For all the tumult and unease that have characterized this campaign for the White House, it is hard to imagine a potentially more consequential week of events than the one that will begin at 5 p.m. on Saturday. It’s quite possible that by the end of next week, the contest between President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. will have a good deal more clarity than it does today.
On Saturday, with all the orchestrated buildup and arguably faux drama that has become familiar to anyone who has followed his career as a developer, reality TV host and now president, Mr. Trump will unveil his nominee to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.
Some critical questions will come into focus. How much will the confirmation process overshadow the issue that Mr. Biden thinks could win the White House: Mr. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic? The president has already shown that he can rally his party behind his choice and his decision to push for quick confirmation. How will Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders choose to wage a fight that might already be over, and that Republicans are hoping will be a trap for the former vice president?
Three days later, Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden will meet at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland for the first of three debates. The importance of these kinds of events tends to be overblown, though it seems fair to say that the 90 minutes of their meeting in Cleveland might turn out to be the most important 90 minutes of the campaign. Democrats and some Republicans think a commanding performance by Mr. Biden, dispelling suggestions by Mr. Trump about his mental acuity or concerns among Democrats about his fortitude in standing up to the president, could set the framework for the final weeks of this campaign.
Just in case all that is not enough, both candidates will be campaigning against the backdrop of more civil unrest across the country after a Kentucky grand jury declined to indict any police officers on murder charges in the killing of Breonna Taylor. Mr. Trump has tried to turn these kinds of demonstrations against Mr. Biden, warning that Democratic rule would be a recipe for continued disorder. The argument has so far shown only limited signs of success.
And — Covid. The pandemic has proved an unending source of disruption and turmoil; as colder weather approaches, and with signs of a new rise in cases, there seems little reason to think the virus will fade as an issue.
As President Trump prepares to reveal his Supreme Court nominee on Saturday, and Senate Republicans move to hold lightning-quick confirmation hearings ahead of the election, they are making risky calculations aimed at navigating difficult political straits with less than 40 days left in the campaign.
In order to achieve a new 6-3 conservative majority on the court, Republicans are poised to defy a clear majority of voters who have indicated in polls that they want the winner of the election to pick a nominee for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat. They are even willing to energize Democratic turnout in the short run by elevating issues like abortion, if it means achieving the long-term goal of tilting the court further to the right.
That gamble would almost certainly play out if Mr. Trump nominates Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the leading contender and a favorite of social conservatives. The political consequences would be less clear if he chose the preferred candidate of some of his advisers: Judge Barbara Lagoa, a Latina whose elevation might help him carry the must-win state of Florida.
The president appears intent on picking Judge Barrett, though, according to Republicans familiar with his conversations. And his advisers and party lawmakers are placing wagers on a Barrett pick that are based on hope as much as strategy, as Mr. Trump trails in battleground states and the Senate G.O.P. majority appears increasingly precarious.
They believe a partisan fight over the court offers them at least a chance to steer the debate away from political danger zones like the president’s handling of a virus that has claimed over 200,000 American lives, and his unceasing rhetorical eruptions, most recently his indication that he would be unwilling to agree to a peaceful transition of power.
“Either the election can be about Trump or about Covid or about the Supreme Court,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, the long-serving Tennessee Republican who is retiring next year. “And I think, of those three, if it’s about the Supreme Court, that traditionally has helped Republicans more.”
A federal judge barred the Trump administration on Friday from ending the 2020 census a month early, the latest twist in years of political and legal warfare over perhaps the most contested population count in a century.
In U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Judge Lucy H. Koh issued a preliminary injunction preventing the administration from winding down the count by Sept. 30, a month before the scheduled completion date of Oct. 31. She also barred officials from delivering completed population data to the White House on Dec. 31 rather than the April 2021 delivery date that had previously been set out.
The judge had temporarily stayed the early completion of the census count on Sept. 5 pending a hearing held on Tuesday.
The ruling came after evidence filed this week showed that top Census Bureau officials believed ending the head count early would seriously endanger its accuracy.
