studies show it is exceedingly rare.

Trump’s tactics are an intensified version of the strategy he used during the 2020 election, when his baseless voter fraud claims inspired his supporters to assault the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an attempt to overturn his election defeat.

Rather than being cowed by looming criminal trials over his conduct in the wake of the 2020 election, Trump is repeating the falsehoods that polls show resonate with his supporters while readying the legal firepower needed to launch a similar challenge to the validity of the vote this year.

His critics worry he is setting the stage for another turbulent post-election period by conditioning his supporters to once again believe the system is rigged against him. Trump has refused to rule out the potential for violence after November’s election, telling Time magazine in April in response to a question about that prospect: “If we don’t win, you know, it depends.”

Trump has instructed the Republican National Committee, now led by his daughter-in-law and a close ally, to prioritize building out a team of poll watchers and lawyers to monitor the vote and litigate potential post-election challenges, according to a person familiar with the matter. As part of that effort, the RNC announced in April that it will recruit 100,000 volunteers and attorneys – double the figure promised during the 2020 cycle. It called the effort “the most extensive and monumental election integrity program in the nation’s history.”

RNC lawyers already have filed dozens of lawsuits since last year aimed at limiting the window for counting mail-in ballots and other voting rules seen as giving Democrats an advantage.

“We are working around the clock to ensure it is easy to vote and hard to cheat,” an RNC spokesperson said.

Democrats have criticized the recruitment plan as unrealistic and an attempt to intimidate voters, while also building up a legal team.

President Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic rival in the Nov. 5 election, called the prospect of Trump not honoring the election results “dangerous.”

“This is absolutely the same play book that he ran before the 2020 election,” said Olivia Troye, a former aide to Vice President Mike Pence who became a vocal critic of Trump. “The potential for anger, division, political violence — all of that groundwork is being laid out again.”

A spokesperson for Trump rejected such concerns without directly addressing Reuters’ questions about the prospect of Trump contesting election results or the specter of political violence.

“President Trump has always advocated for free and fair elections where every legal vote is counted and any instance of fraud is rooted out,” said Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung. “Democrats are the real existential threat to democracy.”

STIRRING ELECTION FEARS

Some of Trump’s most prominent allies are helping plant seeds of doubt about the election in the minds of his supporters.

Congress’s top Republican, House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson, last week unveiled the bill aimed at prohibiting noncitizens from voting in federal elections. The legislation, likely to be dead on arrival in the Democratic-led Senate, was a clear attempt to aid the Trump campaign, which has falsely claimed Democrats are allowing migrants into the country to boost their electoral support.

Earlier this month, two of Trump’s potential running mates – Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum – declined in TV interviews to commit to accepting the results in November.

Another, Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, said in an interview with CNN on Sunday that he would honor the outcome if the election was “free and fair” but said Republicans should be ready to pursue any problems.

One Republican donor told Reuters he was worried the RNC was putting too much emphasis on so-called election integrity initiatives over get-out-the-vote efforts where the party has fallen behind Democrats.

In the midst of a staff overhaul at the RNC earlier this year, the new leadership asked some employees whether they believed the 2020 election was stolen, in what the employees viewed as a kind of litmus test, a person familiar with the questions said.

RNC officials have denied using litmus tests and said questions were asked to test critical thinking about alleged problems with voting in battleground states in 2020.

The loudest voice on the issue is Trump’s. Far from being deterred by the two criminal cases he faces for his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election, Trump has urged his supporters to “go into” Democratic-run cities to “guard the vote” and portrayed 2024 as the “final battle” for his base.

Opinion polls point to a very close race against Biden, with some surveys giving Trump an edge in the seven swing states expected to determine the election’s outcome.

At a rally on Saturday in Wildwood, New Jersey, Trump said the only thing Biden was good at was cheating on elections and called Democrats fascists while promising he was “not going to allow them to rig the presidential election in 2024.”

For many of his supporters, Trump’s messages go beyond mere rhetoric and are taken literally, said Tim Heaphy, the lead investigator on the House committee that conducted a deep probe into the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

A majority of Republican voters believe Trump was robbed of a second White House term due to systemic voter fraud, Reuters/Ipsos polling shows.

“So when he talks about cheaters and he talks about a rigged election, that is influential,” said Heaphy, a partner at law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher. “As we saw on Jan. 6, there are people out there that will act upon his words.”

Former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who served in Trump’s White House but is now one of his fiercest critics, thinks it will be harder for Trump to mount a challenge to the 2024 results.

Unlike in 2020, he will not be the sitting president with the government at his disposal. And after dozens of Trump’s allies were indicted for trying to overturn his loss, Bolton says he believes others will be less inclined to do the same this time around.

Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans who served on the committee to investigate the Capitol attack, said he was still worried about the possibility that Trump’s allies would try to help him overturn a loss, stoking chaos or violence.

“We are in a dangerous moment,” said Kinzinger, who retired from Congress last year.

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Nathan Layne, additional reporting by David Morgan, writing by Nathan Layne; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Claudia Parsons)

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