When President Trump used the prime-time debate last week to urge his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” he wasn’t just issuing a call for a grass-roots movement or raising the prospect of intimidation tactics at voting sites. He was also nodding to an extensive behind-the-scenes effort led by the lawyers and operatives on his campaign.
Over the summer, Mr. Trump named a new campaign manager, Bill Stepien, who was once a top aide to former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey before being fired amid the “Bridgegate” scandal. Mr. Stepien swiftly elevated a group of lieutenants focused on using aggressive electoral tactics, moves that led Marc E. Elias, the leading election lawyer for the Democratic Party, to tweet that Mr. Trump was “tripling down” on “opposing voting rights.”
One of the main architects of the effort is Justin Clark, whom Mr. Stepien promoted to deputy campaign manager. He has been viewed with suspicion among Democrats since he was recorded last year saying, “Traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places,” and adding that in 2020 the party would “start playing offense a little bit.”
Other key figures in the campaign include a senior aide who once oversaw a right-wing information-gathering operation for the conservative Koch brothers; an adviser who was involved in a secretive vote-challenge operation for President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004; and a campaign counsel who is coordinating a series of lawsuits aimed at preventing the expansion of mail voting.
With polls showing Mr. Trump trailing Joseph R. Biden Jr. nationally and in most swing states, the president has increasingly focused attention on the voting process, declaring that the only way he could lose is if the election is rigged and refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. With the election less than a month away, his campaign has moved the idea of voting irregularities to the forefront of both its ground operations and its legal strategy.
The campaign is trying to shape the voting process in many ways. Following the president’s lead, it has undertaken a legal and rhetorical assault on mail-in balloting, claiming with no evidence that it is rife with fraud. It is also pushing the boundaries of traditional poll monitoring in ways that many Democrats believe amount to voter intimidation. And it has put legal pressure on states to aggressively purge their voter rolls.
Campaign officials tried to downplay Democratic anxiety and insisted they wanted everyone to vote who wants to do so.