WASHINGTON— President Donald Trump on Wednesday threatened to hold up federal funds for two election battleground states that are trying to make it easier and safer to vote during the coronavirus pandemic.
The president's tweets targeting Nevada and Michigan marked an escalation in his campaign against voting by mail, a practice that he has publicly worried will lead so many people to vote that Republicans will lose in November.
In a tweet this morning, Trump suggested Nevada was sending out "illegal vote by mail ballots" and "creating a great Voter Fraud scenario."
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak shot back, also via Twitter, calling the president's threat "inappropriate and outrageous."
Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends mail voting as a safe option during the pandemic, Trump has opposed the spread of the practice.
Wednesday marked the first time he has tried to use federal dollars to beat it back.
Trump began by targeting Michigan, with a false description of Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's announcement Tuesday that she would send applications for absentee ballots to every voter in the state.
“Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, That brought strong criticism from Michigan and elsewhere, pointing out that the state was sending applications, not actual ballots.
About six hours after his original tweet, Trump corrected it to say “absentee ballot applications.”
He kept the rest intact: “This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”
Trump later made a similar threat against Nevada, which has sent ballots to voters for its June 9 state primary. A federal judge recently cleared Nevada's decision to mail ballots, which were sent by Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske.
“State of Nevada ‘thinks’ that they can send out illegal vote by mail ballots, creating a great Voter Fraud scenario for the State and the U.S. They can’t! If they do, ‘I think’ I can hold up funds to the State. Sorry, but you must not cheat in elections,” Trump tweeted.
It was not clear what funds Trump was referencing. The states are paying for their elections changes through coronavirus relief spending measures the president signed into law.
In tweets this morning, Sisolak, a Democrat, said Nevada "is widely recognized as being a national leader in election administration, and we will continue to support the safest, most accessible election possible under these unprecedented circumstances."
"For the President to threaten federal funding in the midst of a pandemic over a state exercising its authority to run elections in a safe and legal manner is inappropriate and outrageous," Sisolak said.
Cegavske, the only statewide Republican elected official in Nevada, said the decision to hold the election primarily through mail was “not made lightly” and was “necessary and prudent.”
“Nevada has many safeguards in place to ensure the integrity of an all-mail election, including signature requirements and verification processes, preprinted ballot return envelopes, barcode tracking and laws against ballot harvesting,” a statement from Cegavske’s office said.
Nevada State Democratic Party spokeswoman Molly Forgey noted that Democrats sued to get more live polling sites for voters who still want to cast their ballots in person.
“The president's tweet is just another tactic in the GOP’s handbook of voter suppression,” Forgey said.
U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., called Trump’s threat to withhold funds “unconscionable,” saying the money would “save lives and livelihoods.”
“Access to the ballot box should never be threatened for partisan gain,” Rosen said in a statement. “Nevadans take great pride in making sure every voice is heard in our elections, regardless of party affiliation, and I will continue to work to make sure the upcoming elections are safe and accessible.”
Nevada'a other Democratic senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, responded to Trump via Twitter, saying Nevada is "doing the right thing and your threat to withhold federal support, especially during a pandemic, is outrageous."
Cortez Masto also took a more personal jab at Trump, who was taking an antimalarial drug to prevent the virus and previously wondered if a disinfectant taken internally could be used as a treatment.
She suggested the president had perhaps "moved on to bleach and it's even further impairing your judgment."
U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said Trump’s tweet is meant to distract from his "slow and incompetent response to this pandemic."
"President Trump is threatening to harm Nevadans because our Republican secretary of state is making it easier for them to vote," Titus said in a statement. "We have a president who doesn’t care about the Constitution or, apparently, the safety of Nevadans."
U.S. Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., said everyone should be able to vote “safely and securely.”
Notably, the president did not threaten Republican-run states that are doing the same thing as Michigan. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican ally of the president, said he’s not concerned about Trump’s threats even though his administration approved mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters in the state.
“I can’t imagine that the president is going to withhold funding in any way to West Virginia; that’s not gonna happen,” Justice told reporters.
Trump's threats drew a sharp response from Democrats, who alluded to impeaching the president for his threats to withhold aid from Ukraine if that country did not help his reelection effort.
“Trump has gone Ukraine on Michigan and Nevada, threatening to cut off funding for their audacity to not make voters choose between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote," California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, said in a statement. “We will not allow our democracy to become a casualty of this pandemic.”
Trump has claimed absentee voting is ripe for fraud although there is scant evidence of widespread wrongdoing. Trump himself requested a mail ballot for Florida’s March GOP primary and he has voted absentee in previous elections.
While Republicans insist that Trump's position on the issue is nuanced and not simply an effort to suppress Democratic votes, the president undermined those arguments Wednesday morning.
Michigan's Benson noted Trump's choice of states to assail, tweeting back after his original salvo: “We sent applications, not ballots. Just like my GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia.”
On Monday, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel portrayed the party's $20 million campaign against Democratic efforts to expand mail voting as a principled stance. McDaniel said she had no objection to a system like the one Benson announced the next day because there is a difference between sending all voters a ballot application as opposed to the actual ballot.
Trump's campaign has pushed his supporters to vote by mail and says its main objection is to mailing ballots to all voters. Five states that use this method have had no significant voter fraud cases. California earlier this month said it'd mail ballots to all voters for November.
The GOP-controlled Senate has so far stopped Democrats from mandating expanded mail and early voting as part of coronavirus relief bills, arguing states should be able to make decisions on their own election systems. The battle has largely moved to the courts, with Democrats filing at least 17 lawsuits to force states to expand their programs.
The GOP has fought back. In Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican has vowed to appeal a federal judge's ruling Tuesday that the state must allow voters to request absentee ballots due to coronavirus.
Of the half-dozen battleground states expected to decide the presidential election, only Arizona is close to widespread mail-voting. But key swing states like Michigan are scrambling to expand the practice in response to voter demand.
Mail voting in Wisconsin's April 7 primary rose fivefold. Michigan saw increased demand for absentee ballots in its primaries earlier this month that helped lead to a record turnout, even though the state is one of the hardest-hit by the pandemic.
Michigan spent $4.5 million in federal funds allocated to help states adjust to voting during coronavirus to mail absentee ballot applications to all 7.7 million registered voters for its August primary and November general election. Trump narrowly won the state in 2016 and Republicans have questioned whether Benson has authority to send the requests without approval of the legislature, which the GOP controls.
Trump and the state's Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, have clashed over federal assistance during the crisis, and the president planned to visit the state Thursday on a previously-scheduled trip to tour Ford's ventilator assembly plant in Ypsilanti. Trump tweeted Wednesday as the state grappled with its latest challenge, severe flooding in one central Michigan county after two dams failed, forcing thousands to evacuate.
Three hours after threatening to hold up funding to Michigan, Trump tweeted: “My team is closely monitoring the flooding in Central Michigan – Stay SAFE and listen to local officials. Our brave First Responders are once again stepping up to serve their fellow citizens, THANK YOU!”
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville, Nicholas Riccardi in Denver and David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan contributed to this report. Las Vegas Sun reporter John Sadler also contributed.