And any other president confronted with a virulent viral outbreak across huge regions of the country would be at least trying to deliver a clear and consistent message about public safety. Instead, Mr. Trump has continued to promote a drug of no proven efficacy, hydroxychloroquine, as a potential miracle cure, and to demand that schools and businesses reopen quickly — even as he has also claimed that it might be impossible to hold a safe election.
William F. Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts who mounted a largely symbolic challenge to Mr. Trump in the Republican primaries this year, said on Thursday that the president’s tweet was a sign that Mr. Trump was panicked and unmoored. Though Mr. Weld has argued for years that Mr. Trump had dictatorial impulses, he said Thursday that the election-delay idea was “not a legitimate threat.”
“So many dead and the economy in free fall — and what’s his reaction? Delay the election,” Mr. Weld said. “It’s a sign of a mind that’s having a great deal of difficulty coming to terms with reality.”
Mr. Trump has attacked the legitimacy of American elections before, including the one in 2016 that made him president. Even after winning the Electoral College that year, Mr. Trump cast doubt on the popular vote and postulated baselessly that Hillary Clinton’s substantial lead in that metric had been tainted by illegal voting.
With that as precedent, there has never been much doubt — certainly among his opponents — that Mr. Trump would attempt to undercut the election if it appeared likely he would lose it. While Mr. Trump does not have the power to shift the date of the election, there is ample concern among Democrats that his appointees in Washington or his allies in state governments could make a large-scale effort to snarl the process of voting.
Given the extreme nature of Mr. Trump’s suggestion, there was an odd familiarity to the response it garnered from political leaders in both parties. There was no immediate call to the barricades, or renewed push from Democrats for presidential impeachment. Opposition leaders expressed outrage, but most agreed, in public and private, that Mr. Trump’s outburst should be treated as a distress call rather than a real statement of his governing intentions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat in government, replied to Mr. Trump’s tweet simply by posting on Twitter the language from the Constitution stating that Congress, not the president, sets the date of national elections. Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, a Democrat who chairs the congressional committee that oversees elections, suggested in no uncertain terms that Mr. Trump’s tweet was another symptom of his inability to master the coronavirus.