Overturning elections sounds like the stuff of secret deals in smoke-filled rooms, but President Donald Trump’s not even trying to hide his effort to subvert the results of the election as President-elect Joe Biden’s margin widens to more than 6 million votes.
Trump’s efforts to deny Biden the White House traveled from the courts to state legislatures on Friday with Trump’s personal reception with Republican lawmakers from Michigan – and their counterparts in Pennsylvania may be next on the list.
But there were signs, even among Republicans, that Trump’s efforts need some evidence.
“As legislative leaders, we will follow the law and follow the normal process regarding Michigan’s electors, just as we have said throughout this election,” Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield said in a joint statement after their meeting at the White House.
Importantly, they acknowledged there is no actual evidence of wrongdoing, a blow to a President and his allies who’ve been peddling baseless claims about fraud.
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“Allegations of fraudulent behavior should be taken seriously, thoroughly investigated, and if proven, prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And the candidates who win the most votes win elections and Michigan’s electoral votes. These are simple truths that should provide confidence in our elections,” the Michigan lawmakers said.
Another blow for Trump came on Friday in Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed the paperwork that officially grants the state’s 16 electoral votes to Biden. A federal judge on Thursday had rejected a last-ditch lawsuit that tried to block certification, and Biden’s victory was certified Friday afternoon by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican.
Other setbacks came in Nevada, where a district judge on Friday denied a request brought by a conservative activist to halt the certification next week of the state’s election results – which show Biden leading by more than 33,000 votes – and in Wisconsin, where elections officials in the Democratic stronghold of Dane County rejected requests from the Trump campaign to throw out tens of thousands of absentee ballots on Friday as the state kicked off its partial presidential recount.
Testing out loopholes
To succeed, Trump would need to bulldoze the Electoral College system. But for all the angst he’s sparked about a coup, the President doesn’t seem to have a plan so much as a shameless sense of entitlement to the White House. What he’s doing is exploiting loopholes and prying at technicalities to see if any of them will give.
He’s clearly trying to generate the heat and noise he craves. But he’s also casting about for an unexpected opening, as he’s done so many times before.
Trump refused to take questions at the White House Friday at what he had falsely billed a “press conference,” where he discussed prescription drug prices and gave a business-as-usual veneer to the democratic subversion he’s orchestrating from the Oval Office and the raging pandemic he appears to be largely ignoring. The appearance came just as Covid hospitalizations and new daily cases hit a record again and news emerged that his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., has tested positive. Cases to continue to climb in Congress, too, with Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida – a staunch Trump ally – becoming the latest to test positive.
Trump skipped a special side-conference focused on the coronavirus pandemic on Saturday during the Group of 20 summit, the opening session of which he spent tweeting before going to play golf at his Virginia club.
Perhaps in a brief moment of reality on Friday, Trump appeared to acknowledge his impending departure from the White House, implying that it will be up to the new administration to maintain the drug pricing rules he was announcing. But he quickly repeated during the same lie that he won the election, despite the results, and he promised, “We’ll find that out.”
What he meant was this: If he can delay certification, whether in Michigan or Pennsylvania or another Biden-won state with a Republican-run legislature, then he can maybe lean on lawmakers to appoint pro-Trump slates of presidential electors.
That’s why Trump met with the Michigan GOP lawmakers on Friday. He’d need to turn them and a majority of the Michigan statehouse into accomplices if his effort is to succeed, after previous legal attempts all failed. Trump’s top campaign attorneys – Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis – did not attend the meeting after Giuliani’s son, who works at the White House, tested positive for Covid-19. Also not in attendance: Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, who is from Michigan.
But Michigan’s just the first part of Trump’s puzzle. Biden has 306 of the 538 available electoral votes, which means Trump would need to find a way to claw back 37 to bring Biden under the 270 normally needed to win. So he’d need to poach votes in at least three states where a majority of voters said Biden should be President.
The clear focus by the White House is on Michigan (16 electoral votes), Wisconsin (10 electoral votes) and Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes).
Overturning the results of one state’s election would be brazen and horrible enough. Overturning three would be a macabre triple Lindy.
