Trump era bows out with scorched-earth drama in divided GOP

The heated partisan politics of Capitol Hill will jump to scorching on Wednesday, when President Trump’s staunchest Republican allies will launch a formal, public and futile effort to keep him in power by overturning the results of November’s election.

Trump’s allegations of rampant voter fraud have been debunked by the states and rejected by the courts. But that hasn’t stopped more than 100 GOP loyalists in the House and Senate from backing his bid to toss out the vote tallies of certain battleground states. 

The extraordinary gambit has convulsed the Capitol in the final days of Trump’s reign and cleaved the GOP into warring factions — divisions that will bear long-lasting implications for both the future direction of the Republican Party and the success of the ambitious figures scrambling to lead it into a post-Trump world.

Such challenges have been tried before, but not on this scale: At least 13 Senate Republicans and more than 100 House Republicans are expected to vote to reject certification. Most of them are citing the various changes to election rules at precincts around the country in response to the public health threat posed by the coronavirus. 

“I believe that this debate and discussion is owed to the American people. You have tens of millions of Americans who really have questions about the ballot integrity and election security,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a key Trump defender during last year’s impeachment trial, said on Fox News.

The band of dissenting Republicans represents an unprecedented level of opposition to state-certified vote counts. And critics of the effort, largely Democrats, say it’s one that threatens to further erode Americans’ already waning trust in institutions and could cause lasting damage to America’s election system. Even some Republicans are warning colleagues that their effort is not only politically perilous, but patently unconstitutional. 

“While I may not like the outcome of the election, that does not mean I can, nor should I, try to usurp the powers of the individual states of our republic,” said Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), who hails from the same state as GOP Sen. Josh Hawley, one of the leaders of the pro-Trump effort.  

“To allow Congress to alter the decided outcome of the election would irreparably damage our system of government and defy the Constitution.”

Wednesday’s event is typically a staid and uneventful affair.

In recent elections, only a handful of lawmakers from the opposition party launched objections, including a failed effort by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and other Congressional Black Caucus members to protest Florida’s contested vote count in 2000, and another by then-Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and then-Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) objecting to Ohio’s handling of the 2004 election.  

But with Trump agitating his base and threatening to recruit primary challengers to run against disloyal lawmakers, many Republicans, particularly in the House, feel that it would be political suicide to defy the president, a lame duck who still holds enormous sway over his party.

“We don’t have a choice,” said one reluctant House Republican, citing pressure from Trump and conservative voters back in his district.

Highlighting the risk to Republicans who want to keep their day job, Trump on Tuesday evening fired a warning shot at GOP lawmakers thinking of abandoning him. 

“I hope the Democrats, and even more importantly, the weak and ineffective RINO [Republican in name only] section of the Republican Party, are looking at the thousands of people pouring into D.C.,” Trump tweeted. “They won’t stand for a landslide election victory to be stolen.”

Complicating the decision for Republicans were a pair of special Senate elections in Georgia on Tuesday, when voters went to the polls to decide which party will control the upper chamber over the next two years. With the stakes so high, Republicans were wary of bucking the popular president and deflating the base ahead of those contests. 

The process itself promises to be a spectacle of political theater — and a long one, at that. 

Members of both chambers will gather in the House at 1 p.m. for a joint session of Congress as part of the quadrennial exercise to count the Electoral College votes submitted by the states. It’s there that conservative Republicans are expected to challenge the electoral results in as many as six states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — where they’ve accused election officials of various improprieties. 

For each state that’s formally challenged, the House and Senate will split up to their respective chambers to debate the merits of the objection for up to two hours, after which time each chamber votes. 

For a state’s vote to be scrapped, both chambers must approve it. Because Democrats control the House, none of the challenges will pass, paving the way for Biden to assume the White House on Jan. 20. 

“I expect without a doubt that the report of the Electoral College and the 306 electoral votes that Mr. Biden got will be confirmed at the end of this process,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters. 

Wednesday’s proceedings also come against the backdrop of the race to succeed Trump at the top of the party, even as he’s flirted with running again in 2024. A pair of likely presidential hopefuls — Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Hawley — are spearheading the effort to overturn the election, betting that Trump will remain popular among the party faithful heading into the next presidential election cycle. 

But several others mulling a White House bid, including Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), are taking the opposite view, arguing that raising objections would erode states’ rights, hand too much power to Congress and amount to an exercise in futility. 

“Objecting to certified electoral votes won’t give the president a second term,” Cotton wrote Tuesday in an op-ed in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “With Democrats in control of the House, Republicans have no chance of invalidating even a single electoral vote, much less enough votes to deny Joe Biden a majority in the electoral college.” 

“Instead, these objections would exceed Congress’ constitutional power, while creating unwise precedents that Democrats could abuse the next time they are in power.”

Some of Trump’s fiercest House allies have also emerged in recent days as the most vocal opponents of the state challenges. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), for instance, is an ardent Trump supporter, a member of the House Freedom Caucus and Cruz’s former chief of staff. Still, the conservative firebrand offered a resolution on the House floor Sunday attempting to block the swearing-in of any new members of Congress from the six contested states. 

Roy’s message to his GOP colleagues was not subtle: If Biden’s victory in those states is illegitimate, he was saying, then yours might be, too. Few of his fellow Republicans saw the discrepancy, however, and only two GOP lawmakers voted to prevent Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from swearing in the entire House.  

Outside the building, officials in Washington are bracing for tensions and even the possibility of violence as thousands of pro-Trump protesters pour into a famously liberal city.

Police have installed a perimeter fence around the Capitol complex, and House Sergeant at Arms Paul D. Irving has urged lawmakers to use secure underground tunnels to travel between their offices and the House chamber rather than walking or driving outdoors.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has mobilized the National Guard, and implored D.C. residents to avoid downtown and not engage the pro-Trump factions. Downtown businesses boarded up their windows and doors.

Republicans “are inciting violence. Trump is too,” warned Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.), who represents the suburbs outside of Washington. 

“Now the counting of ballots, which is a ministerial act, is now going to become an opportunity for political incitement and potential violence.”

Tags 2020 election Ann Wagner Barbara Boxer Ben Sasse Chip Roy Donald Trump Electoral College Elise Stefanik Georgia Gerry Connolly Joe Biden Josh Hawley Maxine Waters Muriel Bowser Nancy Pelosi Steny Hoyer Ted Cruz Tom Cotton
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