In one July email, the head of census field operations, Timothy P. Olson Jr., called it “ludicrous” to think a curtailed population count would succeed. A second internal document drafted in late July said a shortened census would have “fatal data flaws that are unacceptable for a constitutionally mandated national activity.”
The administration ordered the speedup anyway. Critics immediately said it would lead to drastic undercounts, particularly for low-income areas and communities of color, which are least likely to respond to the census.
The Trump administration had argued that it needed to end census-taking early to begin processing state-by-state population data or it would miss a statutory Dec. 31 deadline for sending population figures to President Trump.
That was widely seen as an effort to ensure that Mr. Trump — and not Joseph R. Biden Jr., should he win the presidential election — controls census figures that will be used next year to reallocate seats in the House of Representatives and draw thousands of political boundaries nationwide.
President Trump on Thursday declined for a second day to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost the election, repeating baseless assertions that the voting would be a “big scam,” even as leading Republicans scrambled to assure the public that their party would respect the Constitution.
“We want to make sure that the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be,” Mr. Trump told reporters before leaving the White House for North Carolina.
The president doubled down on his stance just hours after prominent Republicans made it clear that they were committed to the orderly transfer of power, without directly rebuking him. “The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, wrote on Twitter early Thursday. “There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792.”
Democrats were far less restrained, comparing Mr. Trump’s comments to those of an authoritarian leader and warning Americans to take his stance seriously.
“You are not in North Korea; you are not in Turkey; you are not in Russia, Mr. President, and by the way, you are not in Saudi Arabia,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “You are in the United States of America.”
Chris Edelson, an American University professor who has studied the expansion of presidential power during national emergencies, said Mr. Trump’s comments represented a unique threat to a central pillar of democracy. “It’s impossible to underscore how absolutely extraordinary this situation is — there are really no precedents in our country,” he said. “This is a president who has threatened to jail his political opponents. Now he is suggesting he would not respect the results of an election. These are serious warning signs.”
Douglas Brinkley, the presidential historian, said, “This may be the most damaging thing he has ever done to American democracy.”
If Arizona flips from red to blue this year — and according to most polls, that appears highly possible — it would be a historical outlier: The state has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1952, except one.
But it probably wouldn’t be a blip.
Arizona has been trending blue for years, driven by its increasingly ethnically diverse electorate and growing Democratic strength among suburban voters.
“The state’s clearly in motion,” Paul Maslin, a veteran Democratic pollster, said in an interview. A victory there for Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Maslin added, “would be a furthering of those trends: the Latino vote locking in for Democrats, but also a suburban vote — around Phoenix and Tucson — moving Democratic.”
When Donald J. Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Arizona in 2016, he captured only 48 percent of the vote — less than any winning candidate in the state since Bill Clinton squeaked by with a rare Democratic victory in 1996.
Today, with most Arizona voters telling pollsters that they disapprove of how Mr. Trump has handled the pandemic, surveys consistently show Mr. Biden with the advantage.
And in the race for the Senate seat once held by John McCain, the Democratic challenger, Mark Kelly — a retired NASA astronaut and the husband of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords — leads the Republican incumbent, Senator Martha McSally, among likely voters by anywhere from one percentage point, in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, to eight points, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll out this week.
President Trump vowed on Thursday to send $200 discount cards for prescription drugs to 33 million older Americans, a $6.6 billion election-eve promise with dubious legal authority that he announced as part of a speech billed as presenting a long-awaited health care plan.
Mr. Trump made the announcement before an audience of health professionals in Charlotte, N.C., where he laid out what the White House called the America First health care plan.
Mr. Trump’s broader plan is short on specifics, and its two core provisions are largely symbolic. The first is an executive order aimed at protecting people with pre-existing conditions — a provision already in the Affordable Care Act, which Mr. Trump is trying to overturn. The second — a push to end surprise medical billing — would require congressional action.
That left the drug discount cards as the major advance in Mr. Trump’s speech. It was not clear where the money for the cards would come from or whether the White House could legally issue them. But they amounted to a gift to a key constituency, offered weeks before Election Day.
