President Trump’s angry insistence in the last minutes of Tuesday’s debate that there was no way the presidential election could be conducted without fraud amounted to an extraordinary declaration by a sitting American president that he would try to throw any outcome into the courts, Congress or the streets if he was not re-elected.
His comments came after four years of debate about the possibility of foreign interference in the 2020 election and how to counter such disruptions. But they were a stark reminder that the most direct threat to the electoral process now comes from the president of the United States himself.
His unwillingness to say he would abide by the result, and his disinformation campaign about the integrity of the American electoral system, went beyond anything President Vladimir V. Putin could have imagined. All Mr. Putin has to do now is amplify the president’s message, which the Russian leader has already begun to do.
Everything Mr. Trump said in his face-off with Joseph Biden Jr. he had already delivered in recent weeks, in tweets and rallies with his faithful. But he had never before put it all together in front of such a large audience as he did Tuesday night.
He began the debate with a declaration that balloting already underway was “a fraud and a shame” and proof of “a rigged election.”
It quickly became apparent that the president was doing more than simply trying to discredit the mail-in ballots that are being used to ensure voters are not disenfranchised by a pandemic — the same way of voting that five states have used with minimal fraud, for years.
He followed it by encouraging his supporters to “go into the polls” and “watch very carefully,” which seemed to be code words for a campaign of voter intimidation, aimed at those who brave the coronavirus risks of voting in person.
And his declaration that the Supreme Court would have to “look at the ballots” and that “we might not know for months, because these ballots are going to be all over” seemed to suggest that he will try to place the election in the hands of a court where he has been rushing to cement a conservative majority with his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
And if he cannot win there, he has already raised the possibility of using the argument of a fraudulent election to throw the decision to the House of Representatives, where he believes he has an edge, since every state delegation gets one vote in resolving an election with no clear winner. At least for now, 26 of those delegations have a majority of Republican representatives.
Taken together, his attacks on the integrity of the coming election suggested that a country that has successfully run presidential elections since 1788 (a messy first experiment, which stretched just under a month), through civil wars, world wars and natural disasters now faces the gravest challenge in its history to the way it chooses a leader and peacefully transfers power.
“We have never heard a president deliberately cast doubt on an election’s integrity this way a month before it happened,’’ said Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian and author of “Presidents of War.” “This is the kind of thing we have preached to other countries that they should not do. It reeks of autocracy, not democracy.”
But what worried American intelligence and homeland security officials, who have been assuring the public for months now that an accurate, secure vote could happen, was that Mr. Trump’s rant about a fraudulent vote may have been intended for more than just a domestic audience.
They have been worried for some time that his warnings are a signal to outside powers — chiefly the Russians — for their disinformation campaign, which has seized on his baseless theme that the mail-in ballots are ridden with fraud. But what concerns them the most is that over the next 34 days, the country may begin to see disruptive cyberoperations, especially ransomware, intended to create just enough chaos to prove the president’s point.
Those who studied the 2016 election have seen this coming for a long while, and warned about the risk. The Republicans who led Senate Intelligence Committee’s final report on that election included a clear warning.
“Sitting officials and candidates should use the absolute greatest amount of restraint and caution if they are considering publicly calling the validity of an upcoming election into question,” the report said, noting that doing so would only be “exacerbating the already damaging messaging efforts of foreign intelligence services.”
That has happened already. Representative Adam Schiff, the Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said in a recent interview he had asked the intelligence agencies he oversees to look for examples of the Russians picking up on Mr. Trump’s words.
“Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the intelligence community started seeing exactly that,” Mr. Schiff said. “It was too enticing and predictable an option for the Russians. They have been amplifying Trump’s false attacks on absentee voting.”
What is striking is how Mr. Trump’s fundamental assessment that the election would be fraudulent differed so sharply from that of some of the officials he has appointed. It was only last week that the director of the F.B.I., Christopher Wray, said his agency had “not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise.”
Mr. Wray was immediately attacked by the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows. “With all due respect to Director Wray, he has a hard time finding emails in his own F.B.I.”
Mr. Trump himself has provided no evidence to back up his assertions, apart from citing a handful of Pennsylvania ballots discarded in a dumpster — and immediately tracked down, and counted, by election officials.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. have been issuing warnings, as recently as 24 hours before the debate, about the dangers of disinformation in what could be the tumultuous time after the election.
“During the 2020 election season, foreign actors and cybercriminals are spreading false and inconsistent information through various online platforms in an attempt to manipulate public opinion, discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions,” the agencies wrote in a joint public service announcement.
It detailed the kind of data that could be leaked — mostly voter registration details — and said they “have no information suggesting any cyberattack on U.S. election infrastructure has prevented an election from occurring, compromised the accuracy of voter registration information, prevented a registered voter from casting a ballot, or compromised the integrity of any ballots cast.”
When officials involved in those public service announcements were asked whether Mr. Trump had different information, which would explain his repeated attacks on the election system, they went silent.
They had little choice. It was apparent to them that the chief disinformation source was their boss. And for that, they had no playbook.