WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has floated the unconstitutional idea of delaying the Nov. 3 election. His administration violated a judge's order on the 2020 census and could be held in contempt. Another court ruled that he illegally sidestepped Congress to find billions for his border wall.
In ways large and small, in multiple corners of the government, the president has demonstrated a willingness to push the boundaries of federal law, if not outright flout them. And in the heat of a presidential campaign, that track record only adds to anxiety about whether Trump will abide by the results of the election.
“When the president talks about being the law-and-order candidate, it’s clear that when he says the word ‘law’ he means the laws he personally cares about enforcing,” said Liz Hempowicz, public policy director at the private Project On Government Oversight. “That’s not how a law-and-order system works. You can’t pick and choose. It’s just a complete breakdown of our democratic systems happening in front of our eyes.”
Trump has already suggested the election will be rigged, and he has pointedly declined to promise a peaceful transfer of power if he loses. He jokes about staying in office beyond two terms, prompting supporters in Atlanta last week to chant “12 more years!”
But it's no joke to critics who see a callous attitude toward the laws he claims to uphold. They point to a series of instances in which Trump or officials in his administration have violated the spirit of the law, ignored it or made end runs around statutes to implement his policies.
“We are used to presidents bowing to a court determination, bowing to a finding by an inspector general ... but if the president refuses to do that, what is the mechanism to hold him and his administration accountable?” asked Trevor Potter, president of the private Campaign Legal Center.
Trump's defenders say such concerns are overblown.
David Rivkin Jr., a constitutional lawyer who served in the White House counsel’s office and the Justice Department in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, sees no cause for alarm when it comes to Trump abiding by the election results.
“There is every reason to believe that he would use only lawful means to contest the electoral outcome, if a situation arises where the outcome is contestable,” he said by email.
Trump has already telegraphed that he’s expecting the election to be determined in the courts. He quickly nominated Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a move that many Republicans hope will help deliver a quick and decisive end to potential election litigation.
But Trump has also raised a multitude of doubts and objections about whether the election will be fair, and tossed out his own suggestions that could well contribute to confusion.
He urged people in North Carolina to vote twice, which is a felony. The president said later he was only suggesting that voters check to make sure their mail-in votes had been counted by trying to vote again in-person. But some states do not even tally mail-in ballots until the polls close on Election Day.
Trump also recently suggested that his supporters go to polling places in Philadelphia, which has a heavily minority population, but if they interfere with voting, that could violate state law. If supporters tried to intimidate or keep a person from voting, they could be found in violation of the Civil Rights Act or the Ku Klux Klan Act, Potter said.
In a move that dovetails with the Trump administration’s claim that irregular voting will skew the election, a U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania last week sent out a press release about an investigation into nine ballots — some for Trump — that were found in a trash can. That raised eyebrows because Justice Department officials typically do not reveal details about ongoing criminal investigations, especially ones linked to the election or a particular political party.
Beyond election law, government watchdog groups have been tracking a raft of other examples where they allege that Trump is flouting laws.
There’s ongoing drama over the Commerce Department’s violation of a federal judge’s order when it chose Oct. 5, 2020, as the date to end the census, even after U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh had issued an injunction allowing the nation’s head count to continue through October.
But Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross decided to end the count early anyway. The judge late Thursday said in a new order that the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau had violated her earlier injunction in several ways and she threatened them with sanctions and contempt proceedings if they did it again.
“Defendants’ dissemination of erroneous information; lurching from one hasty, unexplained plan to the next; and unlawful sacrifices of completeness and accuracy of the 2020 Census are upending the status quo, violating the Injunction Order, and undermining the credibility of the Census Bureau and the 2020 Census,” the judge wrote. “This must stop.”
Trump administration lawyers have said the suggestion that the federal government should be held in contempt was “unfair.”
Multiple legal skirmishes have unfolded over people Trump has ousted from government and those he's brought on under questionable circumstances.
Last spring, Trump used his authority to force out five inspectors general from various federal agencies who were tasked with sniffing out government mismanagement, waste and fraud. The president has the authority to fire inspector generals for failure to perform their duties, but he does not have broad authority to fire someone for the wrong reason.
The removals were described as retaliation for doing things that displeased Trump. For example, the intelligence community inspector general who was fired had given Congress the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment. It claimed the president had asked Ukraine to investigate his political rival, Democrat Joe Biden, and Biden's son, Hunter, in exchange for military assistance.
Two top officials at the Department of Homeland Security, a sprawling agency with 230,000 people, were found to have been wrongly appointed to their positions and ineligible to serve, according to the Government Accountability Office, the independent investigative arm of Congress. One has since been nominated to fill the post of secretary permanently.
On Thursday, a judge ruled that a national commission on law enforcement, created earlier this year by Trump and Attorney General William Barr, violated federal law because its members lacked diversity and did not provide public access to meetings.
The Office of Special Counsel has cited the president’s top advisers multiple times for violating the Hatch Act, which restricts partisan political activity by federal employees. Special counsel Henry Kerner, a Trump appointee, recommended that Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway be fired after repeated violations, but the White House ignored that.
Concern also persists that the president is improperly benefiting personally when foreign governments spend money, rent rooms and schedule events at Trump's hotel in Washington.
“If he is taking money from foreign governments without congressional consent, he is violating the Constitution,” said Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
Associated Press writer Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida contributed to this report.