That doesn’t mean Trump won’t try. Two sources tell CNN there are discussions currently underway with the President about inviting Republican state legislators from Pennsylvania to the White House. It’s not clear if those invitations have been extended yet, but Trump has expressed interest in doing so as he tries to insert himself into the vote certification process.
The election certification deadline for both Michigan and Pennsylvania is Monday, so the plotting will have to move into overdrive if it’s to be anything more than a delusional sideshow.
One state is off the map, though, with Georgia’s Republican governor certifying the election results after his Republican secretary of state formalized the fact that Biden won, very narrowly. Every small normally procedural step is under scrutiny during this strange time, and these Republicans were true to the democratic result.
Legal experts have made clear that it would be incredibly difficult for Trump to hack any path from his current deficit to a second term.
For starters, they’ve pointed out that if Trump can get electoral votes thrown out or contested so that they’re not approved in Congress, it changes the 270 threshold and doesn’t necessarily gain Trump ground.
As Michael Morley, a professor of election law at Florida State University and a member of National Task Force on Election Crises, said, “In short, under any remotely plausible scenario, the election will be settled in the Electoral College without triggering a contingent election in the House.”
Read the fine print
As his effort to stay in the White House becomes more frantic, Trump’s continuing to ask for more money.
But as CNN’s Fredreka Schouten notes, donors need to read the fine print of the solicitation, in which Trump’s political team says it has upped to 75% the share of the money that goes to Trump’s leadership PAC, Save America. It had been a 60% cut last week.
This money is not primarily geared at Trump’s legal efforts, but rather could fund Trump’s post-presidential political efforts.
That Trump’s adviser and aides are tacitly eyeing what comes next is not news, but the extent of his efforts to gum things up and make things more difficult for Biden continues to become clear.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, for instance, is defending a decision to claw back billions the government had given the Federal Reserve to help American small businesses. It’s a program more easily ended than spun back up. And while the move certainly creates political headaches for Biden, it’ll also have a negative impact on everyday Americans still living in a pandemic.
Biden moves forward with his Cabinet
Even if Trump continues to block a formal transition, Biden is carrying forward with his own preparations to take office. On Friday, his 78th birthday, he met in Wilmington, Delaware, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer.
What they’ll be able to accomplish on Capitol Hill and who Biden will be able to place in his Cabinet depends very much on who wins the twin Senate runoffs in Georgia on January 5, the day before Electoral College votes are counted on Capitol Hill.
Biden said he’s already selected his Treasury secretary, but will make the announcement in the coming week.
As Trump’s agitating leads him to darker, more dangerous places, the former vice president’s mandate has only grown. He had won nearly 80 million votes, as of Friday evening, which is more votes than any US presidential candidate in history by a considerable margin. Trump has received nearly 74 million votes.
While most of GOP leadership continues to back Trump’s efforts to contest those results, a growing number of veteran Republicans pushed back on Trump’s tactics and expressed frustration about the transition being held up.
“The President-elect should be receiving the briefings, office space, and access to government resources he needs to be ready to govern on Inauguration Day,” Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who won a competitive reelection earlier this month, said in a statement Friday, adding that states should certify their results as planned.
“There is a right way and a wrong way for the incumbent President to pursue his rights to contest what he perceives as election irregularities,” she said. Trying to pressure state election officials, she added, “undermines the public’s faith in our election results without evidence and court rulings to support the allegations.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who’s retiring at the end of this year, also called for the transition to move forward.
“If there is any chance whatsoever that Joe Biden will be the next president, and it looks like he has a very good chance, the Trump administration should provide the Biden team with all transition materials, resources, and meetings necessary to ensure a smooth transition so that both sides are ready on day one,” Alexander said in a statement Friday.
“That especially should be true, for example, on vaccine distribution,” the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions chairman added.
“I think that it’s time to move on,” 12-term Rep. Kay Granger of Texas said Friday when asked about Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results. “I think it’s time for him to really realize and be very clear about what’s going on.”
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking member of House GOP leadership, said in a statement on Saturday that if Trump and his lawyers have “genuine evidence” of widespread fraud, “they are obligated to present it immediately in court and to the American people.”
“If the President cannot prove these claims or demonstrate that they would change the election result, he should fulfill his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States by respecting the sanctity of our electoral process,” she added.
This story has been updated with additional developments.