Democrats are launching an emergency effort to thwart what they warn is President Donald Trump's attempt to squeeze the US Postal Service -- one of the country's most beloved institutions -- to suppress the vote in November's election.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi is calling on the House to return to Washington, likely next weekend, for an unheard of session during presidential convention season.
Democrats have also demanded that new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testify on August 24 to answer charges that his controversial new policy changes are intended to deliberately slow voting by mail.
The long feared post-Election Day showdown involving Trump's false claims about voting fraud is already here -- more than two months early -- due to the building fight in Washington over the Postal Service.
The aggressive Democratic counter-attack -- coming at the start of a critical two-week political crunch that contains the Democratic and Republican National Conventions -- follows Trump's incessant falsehoods about mail-in voting inviting a "catastrophe" in November. The President admitted last week that he opposed $25 billion in new funding for the agency because it could be used to expand such ballot access.
The comment left him open to charges that he is deliberately trying to deny the franchise to voters who fear going to polling stations because of the pandemic that has been exacerbated by his mismanagement and has now killed more than 170,000 Americans.
"The Postmaster General and top Postal Service leadership must answer to the Congress and the American people as to why they are pushing these dangerous new policies that threaten to silence the voices of millions, just months before the election," Democratic leaders, including Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, said in a statement announcing the hearing they want to have next week with DeJoy, a top Trump fundraiser.
The swift Democratic mobilization puts the raging dispute over the sanctity of November's vote at the center of the election campaign and escalates tensions that could spill into a prolonged political and legal imbroglio if November's result is tight.
Already, several states say they're considering legal action against the Trump administration over concerns about the USPS and mail-in voting.
It also comes with many Democrats worried that DeJoy's policy changes, which have slowed delivery times, removed high-speed letter sorters from commission and included warnings that mail-in ballots will no longer be treated as a priority, will severely impact the election on November 3.
As a matter of strategy, highlighting Trump's comment last week that he opposed $25 billion in new funding for the mail system because it would lead to more mail-in voting may also boost Democratic efforts to convince voters to cast their ballots early and potentially bank a lead for the party nominee Joe Biden.
It is not clear how effective Democratic action in the House could be. A standalone bill to finance the Postal Service may not make it past the Republican-led Senate. The White House would likely demand concessions on a new economic stimulus bill in return for agreeing to such steps. Negotiations between the two sides broke down this month over Democrats' insistence on more money for state and local governments, GOP cuts to long-term unemployment benefits for millions of Americans and issues including USPS funding.
Millions of extra voters are expected to cast their vote by mail this year, given their wariness about showing up at polling places with the virus still raging. Trump has responded to the prospect with false claims that mail-in voting is rife with fraud and will lead to the most corrupt election in history.
His new misinformation drive comes as a CNN/SSRS national poll released Sunday shows the presidential race has significantly tightened with Biden at 50% to Trump's 46% among registered voters, right at the poll's margin of error. An earlier Wall Street Journal/NBC poll had the former vice president up 9 points.
Trump's prospects have been harmed by his erratic handling of the coronavirus -- which helped to plunge the US economy, which he had hoped to ride to reelection, into freefall.
The President, however, says victory ought to be assured because of what he styled as successful leadership on both issues.
"I hope to win, how can you not when you see numbers like this both on the virus and on the economy?" the President said Saturday at a news conference at his New Jersey golf resort.
The United States has more Covid-19 cases and more deaths than any other nation. While some countries that did a far better job than the US of suppressing the virus are fighting a resurgence, the scale of the US tragedy remains staggering. For 16 out of the 20 days leading up to Saturday, the US reported more than 1,000 new deaths per day, according to Johns Hopkins University and the Covid Tracking Project.
USPS, White House pledge no more removal of sorting machines
Despite Trump's damaging claims, there was one sign that the administration was beginning to realize the President's charges about fraud and concerns about the sanctity of the USPS could rebound on him.
"Sorting machines between now and Election Day will not be taken off line," White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union" on Sunday. CNN and other news organizations reported Friday that the postal service has reduced operating hours in several states and was removing letter collection boxes from some neighborhoods, according to union officials.
The agency also said Sunday that it will stop removing collection boxes until after late November, citing "recent customer concerns" over the decisions.
The concession came after the USPS warned almost all 50 states and Washington, DC, that mail-in ballots may not be received by election offices in time to be counted.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the runner-up to Biden in the Democratic primary race, warned on "State of the Union" that more than the integrity of the Postal Service was at stake.
"What is most important, whether you're a Democrat, whether a Republican, whether you're a progressive, whether you're a conservative, do you believe in American democracy?" Sanders asked.
"Do you believe that, in the midst of a pandemic, when we have lost 170,000 people already, people have got to put their lives on the line to go into a voting station, or can they vote in through a mail-in ballot?"
Meadows, however, signaled on the same show that the White House will not let up on its warnings of massive pending electoral fraud — and an attempt to draw a false distinction between "absentee balloting" and "mail-in voting" despite rigorous systems in place to ensure the authenticity of all votes.
Told by Tapper that there is no evidence of fraud in mail-in voting in general elections in the US, Meadows replied: "There's no evidence that there's not either."
Trump: 'There's fraud, there's theft'
Besides trying to skew the election ahead of time by limiting mail-in balloting, Trump may also be renewing his baseless claims because he's looking ahead to after the election.
He warned on Saturday that mail-in ballots could delay the result of the election for "months or for years."
"These ballots are all going to be lost. They're going to be gone ... the ballots are lost. There's fraud. There's theft. It's happening all over the place."
Election experts say election fraud is tiny compared to the size of the US electorate and that there is no evidence that mail-in voting systems already in place in multiple states are any more prone to irregularities.
Trump appears to be either offering himself a face-saving way out if he loses big to Biden or to be laying the political groundwork for multiple legal challenges in a desperate bid to hang on to power if he loses narrowly.
He is playing with fire since his claims risk severely damaging the prospects that the election will be seen as free and fair by all voters. Such a national consensus forms the bedrock of the American political system itself.