The Memo: Trump plows ahead with efforts to overturn election
A full two weeks after President-elect Joe Biden was projected as the clear winner of the 2020 election, the nation is steaming toward a collision.
President Trump, far from moving toward an acceptance of his defeat, has intensified his efforts to overturn the results.
But that effort is running up against the clock — and against legal and political realities.
Georgia certified its results Friday, after a hand recount affirmed that Biden had carried the state. Two other crucial states won by Biden, Michigan and Pennsylvania, have Monday deadlines pertaining to their results.
In an extraordinary intervention, Trump invited the two most senior Republicans in the Michigan state legislature to the White House on Friday.
The move was widely seen as an attempt to pressure the two politicians, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and state House Speaker Lee Chatfield, toward bucking the will of the voters and appointing their own slate of Trump-friendly electors to the electoral college.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany denied there was anything nefarious about the effort at a press briefing Friday. She claimed the confab was “not an advocacy meeting” and that the president “routinely meets with lawmakers from all across the country.”
In a joint statement after the meeting, Shirkey and Chatfield pledged that they would “follow the law and follow the normal process regarding Michigan’s electors.”
The White House meeting came three days after the president had called a Republican canvassing board member in Wayne County, Mich., after she had initially declined to certify the results from the county.
The overall picture is one in which a president adamant about clinging to power, despite losing the Electoral College and the popular vote, is flexing every political sinew.
Carl Bernstein, the veteran journalist whose work with his then-colleague Bob Woodward exposed the Watergate scandal, told The Hill: “We are watching a mad king in the final days of his reign, willing to scorch the earth of his country to bring down the whole system. It is sabotage. He is the first president in our history to really sabotage the interests of the United States and its people by his total willingness to undermine the electoral system.”
Mark Updegrove, a presidential historian and author who is also the president and CEO of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation agreed: “The only thing that is obvious is that there is no obvious parallel. In taking exception to results that are indisputable, he is thumbing his nose at American democracy,” he said.
Updegrove added that, for Trump’s effort to succeed, “it would require rolling back the verdict of the American people. Joe Biden did win by over six million votes, so that is a clear mandate. If you reject those rules, you are effectively saying we are no longer a democracy.”
There is no sign at all that Trump is acceding to that logic. On Twitter Friday, he complained that the certification of results in Georgia was an affirmation of “a meaningless tally.”
He also twice referred to the election as a “hoax” and, in another tweet, claimed that it was “rigged.”
In the latter instance, he was commenting on claims made by one of his lawyers, and retweeted from the official account of the Republican National Committee, that he had “won by a landslide.”
The lawyer in question, Sidney Powell, made a number of unverified claims during a Thursday news conference at which Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis also spoke.
The event drew pushback from some Republicans.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who was reelected on Nov. 3, called suggestions from Powell that the election was fixed “absolutely outrageous” and “offensive.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) blasted Trump and his team for having “failed to make even a plausible case of widespread fraud.” Referring to the efforts to influence Republican officials at the state level, Romney said it was “difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president.”
John Bolton, the former national security adviser now estranged from Trump, accused the president of seeking to inflict “the political equivalent of blunt force trauma” on the two Michigan legislators who were journeying to the White House on Friday.
A University of Michigan law professor, Samuel Bagenstos, emphasized how far outside the norm Trump’s actions appear to be.
“Look, if the president’s goal is to get the state canvassers and Republican legislators in Michigan to disregard a vote that went against him by over 150,000 people, that would just be an incredible subversion of democracy,” he said. “It would be unprecedented.”
Bagenstos also argued that such an outcome was unlikely, however.
If Republican officials refused to certify the results, he said, Democrats would almost certainly seek legal remedy. Though the circumstances of such a case would be remarkable, the principles that undergird it would not be, he argued.
“We have had many times in the past when public officials are failing to comply with their duties,” he said. “They get taken to court and the courts order them to comply with their duties.”
Most experts believe the chances are extraordinarily slim that Trump could find any way to secure a second term for himself. But, even assuming he does leave office on Jan. 20, there are widespread fears about the damage currently being done to the nation’s civic fabric.
An Economist/YouGov poll conducted earlier this week found that 84 percent of Republican voters do not believe Biden’s election victory to be legitimate. Such a high number is a major problem, given that democracies only function when there is a widespread consensus on such basic facts as the outcome of elections.
Concerns about the erosion of that consensus are by no means limited to Democrats or liberals.
Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist who first became prominent for her work in former President Reagan’s White House, wrote this week that “it is right to worry about the damage being done” by Trump’s rhetoric and action, which she said invited “real and politically pointless ruin.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) responded to the Giuliani-led Thursday press conference by saying that such events “erode public trust,” adding “we are a nation of laws, not tweets.”
Away from Capitol Hill, the verdict of Trump-skeptical conservatives is even more forceful.
Trump’s overall actions since the election are “so outrageous even in this moment in time that I think the reality of it fails to sink in with most people,” said John ‘Mac’ Stipanovich, a longtime GOP lawyer in Florida who has worked for former Govs. Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez.
“He gladly would, in fact, overthrow elective democracy in the United States and would do it without the slightest regret,” Stipanovich added. “It’s not that he wouldn’t do it if he could. It’s that he can’t do it because the margins are too big.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.