President Donald Trump and top aides are responding to the uproar over his failure to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power by intensifying their efforts to create election chaos he can use to cling onto power should he lose in November.
In the wake of Trump's stunning warning on Wednesday that "we're going to have to see what happens," questions are also growing about the willingness of Republican lawmakers to stand up to Trump if he refuses to accept the will of voters.
And raising new concerns that the administration is leveraging executive power to bolster the President's political goals, the Justice Department said it was probing "potential issues with mail-in ballots" in Pennsylvania following the discovery of nine discarded ballots.
As the implications of Trump's statement about the transition of power begin to sink in, Trump, as he so often does, barged ahead, seeking to drive home his case that the vote may be rigged.
"We want to make sure the election is honest, and I'm not sure that it can be," the President said, before heading to a rocking campaign rally in Florida where the crowd's devotion contrasted with the boos he heard while paying respects to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Supreme Court earlier in the day.
Trump may well win a legitimate mandate from voters in 40 days or Democratic nominee Joe Biden might claim an Electoral College majority that would make challenges to the vote in individual states moot.
But Trump's attitude is causing real harm now, even as Americans in some states cast early and mail-in votes. It is not only raising the prospect of a divisive post-election period in November -- it is making it more likely that Trump's supporters will view the election as invalid and will refuse to accept the result if he doesn't win. An election in which the loser declines to concede could breed tensions, years of recriminations and ultimately gravely weaken America's long-enduring democracy.
Far from working to honor the public trust it holds as the defender of America's core political values, the White House Thursday staked out a dangerous position, built on the foundation of Trump's false claims that mail-in voting is corrupt, which could form the political basis of a post-election challenge.
"The President will accept the results of a free and fair election," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said.
The qualification was alarming because the President has repeatedly argued that any election that includes mail-in voting -- which studies show does not suffer from massive fraud -- is not free and fair. McEnany was effectively establishing a predicate for the President to claim the election is rigged. She also previously advanced the incorrect position that the result of the clash between Trump and Biden would only be fair if it was known on election night. Since mail-in ballots may take longer to count in many states, and the method is likely to be more favored by Democrats, she is clearing the way for Trump to claim a premature victory and to take rhetorical and legal action to portray continuing vote counting as an attempt by Democrats to cheat.
On Friday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows rebuked FBI Director Christopher Wray for saying that while there was occasionally isolated vote corruption, historically there has been no "coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it's by mail or otherwise."
Meadows said of Wray on "CBS This Morning": "Perhaps he needs to get involved on the ground and he would change his testimony on Capitol Hill."
'The President says crazy stuff'
Republican lawmakers on Thursday responded to Trump's efforts to portray the election as rigged with their normal mixture of private frustration and public dodging, though most reaffirmed the belief that there would indeed be a peaceful transfer of power.
"The President says crazy stuff. We've always had a peaceful transition of power. It's not going to change," said Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, tweeted that "the winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th" and "there will be an orderly transition."
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said he was confident Republicans would ensure such a peaceful transition if necessary.
"Republicans believe in the rule of law, we believe in the Constitution, and that's what dictates what happens (in) ... our election process and so yes."
But South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, locked in an unexpectedly tight reelection race, left open the possibility that the election would be decided in the courts. "If there's a court challenge to the election, it will be decided in court. And the loser of the challenge will accept the results," Graham said.
Trump is challenging democracy on multiple fronts
Trump's latest efforts to cast doubt on mail-in voting are piling on an already established record of tarnishing the coming election. He has urged his supporters to act as poll watchers -- raising the specter of intimidation. He appeared to urge North Carolinians to try to vote twice, which would be illegal, to test the security of mail-in voting. Trump and Attorney General William Barr have disregarded warnings by the intelligence agencies that Russia is again meddling in the election to help him, saying that China poses a far greater threat.
There is also a flurry of attempts by Trump's campaign and Republicans to use the instruments of local power to make it more difficult for people to vote. Trump is now demanding that his nominee to replace Ginsburg should be seated before the election in order to help adjudicate the winner. This suggests he may not accept the verdict of voters and is also a glaring potential conflict of interest on the part of a new justice who would be recently beholden to the President for a lifetime appointment.
One weakness of the White House approach is that in order for it to fuel credible legal challenges, there will need to be genuine evidence of fraud in mail-in voting. Therefore, Trump's lawyers will likely seize upon even the smallest example of irregularities to bolster his case that an election in which he has trailed Biden in the polls for months, is fundamentally corrupt.
On Thursday, for instance, the Justice Department said it was investigating alleged problems with mail-in voting in Pennsylvania. In a highly unusual move, it said nine military ballots were found and that seven "were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump." The statement immediately sparked suspicions that the department was seeking to highlight evidence of an isolated incident to provide political ammunition for the President.
Indeed, Trump seized on the incident, saying the ballots were found in a wastepaper basket.
"They throw them out if they have the name 'Trump' on it, I guess," Trump said.
In the 2016 election, Pennsylvania cast 6 million votes, meaning that the nine ballots concerned here make up a tiny proportion of the total vote on which to base a case that the election is unfair. The US attorney said in a letter to county election officials that it appeared confusion was the cause of the prematurely opened ballots -- the envelopes appeared similar to the ballot application envelopes -- and did not allege any political motivation.
Speaking generally, Benjamin Ginsberg, a veteran Republican election lawyer, said on CNN's "Cuomo Prime Time" that there was no significant evidence of mass voter fraud in US elections.
"There is a body of evidence, but it's a really small body of evidence that has been collected on fraudulent ballots over the years. And it is far too thin, just isolated cases of fraud, to make the allegation, the assertion that our elections are fraudulent or rigged."
'Questioning the legitimacy' of the election
Trump's strategy is multi-pronged. Besides helping him build a case that the election was rigged should he lose, his attacks on mail-in voting may also be an attempt to suppress voting by convincing people that the mail-in option is not secure.
"It's clearly making people concerned about voting by mail, first of all the issue of 'will it be counted,'" Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, told CNN Thursday.
"(It's) questioning the legitimacy ... that's really a PR gambit because legally a vote cast on an absentee ballot by mail is just as legitimate as one cast in person and both have the same security safeguards," the Republican lawyer said.
The job of securing the vote, and of responding to an expected burst of legal challenges by the Trump campaign, will fall to secretaries of state who will be under fierce pressure in closely fought swing states.
Michigan's Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said that results in the critical battleground may not be available until the Friday after Election Day, which is on Tuesday, November 3.
"This is the way democracy works: no winner is declared until every ballot is counted," Benson told CNN's Brianna Keilar.
"At the same time, we recognize that from the minute the polls close to the minute we do have that final tabulation, there will be efforts to try to sow seeds of doubt among our electorate and others about the sanctity of our vote," she said.
"So we are going to respond to that as we always do with facts, data, truth and transparency."