Tuesday’s Debate Made Clear the Gravest Threat to the Election: The President Himself

President Trump’s angry insistence in the last minutes of Tuesday’s debate that there was no way the presidential election could be conducted without fraud amounted to an extraordinary declaration by a sitting American president that he would try to throw any outcome into the courts, Congress or the streets if he was not re-elected.

His comments came after four years of debate about the possibility of foreign interference in the 2020 election and how to counter such disruptions. But they were a stark reminder that the most direct threat to the electoral process now comes from the president of the United States himself.

Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to say he would abide by the result, and his disinformation campaign about the integrity of the American electoral system, went beyond anything President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia could have imagined. All Mr. Putin has to do now is amplify the president’s message, which he has already begun to do.

Everything Mr. Trump said in his face-off with Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential nominee, he had already delivered in recent weeks, in tweets and at rallies with his faithful. But he had never before put it all together in front of such a large audience as he did on Tuesday night.

Taken together, his attacks on the integrity of the coming election suggested that a country that has successfully run presidential elections since 1788 (a messy first experiment, which stretched just under a month), through civil wars, world wars and natural disasters now faces the gravest challenge in its history to the way it chooses a leader and peacefully transfers power.

“We have never heard a president deliberately cast doubt on an election’s integrity this way a month before it happened,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian and the author of “Presidents of War.” “This is the kind of thing we have preached to other countries that they should not do. It reeks of autocracy, not democracy.”

But what worried American intelligence and homeland security officials, who have been assuring the public for months now that an accurate, secure vote could happen, was that Mr. Trump’s rant about a fraudulent vote may have been intended for more than just a domestic audience.

That has happened already. Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a recent interview he had asked the intelligence agencies he oversees to look for examples of the Russians picking up on Mr. Trump’s words.

“Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the intelligence community started seeing exactly that,” Mr. Schiff said. “It was too enticing and predictable an option for the Russians. They have been amplifying Trump’s false attacks on absentee voting.”

What is striking is how Mr. Trump’s fundamental assessment that the election would be fraudulent differed so sharply from that of some of the officials he has appointed. It was only last week that the director of the F.B.I., Christopher A. Wray, said his agency had “not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise.”

Mr. Wray was immediately attacked by the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows. “With all due respect to Director Wray, he has a hard time finding emails in his own F.B.I.”

Mr. Trump himself has provided no evidence to back up his assertions, apart from citing a handful of Pennsylvania ballots discarded in a dumpster — and immediately tracked down, and counted, by election officials.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. have been issuing warnings, as recently as 24 hours before the debate, about the dangers of disinformation in what could be a tumultuous time after the election.

“During the 2020 election season, foreign actors and cybercriminals are spreading false and inconsistent information through various online platforms in an attempt to manipulate public opinion, discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions,” the agencies wrote in a joint public service announcement.

It detailed the kind of data that could be leaked — mostly voter registration details — and said the agencies “have no information suggesting any cyberattack on U.S. election infrastructure has prevented an election from occurring, compromised the accuracy of voter registration information, prevented a registered voter from casting a ballot, or compromised the integrity of any ballots cast.”

When officials involved in those announcements were asked whether Mr. Trump had different information, which would explain his repeated attacks on the election system, they went silent.

They had little choice. It was apparent to them that the chief disinformation source was their boss. And for that, they had no playbook.

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