Biden warns GOP could set nation on ‘path to chaos’ as democratic system faces strain

REUTERS/Leah Millis
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about threats to Democracy and political violence in the United States during a Democratic National Committee event at the Columbus Club in Washington, U.S. November 2, 2022.

Signs of strain in the nation’s democratic system mounted Wednesday with less than a week left before the midterm elections, as President Joe Biden warned that candidates who refuse to accept Tuesday’s results could set the nation on a “path to chaos.”

Biden’s grim assessment in a speech Wednesday evening came as the FBI and other agencies have forecast that threats of violence from domestic extremists are likely to be on the rise after the election. In Arizona, voters have complained of intimidation by self-appointed drop-box monitors – some of them armed – prompting a federal judge to set strict new limits. And the GOP has stepped up litigation in multiple states in an effort to toss out some ballots and to expand access for partisan poll watchers.

Speaking at Washington’s Union Station – steps from the U.S. Capitol, which was attacked by a pro-Trump mob in the wake of the nation’s last major election – Biden warned of an ongoing assault on American democracy. The president spoke as a growing number of major Republican candidates have said they may follow in former president Donald Trump’s footsteps and refuse to concede should they lose.

“It’s unprecedented. It’s unlawful. And it is un-American,” Biden said. “As I’ve said before, you can’t love your country only when you win.”

The virtually unprecedented presidential message – a plea to Americans to accept the basic tenets of their democracy – came as millions of voters have already cast their ballots or are planning to go to the polls on Election Day, and as some election officials expressed confidence that the system would hold.

Biden spoke days after an assailant armed with a hammer broke into the San Francisco home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and, according to police and prosecutors, bludgeoned her 82-year-old husband, Paul. Biden opened by addressing the gruesome early Friday morning assault.

“We must, with one overwhelming unified voice, speak as a country and say there’s no place, no place for voter intimidation or political violence in America, whether it’s directed at Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “No place, period. No place, ever.”

Last week, multiple government agencies, including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, issued a memo warning that threats posed by domestic violent extremists would probably increase in the 90-day post election period, according to a copy of the document obtained by The Washington Post.

The memo listed possible scenarios that could trigger more violence, including “actual or perceived efforts to suppress voting access.”

“Following the 2022 midterm election, perceptions of election-related fraud and dissatisfaction with electoral outcomes likely will result in heightened threats of violence against a broad range of targets – such as ideological opponents and election workers,” the memo read.

Election officials have said they don’t quite know what to expect, given promises from various Trump-supporting organizations to flood polls and counting stations with partisan observers. Trump allies have urged his backers to lodge frequent challenges, action that officials say could disrupt the process.

Biden has spoken more forcefully about the threats Republicans pose to democracy in recent months. While he began alluding to “MAGA Republicans” in the spring – a moniker he uses to distinguish those aligned with Trump from more traditional conservatives – Biden addressed the issue in unusually blunt terms at a fundraiser in late August, warning that the GOP was headed toward “semi-fascism.”

On Wednesday night, Biden cast the danger to democracy as part of an ongoing assault launched two years ago by Trump and the Republican Party he still leads. The pro-Trump faction of the party, he said, “is trying to succeed where they failed in 2020: to suppress the right of voters and subvert the electoral system itself.”

Even before Biden spoke Wednesday, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel issued a statement calling his words “desperate and dishonest.”

“Joe Biden promised unity but has instead demonized and smeared Americans, while making life more expensive for all,” McDaniel said. “While Republicans remain focused on the issues that matter most to voters, Biden and Democrats are flailing.”

The speech Wednesday evening was Biden’s most direct address about the threats the American democratic system faces since Sept. 1, when he delivered a speech outside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and warned that “too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal.”

“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” he said then.

Shortly after Biden’s Philadelphia speech, top White House officials began talking about doing another similar speech about the threats to democracy, according to a person familiar with the planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.

Biden’s speech Wednesday was in the works for several weeks, the person said. But the opening was rewritten to address the assault on Paul Pelosi. Biden also made a point of mentioning Republicans who have been subjected to election threats and violence, including former vice president Mike Pence and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Biden urged voters to be patient after the election, noting that rules for counting ballots mean that some outcomes might not be immediately clear.

“It’s always been important for citizens in a democracy to be informed and engaged,” he said. “Now it’s important for citizens to be patient as well.”

And he urged citizens to take the future of democracy into account when making their choices Tuesday, saying they should vote “knowing what we’re at risk of becoming.”