A senior administration official said the discount cards would be authorized under a waiver program that allowed Medicare to test certain new policy ideas. The money would come from savings gleaned from the president’s directive this month that required Medicare to pay no more for prescription drugs than in other developed nations, the official said.
But that program has not yet been devised or enacted.
“Is the plan to borrow from potential future savings from a program that does not yet exist?” asked Rachel Sachs, an associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, who studies prescription drug policy.
The Justice Department on Thursday released details about an investigation into nine discarded mailed-in ballots in Pennsylvania, an unusual step that stoked new fears that President Trump’s political appointees were using the levers of law enforcement to sow doubt about the election.
The U.S. attorney for central Pennsylvania, David J. Freed, announced in a statement that F.B.I. investigators were examining mail-in ballots from military members in Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania that had been “discarded.” Seven of the nine ballots were cast for Mr. Trump, Mr. Freed said.
In a letter to the Luzerne County Bureau of Elections released on Thursday evening, Mr. Freed said investigators found that the nine ballots had been “improperly opened by your elections staff.” Under Pennsylvania election law, no ballots can be opened until Election Day, even for processing.
Mr. Freed added that the investigation found that “envelopes used for official overseas, military, absentee and mail-in ballot requests are so similar, that the staff believed that adhering to the protocol of preserving envelopes unopened would cause them to miss such ballot requests,” and had been opening envelopes.
Election experts said the announcement was highly irregular. Justice Department policy calls for keeping voter fraud investigations under wraps to avoid affecting the election outcome, and the experts said it was almost unheard-of for the department to provide an update on the case and disclose the name of the candidate for whom the ballots had been cast.
“The question of who voters voted for would be immaterial in any kind of tampering investigation, and it seems to be in there for political reasons, to bolster the president’s arguments that the election is being rigged against him,” said Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine.
On Wednesday night, as protests formed over a grand jury’s decision not to charge police officers for the killing of Breonna Taylor, footage began circulating on social media of a U-Haul truck being used to distribute signs, shields and other materials to protesters in Louisville, Ky.
Almost immediately, right-wing commentators began casting doubts on the idea that the protest was spontaneous, and asking questions about who was really behind it. The Police Tribune, a right-wing site that is supportive of law enforcement, claimed that the images of the U-Haul “indicate riots were preplanned.” Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and other prominent conservatives also posted about the U-Haul, claiming that it suggested an organized, premeditated effort.
The online right is absolutely obsessed with a video of a U-Haul in Louisville, convinced George Soros emptied out his pocketbook for this dastardly $30 rental van.
Absurd engagement numbers on Facebook today. pic.twitter.com/q3XS795gnf
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) September 24, 2020
And as speculation about the U-Haul’s origins mounted, some seized on the baseless claim that George Soros, the left-wing financier, was involved in funding it.
“While there has yet to be a direct confirmation that Soros is funding the group, it is all too coincidental,” read a post on Mr. Hannity’s website.
Some of the alleged ties to Mr. Soros stem from claims that a woman identified by right-wing activists as the U-Haul’s renter works for a bail organization in Kentucky, which also employs someone who previously worked as a Soros Justice Fellow, a legal grant given out by Mr. Soros’s philanthropic organization, Open Society Foundations.
But there is no indication of Mr. Soros’s involvement in the Louisville protests, and the claim is implausible even on its face. (Observers quickly noted that a local U-Haul rental costs less than $100 a day — hardly the kind of expense requiring a billionaire’s bankroll.)
False conspiracy theories about Mr. Soros acting as a “hidden hand” behind left-wing protest movements are not new. But this baseless rumor has gotten more traction than most.
Laura Silber, the chief communications officer for Open Society Foundations, said Mr. Soros had “absolutely not” paid for a U-Haul rental in Louisville, or funded antifa in any way.
“Unfortunately, right-wing trolls continue to spew a lot of false and malicious claims,” Ms. Silber added. “The Open Society Foundations supports the First Amendment right of every American to petition their government for redress of grievances through peaceful protest.”