Updated at 6:38 p.m. ET
President Trump on Wednesday escalated his rhetorical campaign against an expansion of mail-in voting amid the coronavirus pandemic by threatening federal funding to two states with Democratic governors.
Trump appeared to be set off by an announcement Tuesday from Michigan's Democratic secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, who said her office will mail an absentee ballot application to every voter in the state for August and November elections.
Trump narrowly won Michigan in 2016, giving him the Electoral College votes needed to become president. Trump is expected to visit the state Thursday to tour a Ford facility that has been repurposed to make ventilators.
In a tweet Wednesday, Trump falsely claimed the state was sending ballots, not ballot applications, and said that because of that, its federal funding was at risk. The president wrote: "I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!" (He later deleted his original tweet and reposted, correctly writing the second time that absentee ballot applications are to be sent out. He also appeared to soften his threat to cut funding in comments later Wednesday)
Michigan sends absentee ballot applications to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election. 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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 20, 2020
Elections are run by state and local governments, and it's unclear what legal means Trump would have to withhold funds from the states. Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 to allow no-excuse absentee ballots, along with a number of other changes to make access to voting easier.
Benson, the Michigan secretary of state, responded to Trump's corrected tweet, noting that she's acting within her authority and that a number of states are taking the same action, including states with Republican election officials. In a statement, she added that absentee ballot "applications are mailed nearly every election cycle by both major parties and countless advocacy and nonpartisan organizations."
Hi again. Still wrong. Every Michigan registered voter has a right to vote by mail. I have the authority & responsibility to make sure that they know how to exercise this right - just like my GOP colleagues are doing in GA, IA, NE and WV. Also, again, my name is Jocelyn Benson. https://t.co/deZJwbMlT0— Jocelyn Benson (@JocelynBenson) May 20, 2020
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak wrote on Twitter: "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."
Trump's comments come two days after Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, said she's fine with absentee ballot applications.
When asked by a reporter on a call Monday what she thought about proposals to send absentee ballot applications to all voters, McDaniel, who is from Michigan, said: "Personally, I don't really have an issue with absentee ballot request forms being sent out to voters as much as ballots being sent directly to voters. ... We are really against, when people talk about mail-in voting, the ballots being sent directly to people who may or may not want them or sent to all the registered voters even when their voter rolls have not been cleaned up."
Trump's objections come despite the fact that he voted by mail in Florida's recent primary and has voted absentee in previous elections.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended the president's own mailed-in vote Wednesday, stating that as a high-level official away from his state of residence, it was the most appropriate option.
"He supports mail-in voting for a reason," McEnany emphasized. "When you have a reason that you're unable to be present."
Still, Trump and some of his Republican allies have concluded that it helps Democrats, and they are trying to restrict its expansion amid the pandemic.
In remarks later Wednesday, Trump further criticized the prospect, calling the remote voting option "dangerous."
"Mail-in ballots are a very dangerous thing. They're subject to massive fraud," Trump said.
He also softened his threat to remove funding. "We'll let you know if it's necessary. ... I don't think it's going to be necessary," he said.
But the push additional voting options comes at a moment when many Americans are fearful of voting in person for fear of contracting the coronavirus. Sixty percent of those surveyed in a recent AP-NORC poll said Americans should be allowed to vote absentee without an excuse if the pandemic is still a problem in November.
Wisconsin officials said at least 71 cases of COVID-19 are associated with people who went to the polls in person in that state's controversial April 7 election, where thousands of voters had to wait in line to cast ballots after Republicans in the state Legislature refused to support efforts to expand mail-in voting.
Some Republican officials who have expanded absentee voting in their states have faced suspicion from within their own party about those efforts.
"The biggest challenge I have right now is making the concept of absentee voting less toxic for Republicans," Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican, recently told NPR. His office is sending postcards to every registered voter telling them how to apply for an absentee ballot.
Meanwhile, a federal court in Texas ruled Tuesday evening that voters there could cite fear of contracting the virus as a legitimate excuse for requesting an absentee ballot. The state has among the strictest requirements in the country for voting absentee, which is generally only available for those over age 65, those who have a disability or illness, or those who will be out of the state during the election.
State officials are hostile to efforts to expand mail-in voting, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton vowed to appeal the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
With reporting by NPR's Pam Fessler