“In our bones, we know democracy is at risk,” he said. “We also know this: It’s within our power, each and every one of us, to preserve our democracy.”

Unlike their Democratic counterparts, many Republicans locked in key races across the country have refused to say whether they will accept the results of Tuesday’s election.

“We’ll see what happens,” Republican Sen. Ron Johnson told reporters in Wisconsin on Tuesday. He is in a tight race with Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor for his state. “I mean, is something going to happen on Election Day? Do Democrats have something up their sleeves?”

The president’s address came as developments in the courtroom and beyond have served to underscore anxieties about whether next week’s elections will run smoothly and whether results will be widely embraced as legitimate.

The Justice Department has said multiple divisions of the sprawling law enforcement agency will be working to ensure the voting process operates safely and smoothly across the country.

The department’s Civil Rights Division, which is charged with enforcing laws relating to voting rights, has said it will monitor the voting process across the country to ensure jurisdictions are complying with federal voting laws. The department has not said how many people it will dispatch or where they would send them. On Election Day 2020, it sent monitors to 44 jurisdictions, including Gwinnett County in Georgia, Broward County in Florida and Fairfax County in Virginia.

Already, the department has weighed in on an Arizona election lawsuit, supporting a claim by the League of Women Voters of Arizona that monitoring ballot drop boxes, including by filming voters depositing their ballots, can amount to illegal voter intimidation.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Michael Liburdi, who was appointed to the bench by Trump, agreed, issuing a far-reaching order restricting what the Arizona group Clean Elections USA or its allies can do or say near ballot boxes. The ruling prevents drop-box watchers from taking photos or videos of voters and using the material to spread baseless allegations of electoral fraud. Clean Elections USA has been among the groups echoing the claims that “ballot traffickers” illegally deposited multiple ballots in drop boxes ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Bill Gates, chairman of the governing board that oversees Maricopa County, home to most of Arizona’s voters, said “the rest of the world” will be watching how America conducts its elections as truth and misinformation collide.

“There’s a real concern that there’s something wrong with our democratic republic . . . and that Arizona . . . and Maricopa County is a place where this sort of battle is taking place,” said Gates, a Republican.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court told counties not to count mail-in ballots without handwritten dates but left unanswered key legal questions about the issue, including how it will be resolved should top races in the critical state be tight. GOP voters, as well as the state and national parties, had sued over the issue, arguing that state law requires deeming invalid all ballots lacking a date or bearing an inaccurate date.

Lawyers for Leigh Chapman, the top state election official in the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf (D), had argued that multiple courts had previously ruled that undated ballots should be counted, and that counties have no way of determining whether the date on a mail envelope is “inaccurate.” They argued that a decision not to count those ballots would sow confusion and disenfranchise legal voters.

The case was part of a flood of litigation that has already been filed targeting election practices, court action that could spike after Election Day should key races be close. The RNC said it is involved in lawsuits in Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin to expand access for partisan poll watchers and challengers.

A judge in Wisconsin on Wednesday ordered a city clerk in Green Bay to give poll watchers more access, a day after a group of watchers filed suit saying they could not observe all aspects of early voting. City officials said they were making more areas available for observation in response to the lawsuit. The RNC praised the ruling as a victory for transparency.

Democrats could challenge GOP actions in court, extending election action for days after Tuesday’s vote. Pennsylvania Attorney Gen. Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor, told reporters on his campaign bus in Pittsburgh on Tuesday that he would use the courts if necessary to protect the vote.

“I’m confident if there’s a legal process we need to go through, that the will of the people will be respected,” said Shapiro, who is running against state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R), a leading proponent of false claims the 2020 election was stolen.

Mastriano was one of a dozen Republican candidates in competitive races for governor and Senate who declined to say whether they would accept the results of their contests in a September survey by The Washington Post.

In Wisconsin, Republican gubernatorial nominee Tim Michels suggested at a campaign stop Monday that his election would result in permanent GOP control in the state.

“Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor,” Michels said.

Michels is locked in a tight race with Gov. Tony Evers (D). The five-second clip of Michels saying Republicans would never lose another election if he wins was posted on Twitter by the liberal group American Bridge.

His spokesman later said he meant only that he would do a good job and voters would reward his party, but Democrats feared he was hinting at an overhaul of how state elections are administered.

Emma Brown, Amy Gardner, Colby Itkowitz, Annie Linskey, Patrick Marley, Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, Maria Sacchetti and Annabelle Timsitcontributed to this report.