Bill Barr, Tell the President That Only Congress Can Postpone the Election — and Tell Him Now

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Donald Trump has floated the idea of “postponing” the presidential election. Only Congress can change the date of the election. He quickly must be disabused of any thought that he can do it unilaterally, to avert a constitutional crisis. And it is the responsibility of his Attorney General to tell Trump that he cannot postpone the election; the fact is, Trump will listen to no one else.

President Donald Trump raised the idea today of postponing the November election because of the COVID-19 pandemic and his alleged apprehension about widespread voter fraud. And, of course, he did so on Twitter:

“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”

The power to set the dates of presidential elections is vested exclusively in Congress under Article II of the Constitution. Trump’s tweet did not suggest otherwise. As we have seen over and over again, however, it is a mistake to underestimate the extent to which his psychopathology drives his behavior.

Trump’s supporters are spinning his tweet simply as a way to draw attention to concerns with mail-in ballots. Nonsense. Trump is never oblique, never subtle, and he hides his motives in plain sight. He is telling us exactly what he wants to do: Delay the election by hook or by crook.

I have absolutely no doubt that if the man who has become his enabler-in-chief, Attorney General Bill Barr, does not act now to quash the idea, Trump will try to find a way to suspend the election scheduled for November 3rd on his own, without involving Congress. He may not succeed, but he will generate as much chaos as possible by his effort.

Psychiatrists and psychologists have warned us for years about the dangers inherent in Trump’s malignant narcissism, and the lengths to which he might go to protect his fragile ego from the humiliation of losing his bid for re-election. In an earlier post, I pointed out that

Dr. Lance Dodes, a retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, warned of drastic action by Trump to prevent the election in November if he believed that he was going to lose.

“In order to have an excuse for ending democracy, [Trump] is likely to have his own ‘Reichstag Fire’ incident.”

I also have discussed how Trump’s deployment of federal law enforcement officers to Portland was part of a grand design to spark an “insurrection” that he could use to justify the use of the military to “keep order” in American cities. I said that his ultimate dream would be to declare martial law and use it to impede the ability of civil authorities to conduct November’s election.

Of all of the worrisome things that rattle around in his disordered skull, Trump’s fascination with his power as commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military is the most frightening.

When I use the term “grand design” with reference to Trump, I do not intend to imply that it is a well-thought-out plan. He is increasingly incapable of orderly thought processes, and acts on impulses and grandiose fantasies with little if any grounding in reality. To the extent that there was any thought put into his insurrection/martial law idea, Barr supplied it.

In any case, the grand design appears to be collapsing of its own weight. He is pulling the federal law enforcement officers out of Portland, although he makes noises about sending them elsewhere. He knows that the idea of using troops and martial law to suspend the election is fizzling, so he is trying to come up with another one.

Experts also tell us that there is no treatment for Trump’s narcissistic personality disorder, especially given the malignancy of his narcissism. The best we can hope for is to prevent Trump from acting out his mental illness in destructive ways. As with COVID-19, we cannot yet cure it, so we have to try to control and contain it as best as possible.

Controlling Trump’s acting out requires firm and unambiguous limit-setting. Fortunately, it appears that most Republican leaders are putting aside their general sycophancy for the moment to let Trump know that he must give up his idea of postponing the election.

The best that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could muster, however, was to say that the legal determination of whether the president could postpone the election would be up to the Department of Justice. Pompeo is heir apparent to Barr as Trump’s enabler-in-chief, and set the stage for Barr to weigh in.

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Barr told the committee that he had not “studied” the question of whether a president could move the election date.

“I’ve never been asked the question before, I’ve never looked into it.”

As of this writing, Barr has said nothing further in response to Trump’s tweet.

Barr must put the question to rest, and he must do so publicly. He must state as a matter of public record that a president has absolutely no power to postpone the date of the presidential election set by Congress. Only Barr can nip Trump’s dangerous fantasy in the bud and prevent a constitutional crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Civil War.

I have some confidence that Barr will do so. It was a tired-looking Barr who testified before Congress this week; he looks like he is growing weary of the fight. It will not be his conscience that gets to him — I am not sure that he has one, based on his performance. But I doubt that he wants to bear the fallout from enabling Trump on this particular, explosive issue.

If Barr does anything other than end the debate decisively, he will cement his reputation as an enemy of American democracy. The rest of his life will be a living hell, spent under attack in congressional hearings, disbarment proceedings, etc. He already faces an unpleasant future post-Trump, but I suspect that there is a limit to the ignominy that he wants to endure in his twilight years.

It is sad when you have to depend on the self-interest of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer rather than on his integrity. But things are what they are at this moment in our history.

Retired lawyer, former prosecutor, former social worker, Army vet — former lots of things. Commentary published in Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and elsewhere.

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