Former President Barack Obama criticized President Donald Trump in an interview released on Friday, accusing him of attempting to “kneecap” the US Postal Service to prevent people from voting.
Obama’s remarks represented an unusually sharp intervention in contemporary politics for the former president, whose post-presidency has often been taciturn and politically understated.
“What we’ve seen, in a way that is unique to modern political history, is a president who is explicit in trying to discourage people from voting,” Obama said on Cadence13’s Campaign HQ podcast in a discussion with his former campaign manager David Plouffe. “What we’ve never seen before is a president say, ‘I’m going to try to actively kneecap the Postal Service to [discourage] voting and I will be explicit about the reason I’m doing it.’”
“That’s sort of unheard of, right?” he added. “And we also have not had an election in the midst of a pandemic that is still deadly and killing a lot of people, and we still don’t know the long-term side effects of contracting the illness.”
Obama’s comments were a response to Trump’s admission on Thursday that he opposes providing additional funding for the Postal Service — which is under huge financial strain due to the coronavirus pandemic, and unprepared for a massive influx of mail-in ballots — because he doesn’t want everyone to be able to vote by mail.
In an interview with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo, Trump said he rejected the Democrats’ proposal for emergency funding for election in negotiations for a coronavirus relief bill because it would help prevent “universal mail-in voting.”
Trump has persistently attempted to delegitimize the reliability of mail-in voting, describing it as acutely vulnerable to fraud without presenting evidence and despite the consensus among voting rights experts that it’s secure when funded properly.
Democrats “want three-and-a-half billion dollars for something that will turn out to be fraudulent, that’s election money, basically … [And] they want 25 billion dollars — billion — for the Post Office,” Trump said.
“Now they need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump continued. “By the way, those are just two items, but if they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting.”
Obama, by contrast, praised Democratic leaders for their funding proposals for states to conduct elections and for emergency funds for the Postal Service as a sign that they “want to do what’s right by the American people.”
In the HEROES Act passed by House Democrats in May, the bill allocated $3.6 billion for grants to states for contingency planning for November’s elections, to be used to help make in-person voting sites safer and help prepare for widespread use of mail-in ballots. It also provides $25 billion in emergency funds for the Postal Service. And it contains reforms such as no-excuse absentee ballots and 15 days of early voting that would help ensure states make it as easy to vote as possible.
“What are Republicans doing where you are so scared of people voting, that you are now willing to undermine what is part of the basic infrastructure of American life?” Obama queried on the podcast.
The Postal Service is in bad, bad shape
Experts say the Postal Service is in dire financial shape, already struggling with serious delays, and that new cost-cutting policies are likely to exacerbate the problem further.
The US Postal Service warned 46 states and Washington, DC, in July that tens of millions of voters could effectively be disenfranchised because their mail-in ballots might not be processed speedily enough for November’s elections — even if voters follow all their state’s election rules.
The agency told six states and DC that a narrow set of their voters could experience delayed ballots, according to the Washington Post. But for the remaining 40 states, the warning is far more serious: They were told that “long-standing deadlines for requesting, returning or counting ballots were ‘incongruous’ with mail service and that voters who send ballots in close to those deadlines may become disenfranchised,” the Post reports.
That heightened warning applies to 186 million potential voters who are spread across blue states, red states, and battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
The Postal Service’s warnings to states were planned before Trump appointed Louis DeJoy to head the agency in May. But DeJoy reportedly has overseen a range of cost-cutting measures that experts say will amplify its problems with delivery times.
The agency is for example, decommissioning 671 mail-sorting machines (10 percent of inventory), a move which the American Postal Workers Union has said could slow down the processing of election mail. Those machines can sort over 20 million pieces of paper mail per hour.
Experts on voting behavior have said that before the pandemic an estimated 25 percent of voters would’ve been expected to cast their ballots by mail, but they now estimate that 60 percent or more will attempt to vote by mail because the pandemic is discouraging in-person voting.
Obama’s remarks come as Democratic lawmakers have condemned the Trump’s administration’s handling of the Postal Service.
“Postal service sabotage = voting suppression. No need to connect the dots,” tweeted Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) on Friday. “This bare knuckled scheme openly mocks our democracy & all Americans.”
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