Sen. Kamala Harris tore into President Donald Trump Wednesday night for his threat to withhold federal funds from states over absentee ballots, warning such an act would be illegal.
“Mr. President, it is a federal crime to withhold money from states with the purpose of interfering with people’s right to vote,” the former California attorney general told MSNBC host Joy Reid.
“So, you may want to talk to your lawyer, Bill Barr, about that,” Harris added, in an apparent swipe at the independence of Attorney General William Barr, whom critics have accused of acting more like the president’s personal attorney than the nation’s top law enforcement official.
On Wednesday morning, Trump said in a tweet that Michigan had sent millions of voters absentee ballots “illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State.”
“I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!” wrote the president, who has railed against efforts to expand mail-in-voting in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The president was referring to Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s announcement on Tuesday that absentee ballot applications – not actual ballots – would be sent to all of the state’s 7.7 million voters, giving them the option to receive a ballot in the mail to vote in the Aug. 4 primary and Nov. 3 general election, rather than going to a polling place.
While it is illegal in Michigan to send absentee ballots to voters who do not formally request them, it is far from clear that there are the same legal hurdles to sending applications for the absentee ballots to registered voters, though it could be challenged in court.
Trump later deleted the initial tweet to clarify he was referring to applications, and not ballots, though that was the only aspect of the tweet he changed.
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“To have this kind of distraction is just ridiculous,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose state is facing a massive flood on top of the coronavirus pandemic, told “CBS This Morning” on Thursday.
“Threatening to take money away from a state that is hurting as bad as we are right now is just scary, and I think something that is unacceptable,” Whitmer said.
The president made a similar threat against Nevada, where Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske has ordered an all mail-in election for the state’s June 9 primary – which has no bearing on the presidential race because Nevada held its Democratic presidential caucus in February, and canceled its Republican presidential caucus.
Cegavske, whose decision was upheld by a federal judge earlier this month, defended the move as “necessary and prudent” in order to “protect the health and safety of voters and election workers,” in a statement responding to the president’s tweet.
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“For over a century, Nevadans, including members of the military, citizens residing outside the state, voters in designated mailing precincts, and voters requesting absentee ballots, have been voting by mail with no evidence of election fraud,” Cegavske said.
“For the President to threaten federal funding in the midst of a pandemic over a state exercising its authority to run elections in a safe and legal manner is inappropriate and outrageous,” said Nevada’s Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in a response to Trump on Twitter.
Trump, who himself votes absentee, has said voting by mail is a “dangerous thing” and “subject to tremendous corruption,” despite a lack of evidence that there is a statistically significant amount of fraud in the five states that conduct their elections entirely by mail.
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In a March 30 “Fox & Friends” interview, Trump also said he feared a shift to vote-by-mail could lead to “levels of voting that – if you ever agreed to it – you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Harris said she believed the latter concern was the primary reason Trump tweeted his threats against states shiting to mail-in ballots.
“He is always in the business of attempting to intimidate, and using his tweets as the method by which he does that,” she said. “But also it’s clear that he’s worried about whether he’s going to win this election.”
Harris, who is on the list of potential running mates for the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, said Trump’s aim was to reduce the number of people voting because he thought it would improve his chances of reelection.
“This is another example of Donald Trump being complicit with an attempt, or even purposely attempting, to suppress the vote in an election.”
Contributing: Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press; The Associated Press