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An ‘October surprise’ is coming. Trump is making sure of that

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death was not the only electoral upset we’ll see in the coming weeks. And one particular surprise might be delivered by the very people Trump made sure got seats in the Supreme Court

John T. Bennett
Washington DC
Friday 25 September 2020 12:29 BST
Donald Trump warns Democrats he might 'pack' Supreme Court if GOP holds White House and Senate

No, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death was not the “October surprise” of this presidential election cycle. It’s true that the late justice’s passing, removing a liberal vote from the dais that soon will be replaced for decades by a conservative one, already has changed the conversation. But by how much, really?

One poll found 12 percent of Democratic voters are more motivated to vote now than they were before the possibility of a 6-3 rightward bend on the highest court in the land became a virtual lock. Despite some breathless reports about Democrats being more fired up, look at that number again.

Twelve is only 3 percent higher than the result being a single-digit motivation increase, and this correspondent always adjusts polls to factor in the margin or error, which typically lands around the 3 percent mark. 

So when this cynic, no realist, examined that survey, my first reaction was: “That’s all? Twelve percent?”

There has been an outpouring of grief and sadness since the Brooklyn-born justice passed away, tributes befitting a true political and cultural icon who helped create more equitable workplaces for women, among other achievements. But one could assume her death will have a larger cultural impact than a political one, at least in our current climate. 

Allow me to be more clear: In this Donald Trump-centric climate, everything is about the president. If it isn’t right now, wait five minutes for him to tweet about it. Or get ready for “Chopper Talk” as he shouts answers to masked reporters’ muffled questions over the hum of Marine One’s idling engines on the White House’s South Lawn. Or buckle up for his next evening “coronavirus briefing” or campaign rally. No topic or individual or group is ever truly safe from Trump.

There were ample warning signs that Ginsburg had again fallen ill. A body can only take so much, no matter the fighting spirit and still-sharp intellect of the mind inside. There were reasons to suspect, after warding off so many serious health scares, her latest at 87 might be the final straw. 

But, make no mistake, the single reason Ginsburg’s passing is not the 2020 “October surprise” is Donald John Trump. Period.

He showed us why on Tuesday evening, when Playboy magazine White House correspondent and columnist Brian Karem asked the president, should he lose to Democratic nominee Joe Biden, if he would accept the results of November’s election and ensure a peaceful transition to the 46th commander-in-chief.

“Well,” Trump said, “we’re going to have to see what happens.”

“I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster and…” he continued until Karem tried again.

“We want to have... Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very trans…” Trump said, appearing to catch himself before he did something he almost never does: Admit he might lose. That’s not a The Donald thing to do — it shows weakness to his base. And if Trump has a superpower or true gift, it is the mindset he has nurtured among his core supporters: To them, he is the strongest and most righteous American leader since Ronald Reagan, and maybe even “The Gipper” was a wilting flower compared to “Mr America First.”

“We’ll have a very peaceful…” he stopped again, unable to say the words. “There won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation. The ballots are out of control.”

The sitting President of the United States is attacking the integrity of the election, and all evidence suggests he is preparing to legally challenge ballots in key swing states that are mailed in as a result of the coronavirus pandemic he could have done more to stifle and defeat.

With state and local officials about to send out ballots that, unlike the absentee ballot process, do not require any verification, Trump’s Tuesday night comments amounted to telegraphing his plan. But whatever action he takes would come after November 3rd, which is after October has come and gone.

With the president speaking more and more into live microphones as he ramps up his campaign stops at regional airports in those handful of ultra-competitive states, he showed us Tuesday night there could be many October surprises.

But don’t expect the campaigner-in-chief to light the fuses of those potentially election-changing bombs while speaking to a rowdy crowd of loyalists closely packed around a stage at an airport barely big enough for the small version of Air Force One. 

Trump ignored and shunned the James Brady Briefing Room just steps from the Oval Office for three years. Then so did two of his press secretaries, Stephanie Grisham and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. It became an odd hybrid of media storage area and makeshift workspace. It smelled of sweat, lunch and coffee many days. Then came the coronavirus, and a need for him to look and sound presidential.

But the room has become his kryptonite. It’s not the room, though, of course: It’s the questions. He can’t resist stoking tensions and saying anything he can to signal that perceived strength to his base – if he is fighting a media they believe is in bed with Democrats, he calculates they are more likely to go vote in swing states where he needs a large conservative turnout.

The dynamic between Trump and his loyalists resembles a bad relationship on its best days and a toxic one on its worst. He has to take the most extreme positions, including raising the prospect – once you play out the scenario he created Tuesday night – that a President Joe Biden’s first order could be to remove a trespassing Citizen Donald Trump from the executive mansion. Or arrest him if he won’t leave.

But a Trump-uttered October surprise might be of his own making, a gaffe so large that is again raises questions about his fitness for the highest office in the land. Remember the night he advised Americans to inject household cleaners into their bodies to kill or protect them from Covid-19 while standing behind the room’s lectern? 

As the band Green Day once sang, "wake me up when September ends." That is when we could get a string of October surprises from a president who knows he cannot secure a second term without talking. Some have suggested his political career is a New York con-job. Whatever you call it, it is based on him talking. And when he does in the presence of the White House press corps, expect a surprise. Then another. Then another. 

His repeated bombshells and chaos-making only further desensitizes us all. It rounds out our formerly shocked edges, and helps make the boundary-pushing actions that sometimes follow seem almost in bounds. This has been his approach for five years. And he’s trying to do it again to challenge what should be a very close election. 

Remember that two of the conservative justices Trump put on the Supreme Court (Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh) – which he predicted Thursday likely will have to decide the election – have bucked him this year on high-profile cases. Chief Justice John Roberts, also appointed by a GOP president, has done so several times. Perhaps the election’s real surprise will come in November or December. And perhaps it is those “Trump justices" who will deliver it.  

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