President Donald Trump is quick to call “fake news” any suggestion he won’t win a second term, yet his recent campaign shakeup and increased attacks on mail-in voting signal the political peril he faces from a raging pandemic and cratering economy.

One of the most extreme signs came Thursday, when Trump floated the idea of postponing the election with 96 days before the vote. The president can’t do that without an act of Congress, but it marked a dramatic escalation in his repeated, unfounded arguments that allowing mail-in ballots to protect against coronavirus would lead to widespread voter fraud and render the election illegitimate.

Trump later said that he doesn’t want to change the date of the election, but warned it could be days “or even years” until the nation knew the outcome if mail-in balloting is used. “I don’t want to see a crooked election,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “This election will be the most rigged election in history, if that happens.”

Trump said he was trying to encourage the media to focus on the risks of mail-in voting. But his Thursday morning tweet raising the prospect of a delayed vote landed just minutes after the Commerce Department announced that the U.S. economy shrank 9.5 per cent in the second quarter -- the sharpest downturn in the post-World War II era -- and the Labor Department announced that 17 million Americans claimed unemployment benefits in mid-July.

The news added to the pile of crises besetting Trump’s White House -- ranging from the coronavirus and the economy to unrest over police brutality and racial inequality -- that have helped propel Democratic nominee Joe Biden into the lead. Trump trails Biden by more than 8 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average, and is behind in key battleground states Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Projecting Bravado

Trump projected bravado at his news conference, saying the only polls showing him losing were “fake,” compared to his campaign’s internal polls, which were “real.”

Voters are giving Trump worsening marks for his handling of the economy -- the one issue where he held an advantage over Biden earlier this year. At the same time, a resurgence of the coronavirus after Trump urged the nation to reopen from months of lockdown has deepened sentiment that he’s mishandled the crisis.

Recently, Trump has made efforts to change course. He shook up his campaign leadership by replacing longtime campaign manager Brad Parscale with Bill Stepien. He attempted to reset coronavirus messaging by relaunching his near-daily briefings, though quickly reverted to haranguing states to re-open and promoting unproven cures. He has made a play for White suburban voters, where he’s lost support since 2016, by exploiting racial fears about low-income housing and protests in major cities.

Trump’s Twitter message on Thursday reanimated concerns his opponents have harbored for months -- that the president and his supporters may refuse to accept a defeat in November. “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” he wrote.

Elections were held on time during the Civil War, the Spanish Flu pandemic and World War II, episodes that otherwise caused major disruptions to American life. The notion of doing so now was quickly downplayed by Trump’s own campaign. Members of his party moved quickly to shut it down, also a sign that Republicans believe opposing Trump is not the dire risk it once was.

Campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley said the president didn’t necessarily mean he was trying to postpone Election Day. He said in a statement that the president was “just raising a question” about Democratic efforts to expand vote-by-mail during the pandemic, which he argued would lead to “chaos and severe delays with results.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, both Republicans, said the election should take place as scheduled.

“I don’t think that’s a particularly good idea,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, told CNN.

Political analysts saw the comment as a sign of desperation. Fox News politics editor Chris Stirewalt said it was a “flagrant expression of his current weakness.”

“A person who is in a strong position would never, never suggest anything like that,” Stirewalt said.

Voter Fraud Coverage

Later Thursday, after intense coverage of his morning tweet, Trump suggested he made the comment in order to inspire the news media to cover the issue of voter fraud.

“Glad I was able to get the very dishonest LameStream Media to finally start talking about the RISKS to our Democracy from dangerous Universal Mail-In-Voting (not Absentee Voting, which I totally support!),” the president wrote.

In subsequent tweets, he added that the country “must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later.”

The president oftentimes makes threats or claims powers he does not have, only to back down after a flurry of media coverage.

Democrats nonetheless reacted with a mix of fury and bewilderment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, simply tweeted the text of the Article II of the Constitution, which says Congress sets the rules for choosing an election date.

‘Attempt to Distract’

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Lily Adams called Trump’s remark “a desperate attempt to distract from today’s devastating economic numbers that make it clear his failed response to the coronavirus has tanked the U.S. economy.”

Biden said Trump’s comments were meant to be a distraction from the funeral in Atlanta on Thursday of civil rights icon John Lewis.

Without offering evidence, Trump has said for months that many states’ efforts to expand the use of mail-in ballots would result in the election being “rigged” to favor Democrats. Studies show neither party has an advantage based on whether people cast their ballots by mail or in person.

Though terminology differs by state, there is no practical difference between absentee and mail-in voting, even though Trump has argued they are different. Most states no longer require an excuse, such as not being present on Election Day, to request a mail in-ballot, leading many states have dropped the term “absentee.” Only six large Western states plan to use universal vote-by-mail November, in which every ballot would be sent via the mail.

Perhaps emblematic of how the political winds have shifted, Trump rejected the notion of delaying the election just three months ago.

At an April fundraiser, Biden warned that Trump would “try to kick back the election somehow” and “come up with some rationale why it can’t be held.”

Trump scoffed at a news conference days later.

“I never even thought of changing the date of the election,” Trump told reporters on April 27 at the White House. “Why would I do that? November 3rd. It’s a good number. No, I look forward to that election.”