‘Literally off his rocker’: Why Trump is fixated on Indiana

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INDIANAPOLIS — Donald Trump has spent much of the past week fixated, of all places, on Indiana, accusing elections officials here of conspiring against him to help his rival, Nikki Haley, in a Republican presidential primary that won’t take place until May.

The complaints are baseless, elections officials say.

Worse, they and Trump’s opponents warn, with the former president raising alarms even in a state like deep-red Indiana, they look like a test run by Trump and his allies to undermine confidence in the election in November.

“Trump is reinforcing a narrative where the only acceptable outcome is his victory, thus preemptively delegitimizing any electoral defeat,” said Joshua Claybourn, a Republican attorney from Evansville and former GOP delegate from the state. “It sets the stage for yet another crisis of legitimacy in the November general election.”

But Trump’s Indiana intel seems to be coming from one of his most loyal congressional allies: Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, who is running for Senate, and who initially shared Trump’s Truth Social post about Indiana last week on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The actual crux of the issue is pretty straightforward. For days, Trump has been suggesting that Haley failed to qualify for the Indiana primary ballot, saying she was “scrambling in Indiana with democrat county clerk offices to ‘verify’ signatures” after the fact, or even that she had “forgot to apply.” He has gone so far as to have his campaign’s attorney threaten litigation to challenge Haley’s ballot status.

But Trump’s allegation is based on a distortion of Indiana law. While signatures to get ballot access were due by Jan. 30, the filing deadline isn’t until this Friday, meaning that Haley is still on track to qualify for the state’s ballot.

Even the longtime Republican voter registration board member at the center of the dispute told POLITICO in an interview that Trump appeared to have false information and that the process is designed to prevent the kind of conspiracy the former president is alleging.

“I think somebody gave him incorrect information based on lack of knowledge, and he went with what he was told,” said Cindy Mowery, the Republican board member on the Marion County Board of Voters Registration.

Haley has been less forgiving, with her campaign accusing Trump of being “confused” at best and “lying” at worst.

“This is more nonsense and confusion from Trump,” Betsy Ankney, Haley’s campaign manager, told POLITICO. “We have more than enough verified signatures in each congressional district, and we will be filing this week before the Feb. 9 deadline. You should be asking whether they are simply confused or whether they were lying and misleading people.”

But the episode isn’t just some bizarre subplot of the 2024 GOP presidential primary. It gets at one of the fundamental concerns election officials have had in watching Trump’s post Jan. 6 revival. Four years after he conditioned the GOP base to the false idea that the 2020 election was stolen, Democrats and some Republicans fear he is using Indiana to stoke distrust in the election processes in 2024.

“Making assertions that have no basis in fact even if they undermine your public faith in our institutions, including our elections, is of no consequence to him,” said David Axelrod, former President Barack Obama’s top political adviser. “So this is just one little signpost along the way.”

It’s not unusual for campaigns to wrangle over ballot access, particularly in Indiana, one of the nation’s most difficult states in which to qualify. What is unusual is casting doubt on a candidate’s efforts to do so more than a full week before the deadline to file — and as county officials continue to count and verify signatures.

But Trump’s calculus to wage war on Haley in a state he won by double-digit margins in 2016 and 2020 perplexed some Indiana Republicans, especially coming days before the deadline when it would become clearer whether she had actually qualified.

“Why put out the effort to challenge the Haley effort ahead of time when Trump knows he’s going to win Indiana no matter what?” said Mike Murphy, a former Republican member of the Indiana House of Representatives. “The bottom line is he’s completely unhinged. He is literally off his rocker.”

Trump isn’t just talking about Indiana. Over the weekend, an attorney for Trump sent a letter, obtained by POLITICO, to Marion County’s Democratic clerk, Kate Sweeney Bell, accusing her of improperly accepting petition signatures for Haley and demanding she preserve all evidence during the certification process.

The letter cited an X post from an Indiana reporter named Niki Kelly, who said she emailed Mowery asking whether Haley had qualified for the ballot — only to have someone from the office respond to her as if she was Nikki Haley, telling her she was “short on signatures.” That led Kelly, the reporter, to conclude that “Haley [was] likely not on the ballot.” But by Monday, Haley had in fact secured 500 verified signatures in Marion County, according to Mowery.

That was all the ammunition the Trump campaign needed. In the letter directed at Bell, one of the only Democratic elected officials in a state where Republicans control more than 90 percent of all county-level elected offices across the state, Gary Lawkowski of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Dhillon Law Group said Bell’s “office may be improperly accepting petition signatures for Nikki Haley to appear on the ballot for the 2024 Republican Presidential Primary.”

Mowery admitted that she briefly confused Kelly with Haley. “To review these signatures, it takes a tremendous amount of time,” Mowery said. “We dig in and do some research. All I told her was the numbers aren’t here yet.”

Those familiar with the intricacies and nuances of Indiana’s election system called the accusation by Trump’s lawyer “absurd,” said Kip Tew, the former Indiana Democratic Party chair. For starters, even though Marion County has a Democratic clerk, a Republican and Democratic appointee sit on the Marion County Voter Registration Board as a check against each other.

Further complicating matters, Trump’s lawyer contacted the wrong official. Marion County Clerk Kate Sweeney Bell is one of six county clerks out of 92 in Indiana who don’t oversee the ballot certification process. Instead, it’s the voter board of registration, where Sweeney Bell told POLITICO she directed the Trump campaign attorney.

“Making accusations that the Marion County clerk is attempting to assist Nikki Haley — that’s completely absurd and possibly libelous,” Tew said.

Tom John, a Republican attorney in Indianapolis who gathered signatures for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004 and is a former Marion County Republican chair, cast doubt on such a conspiracy too.

“I've been involved in the ballot petition process for 20 years,” he said. “And in that time, I've never seen a county clerk or election board that didn't just try and do what they were supposed to do under the statute and help all the campaigns get the appropriate signatures registered.”

By Sunday, Trump’s complaint had transformed into an even more dubious one, saying in an interview that aired on Fox News that Haley “forgot to apply” for the ballot in Indiana. “You don’t run and not apply for Indiana,” he said. “Great state.”

Asked to clarify Trump’s remarks, a Trump campaign spokesperson skirted the issue. “No amount of crying from Nikki Haley supporters hoping that Democrats interfere in Republican elections can erase the fact that President Trump will beat the brakes off Joe Biden and take back the White House,” Steven Cheung told POLITICO.

Banks continues to make hay of the issue. On Feb. 1, Banks repeated his claims as he filed for Senate at the Indiana statehouse, flanked by TRUMP 2024 signs.

“We've been in touch with county election boards all over the state that Nikki Haley does not have the signatures that she needs in the 7th district and maybe in other districts, as well,” Banks said. “The deadline to submit petitions was noon on Tuesday, and we are told that, in Marion County and the 7th district, they've gone through all of the petitions that they have, and there are no more, and Nikki Haley is short to get on the ballot in Indiana. So that's important to know because Indiana is Trump Country.”

Later, Banks was still keeping the idea of a conspiracy to undermine Trump alive. He said that his sources told him election officials moved 40 signatures from the neighboring 6th district to get Haley over the finish line. Mowery confirmed that indeed happened but noted it was because they were tied to voter’s addresses who lived in that district, not the 7th.

“I don’t think Nikki will be a candidate long enough for it to matter but stand by my assertion she’s not likely to be on the ballot in Indiana on May 7,” Banks told POLITICO.