Skip to content
When Trump elevated Bill Stepien to campaign manager in 2020, his strategy of blaming any loss for fraud was unaffected
Placeholder while loading article actions

In July 2020, President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign was in trouble. Polls showed him trailing badly behind Joe Biden, beyond the margin he overcame four years earlier. His efforts to revive in-person events with a rally in Oklahoma were a debacle, with attendance well below expectations. So it came as no surprise when Trump shook up his campaign team, demoting campaign manager Brad Parscale and elevating his deputy, Bill Stepien.

Unlike Parscale, Stepien was a veteran. He had worked for former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie until his involvement in the infamous Bridgegate scandal prompted Christie to throw him overboard. Stepien had also worked for Trump in 2016, recruited in August in another reshuffle. The new title he achieved in July 2020 seemed to suggest that a slow effort to steer Trump toward experience and professionalism had finally paid off.

But it took very little time for the reality to become apparent. Within hours of Stepien’s nomination, it became abundantly clear that Trump’s real campaign strategy — casting doubt on any electoral loss — would remain his team’s focus.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data bulletin from Philip Bump

Trump had been talking about voter fraud for years. In October 2016, he claimed that the only way to lose the state of Pennsylvania would be to be defrauded – a ridiculous claim that nevertheless proved prophetic. Of course, he wasn’t talking then about mail-in vote fraud, but about in-person fraud — people voting, going out and putting on a different hat and coming back to vote again. It didn’t make much sense, and there was no evidence for it, but it didn’t matter. The point was, Trump wanted to be able to blame his loss on something other than himself, and long-running big-city voting rumors offered him that.

Then he won… but only the electoral vote. So he started claiming that there had been fraud in California that had cost him the popular vote (a ridiculous claim for which no evidence had been presented) or fraud in states like New Hampshire that had resulted in a small loss. Fraud claims and Trump’s losses always went hand in hand. When a Republican activist in North Carolina was caught committing voter fraud, Trump shrugged. When, however, a guy by the name of Gregg Phillips claimed that Trump had been the victim of millions of fraudulent votes – another ludicrous claim for which no evidence was presented – Trump aired it widely.

In early 2020, Trump refocused his claims. He had paid little attention to mail-in fraud allegations before the pandemic, but states’ decisions to expand remote access to voting that year gave Trump an opportunity to sow a new field of doubt. . In early April, he was already saying mail-order fraud was widespread and posed a serious threat, using the idea to pillory Democratic governors.

He wasn’t subtle about his real concern. During an interview with “Fox & Friends” that month, Trump complained that Democrats were looking for “voting levels that, if you ever accepted it, you would never have a Republican elected again in this country”. More mail-in ballots meant danger to Republicans and to himself, Trump thought – so he worked hard to denigrate the method of voting.

By July, this pattern was already well established. So what was remarkable when Trump’s team followed up their elevation of Stepien with new claims about mail-in voting risk was just how goofy the claims were. A mail truck that caught fire, which White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tried to make believe was some kind of violent conspiracy? Do Republican primary voters initially receive Democratic primary ballots before getting the correct ones? The obvious point was to create a miasma of skepticism around mail-in ballots, not to show fraud.

As Election Day approached, states worked hard to dispel the doubt that Trump was hoping to raise. The president, unchecked, continued to make dubious claims about election security; state officials continued to strengthen the security and safety of mail-in ballots. When asked at one point if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost, Trump claimed he would only lose because of mail-in ballots.

“I complained a lot about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster,” Trump said. Then: “We want to have – get rid of the ballots and you will have a very trans – we will have a very peaceful – there will be no transfer, frankly; there will be a sequel.

In the final month of voting, it was very obvious what was about to happen: Democrats would vote more heavily by mail, and in some states those votes would be counted more slowly in the hours and days after polls closed. The term “red mirage” began to circulate, referring to the likely prospect of the Trump/Republican lead disappearing as those more Democratic votes were added to the tally. And as that term began to circulate, there were also concerns about how Trump would try to exploit his slow loss.

Two days before the election, Axios reported that Trump had a plan: if the election was close enough, he would simply declare victory before the vote was over. He would establish himself as the winner rhetorically, making it harder for Biden and the Democrats to push back. After all, he had managed to convince Republicans that mail-in ballots were corrupt. It was just the next step in the same dishonesty.

When the Axios report was released, Trump’s team tried to quash it. Trump would only declare victory when his inevitable victory came, they assured Americans. But, again, Trump was never beholden to what his staff thought or wanted to do.

Polling stations closed on election day and the red mirage appeared. In the middle of the night, Trump strode to a lectern at the White House and announced how insurmountable his ultimately overcome runs were in a number of states.

“It’s a fraud on the American public. It’s an embarrassment to our country,” Trump said of the vote count that was still ongoing. “We were preparing to win this election — frankly, we did win this election. So our goal now is to ensure integrity, for the good of this nation. It’s a very big moment. This is a major fraud for our nation.

Trump telegraphed what he was going to say. Journalists learned what he was going to say. Trump then made the request. None of this was a surprise.

What all of this reinforces, of course, is that Trump’s fraud allegations were independent of the actual votes. Trump said there would be fraud before anyone cast a vote, then said there would be fraud after those votes arrived. He was just doing what he did in 2016, but on a bigger scale, making up for his loss with claims that he didn’t really lose. at all. In the year since the election, he has offered no credible evidence of widespread fraud, constantly altering his evidence as needed. (The owner of his latest obsession? Phillips, again.) His followers believe he won and only need the clues of proof to remain convinced he did.

But it also suggests that Trump knows he didn’t. Speaking in November, his former aide Alyssa Farah said Trump told her he knew he lost shortly after the election – but also that he may have come to believe his own foolishness . In the first prime-time hearing of the House Select Committee investigating the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 and Trump’s bid to retain power after the 2020 election, evidence was presented of other times when Trump had been informed that he did not win the election.

Stepien was due to appear before the committee hearing on Monday morning, before stepping down citing a family emergency. Stepien was expected to reinforce the idea that Trump should have known he had lost the election. He can still offer that testimony.

It is largely redundant. Trump has made it very clear why he spent years amplifying claims about voter fraud, and he and his team continued to amplify those claims even after Stepien took over. Any rationality Stepien brought to the table was irrelevant to what Trump wanted to do and say. Even when his staff insisted he would not declare victory on Election Day, Trump could not resist.

Trump’s fraud allegations were his most successful campaign rhetoric, after all, and the credit for them was all his.


Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.