MADISON, Wis. — One of President Donald Trump’s top re-election advisers told influential Republicans in swing state Wisconsin that the party has “traditionally” relied on voter suppression to compete in battleground states but will be able to “start playing offense” in 2020 due to relaxed Election Day rules, according to an audio recording of a private event obtained by The Associated Press.
“Traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places,” Justin Clark, a senior political adviser and senior counsel to Trump’s re-election campaign, said at the event. “Let’s start protecting our voters. We know where they are. ... Let’s start playing offense a little bit. That’s what you’re going to see in 2020. It’s going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program.”
Asked about the remarks by AP, Clark said he was referring to false accusations that the GOP engages in voter suppression.
“As should be clear from the context of my remarks, my point was that Republicans historically have been falsely accused of voter suppression and that it is time we stood up to defend our own voters," Clark said. "Neither I nor anyone I know or work with would condone anyone’s vote being threatened or diluted and our efforts will be focused on preventing just that.”
Clark made the comments Nov. 21 in a meeting of the Republican National Lawyers Association’s Wisconsin chapter. Attendees included the state Senate's top Republican, Scott Fitzgerald, along with the executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party.
Audio of the event at a country club in Madison obtained by the liberal group American Bridge was provided to AP by One Wisconsin Now, a Madison-based liberal advocacy group.
The roughly 20-minute audio offers an insider's glimpse of Trump's re-election strategy, showing the campaign is focusing on voting locations in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which form the the so-called “blue wall” of traditional Democratic strength that Trump broke through to win in 2016. Both parties are pouring millions of dollars into the states, anticipating they'll be just as critical in the 2020 presidential contest.
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Republican officials publicly signaled plans to step up their Election Day monitoring after a judge in 2018 lifted a consent degree in place since 1982 that barred the Republican National Committee from voter verification and other “ballot security” efforts. Critics have argued the tactics amount to voter intimidation.
The consent decree was put in place after the Democratic National Committee sued its Republican counterpart, alleging the RNC helped intimidate black voters in New Jersey's election for governor. The federal lawsuit claimed the RNC and the state GOP had off-duty police stand at polling places in urban areas wearing armbands that read "National Ballot Security Task Force," with guns visible on some.
Without acknowledging any wrongdoing, the RNC agreed to the consent decree, which restricted its ability to engage in activities related to ballot security. Lifting of the consent decree allows the RNC to “play by the same rules” as Democrats, said RNC communications director Michael Ahrens.
"Now the RNC can work more closely with state parties and campaigns to do what we do best, ensure that more people vote through our unmatched field program,” Ahrens said.
Although the consent decree forced the Trump campaign to conduct its own poll monitoring in 2016, the new rules will allow the RNC to use its multi-million dollar budget to handle those tasks and coordinate with other Republican groups on Election Day, Clark said. State directors of election day operations will be in place in Wisconsin and every battleground state by early 2020, he said.
In 2016, Wisconsin had 62 paid Trump staff working to get out the vote; in 2020, it will increase to around 100, Clark said.
Trump supports the effort, he said in the audio recording.
“We’ve all seen the tweets about voter fraud, blah, blah, blah,” Clark said. “Every time we’re in with him, he asks what are we doing about voter fraud? What are we doing about voter fraud?’ The point is he’s committed to this, he believes in it and he will do whatever it takes to make sure it’s successful.”
Clark said Trump’s campaign plans to focus on rural areas around mid-size cities like Eau Claire and Green Bay, areas he says where Democrats “cheat.” He did not explain what he meant by cheating and did not provide any examples.
“Cheating doesn’t just happen when you lose a county,” Clark said. “Cheating happens at the margin overall. What we’re going to be able to do, if we can recruit the bodies to do it, is focus on these places. That’s where our voters are.”
There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Wisconsin.
“If there's bad behavior on the part of one side or the other to prevent people from voting, this is bad for our democracy,” Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said in reaction to Clark's comments. “And frankly, I think will whoever does that, it will work to their disadvantage. It will make them look, frankly, stupid.”
Wisconsin's attorney general, Democrat Josh Kaul, represented the Democratic National Committee in a 2016 New Jersey lawsuit that argued the GOP was coordinating with Trump to intimidate voters. Kaul argued then that Trump's campaign "repeatedly encouraged his supporters to engage in vigilante efforts" in the guise of ferreting out potential voter fraud. The Republican Party disputed any coordination.
“It is vital that Wisconsinites have free and fair access to the polls, and that we protect the security and integrity of our elections," Kaul said in a statement in reaction to Clark's comments. "The Wisconsin Department of Justice has been and will continue working with other agencies to protect our democratic process.”
Mike Browne, deputy director of One Wisconsin Now, said Clark's comments suggest the Trump campaign plans to engage in “underhanded tactics” to win the election.
"The strategy to rig the rules in elections and give themselves an unfair partisan advantage goes to Donald Trump, the highest levels of his campaign and the top Republican leadership,” Browne said. "It's clear there's no law Donald Trump and his right-wing machine won't bend, break or ignore to try to win the presidency."