LANSING — President Donald Trump’s unproven claims of corruption and voter fraud in Detroit were condemned by Michigan Democrats but prompted little response from Republican leaders, who have generally stayed quiet as the president questions the legitimacy of the nation’s election system.
Trump, in a Thursday evening address from the White House, called Detroit and Philadelphia “two of the most corrupt political places in the county” and suggested officials in the two Democratic cities were “engineering the outcome of the presidential race.”
He offered no evidence of voter fraud in either of the two Democratic strongholds, where a flood of absentee ballots that took longer to count than in-person votes heavily favored Democrat Joe Biden.
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Biden beat Trump by nearly 150,000 votes in Michigan, according to unofficial results from all 83 counties, but Trump said he won the state.
U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, who is retiring at the end of the year, was one of the few Michigan Republicans to speak up and challenge the president.
“If anyone has proof of wrongdoing, it should be presented and resolved,” Mitchell, R-Dryden, wrote on Twitter. “Anything less harms the integrity of our elections and is dangerous for our democracy.”
During his address, Trump cited allegations from a lawsuit that unsuccessfully sought to stop the Detroit count. He alleged workers were duplicating ballots (a common practice to replace damaged ballots before they’re counted by a tabulator machine) and that GOP challengers were blocked from observing that process.
Trump’s campaign had filed a separate lawsuit seeking to halt the statewide count, but that case was dismissed earlier Thursday by a judge who said it was based on hearsay and no evidence.
Chris Thomas, a former state elections director who helped oversee Detroit’s count, has called various fraud accusations hollow. Republicans had plenty of challengers inside the TCF Center, where absentee votes were counted, at all times, he said.
“It may be a nice story that makes people feel good in terms of why they may have lost, but the reality is you lost because you didn’t have as many votes as the other person,” Thomas told Bridge earlier Thursday, before Trump’s latest comments.
After Trump's comments — which television networks stopped airing mid-speech because of accuracy concerns — U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, called on "Republican elected officials ... to speak out, now, to make clear they will not participate in attempts to thwart the will of the voters. If you remain silent, you are complicit."
While a few national Republicans distanced themselves from Trump's accusations, the response was far more muted in Michigan.
Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, in a text message to Bridge after Trump’s address, said “concerns over potential voter fraud should be reported and fully investigated.”
“The integrity of our election should be a priority of every citizen,” said Shirkey, R-Clarklake. “We want every legal vote counted.”
He did not reply to a follow-up question about the appropriateness of Trump making his claims without producing evidence.
House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, did not reply to a request for comment.
State Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, had not heard Trump’s comments directly but said he thinks the country is in a “sad point.”
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Miller wrote that he thinks Biden will end up winning enough states to defeat Trump. He offered prayers for Biden but eventually deleted the post after the comments section became divisive.
If there was any impropriety in Detroit or elsewhere, “let’s investigate the crap out it,” Miller told Bridge Michigan on Thursday. But Trump’s comments are “only appropriate if there’s hard evidence, and I just haven’t seen it yet.”
Without “hard facts, I don’t think it’s helpful, because people listen to Donald Trump, they listen to other political officials, and they’re going to repeat what he said,” Miller said.
A previous chair of the House Elections and Ethics Committee, Miller noted that Michigan’s election system is run by local clerks in more than 1,500 municipalities. That makes the kind of widespread voter fraud Trump would need to prove to overcome Biden’s 150,000 vote win very difficult.
“I suppose nothing is foolproof… but to run a multiple hundred thousand vote conspiracy would be almost logistically impossible because of the decentralized nature of the elections,” Miller said.
Trump’s claims are “patently false” and “unacceptable,” said Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit.
“What he is saying is, ‘Hey, what I wanted to win. And because Black people in Detroit and because women in the suburbs of Philadelphia are voting for someone else — and mind you they probably voted a month ago — don’t count their votes.”
Detroit’s count took a day to complete because of a flood of absentee ballots, allowed for the first time in a presidential election because of a voter-approved law and heavily utilized because of COVID-19, he said.
Michigan’s GOP-led Legislature approved a law allowing clerks to open outer envelopes a day early, but Hollier noted the majority rejected calls to give additional pre-processing time that could have sped up the count.
Grand Rapids, a majority white city on the west side of the state, also took well into Wednesday evening to complete its absentee ballot count.
But the president has not alleged any wrongdoing there. Nor has he alleged wrongdoing in Arizona, where he trails Biden but is narrowing the gap because votes are still being counted.
Detroit “is a dog whistle for Black people who are trying to steal it from them,” Hollier said, referring to how the president and his supporters view the city.
“It’s always been an us-versus-them. ‘They don’t deserve to decide who elects the president.'”
Hollier said he fears Trump’s comments could incite violence for political gain.
“Real patriots support the system, whether it's win, lose or draw. And folks who want to take up arms to defend this nation sign up like I did and join the military to do so. They don’t take justice into their own hands.”
Jonathan Kinloch, vice chair of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers and head of the 13th Congressional Democratic Party, had not heard Trump’s comments directly. But asked about the president’s claim that Detroit is corrupt and trying to “engineer” the election, Kinloch bristled.
“He lost the election, and I’m sure it’s quite painful, but he needs to eat his Haagen-Dazs and take a nap,” Kinloch said. “It’s not just Detroit, he’s crying every place where the people have said, ‘get out of office.’ He is attacking the voters. He has never had any type of respect for the democratic process.”
Detroit’s count took a full day because so many voters there chose to cast absentee ballots rather than risk exposure to COVID-19 at polling places, Kinloch said.
“The pandemic is real to us here in the city of Detroit, so whether he recognizes that or not does not negate the fact that the people of Detroit understood how important this election was.”