President Donald Trump found himself trapped in an election riddle of his own making Friday – continuing to push false claims that the election was a “total scam,” even after another humiliating court rebuke in Pennsylvania, while insisting that his supporters should turn out in Georgia’s January Senate runoff elections despite concerns about fraud that he has sown.
With the eyes of the political universe focused on turning out voters in Georgia – where the two runoff elections will determine which party controls the US Senate – the President’s relentless attacks on the state’s voting apparatus, its tabulating process and its Republican secretary of state are prompting handwringing among GOP strategists and state leaders who fear those attacks are eroding confidence in elections at a time when they need to turn out as many of their voters as possible to reelect Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue on January 5 and hold onto their firewall against a Democrat-controlled House and White House.
President-elect Joe Biden became the first Democrat in 28 years to win the Peach State, and Trump has been casting doubt about Georgia’s election results for weeks now. He’s made wild claims in his public remarks, retweeted attorneys and allies who have called for overturning the state’s election results, and described the statewide audit – which was a hand recount of every ballot – as “meaningless” because of his objections to the signature-verification process. After Georgia certified its results, which confirmed Biden’s victory in the state, the Trump campaign requested another recount, which is unlikely to reverse his loss.
Trump ratcheted up those attacks when speaking to reporters on Thanksgiving even as he touted his upcoming visit to campaign in Georgia on December 5, claiming without evidence that he was “robbed” with “fraud all over the place” and calling Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “an enemy of the people.”
When asked by a reporter why he would expect GOP voters to have confidence after what he described as an illegitimate election and turn out for Loeffler and Perdue, Trump said he had warned the two senators: “Listen you have a fraudulent system … you have to be very careful.”
But on Friday, he backtracked as he tweeted a Newsmax story that said his supporters are considering an election boycott in Georgia over fraud claims. After falsely calling the November election a “scam” that he’s hoping to overturn, he encouraged people to “get out and help David and Kelly, two GREAT people.”
Trump’s rhetoric, and the way it could undermine Georgia’s electoral system, have been troubling to Republican strategists like Alice Stewart, a CNN contributor and native Georgian, who noted that bedrock Republican issues, including maintaining the conservative majority on the Supreme Court – and preventing Democrats from court packing and enacting liberal policies like the Green New Deal – will hinge on Republicans defending both Senate seats.
Trump White House
“Without a doubt, if this continues, it’s going to be a problem,” Stewart said of Trump’s baseless allegations about voting in Georgia. “I think every legal and legitimate vote should be counted, but at this stage of the game, to claim there’s widespread voter fraud, this claim that there is an election hoax — we need to see some evidence. We need to see what he’s talking about.”
“Otherwise, he needs to drop it and move on, because it’s not helpful to the process,” Stewart said, noting that she and many of her family members in Georgia voted for Trump because they support his policies.
Republican donor Dan Eberhart called on lower-level Republican leaders to “step up or step out right now” and openly challenge Trump’s claims before it does irreparable harm to their party.
“The party and the Republicans need to be focused on making (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell stronger right now, which is winning these two seats in Georgia, and then we need to be focused on winning the next election, taking the house back in 2022, and they can’t do that if Trump has frozen everything,” Eberhart said Friday night on CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront.”
“These Republican senators, Republican congressmen, Republican governors, they’re afraid of the Trump tweet and I think we need to get over that,” he said.
The challenge facing Republicans was evident Saturday in Georgia where Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel tried to allay concerns from GOP voters about Trump’s fraud claims, insisting the runoff election is “not decided.”
“If you lose your faith and you don’t vote and people walk away – that will decide it,” McDaniel told an unsettled crowd at a meet-and-greet in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta.
Vice President Mike Pence is also expected back in Georgia – likely next Friday, a day before Trump’s trip – a source close to the Perdue and Loeffler campaigns told CNN.
Still not accepting the inevitable
Trump made another perplexing about-face Friday. After stating on Thursday night that he would leave the White House in January if Biden’s victory is certified by the electoral college, he made the absurd claim on Twitter that “Biden can only enter the White House as President if he can prove that his ridiculous ’80,000,000 votes’ were not fraudulently or illegally obtained,” even though Trump’s own authority expires on January 20 when his term ends and his team hasn’t been able to offer any credible evidence of fraud.
Trump’s own appointee, Chairman of the US Election Assistance Commission Ben Hovland, rejected the premise of Trump’s tweet Friday night. (The Commission is charged, in part, with testing and certifying voting machines and works closely with election officials around the country).
“Those 80 million votes that President-elect Biden has have been confirmed. They have been confirmed by the men and women who run our elections across the country,” Hovland said on “Erin Burnett OutFront.” “We have certified results in a number of states now, and again the people who run our elections have said that those are the totals.”
“I believe the President and his allies have one win and 38 losses, they have failed to provide evidence of any widespread fraud to the courts,” he added of Trump’s court battles. “Clearly Joe Biden has won this race — the election officials who run our elections have said that — and that’s how our democracy works.”
Biden won 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232, and has now become the first presidential candidate to win more than 80 million votes – posting a margin of more than 6 million over Trump.
A rebuke in Pennsylvania
Republicans suffered another legal defeat Saturday evening when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit from GOP Rep. Mike Kelly and other Republicans, who had tried to invalidate absentee voting and block the certification of votes in recent weeks.
That followed Friday’s opinion from a three-judge panel for the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals that denied the Trump campaign’s request to refile its lawsuit challenging the results in Pennsylvania, where Biden enjoys a margin of more than 80,000 votes. The opinion illuminated the dearth of evidence supporting Trump’s fraud claims.
“Calling an election unfair does not make it so,” Judge Stephanos Bibas, a Trump appointee, wrote for the panel. “Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.”
Highlighting the gulf between the inflammatory charges that Trump and his allies have made outside the courtroom and the flimsy allegations that appear in their court filings, Bibas noted that the Trump campaign never alleged that “any ballot was fraudulent or cast by an illegal voter.”
“It never alleges that any defendant treated the Trump campaign or its votes worse than it treated the Biden campaign or its votes,” Bibas wrote. “Calling something discrimination does not make it so.”
The three-judge panel also called the Trump campaign’s efforts to negate Pennsylvania’s certification of votes “unprecedented,” adding that the campaign’s claims have “no merit.”
“Tossing out millions of mail-in ballots would be drastic and unprecedented, disenfranchising a huge swath of the electorate and upsetting all down-ballot races too,” the opinion said.
Though the defeat added to the Trump campaign’s humiliating tally of more than 30 courtroom losses or withdrawals in their effort to challenge the election results, the President’s attorney Jenna Ellis said on Twitter that their team was moving on to the Supreme Court.
Ben Ginsberg, a Republican election lawyer who co-chaired the bipartisan 2013 Presidential Commission on Election Administration, said the Supreme Court taking up the case would be a welcome development to put an end to Trump’s counterproductive efforts to unravel democracy.
“We should only hope that he takes this case in Pennsylvania up to the Supreme Court, because that will explode the other myth that judges are just going to lay down for him and do his bidding, because they are Republican judges,” Ginsberg said on “Erin Burnett OutFront” Friday.
“What his followers will see, once he is out of office, is that there were a lengthy string of losses, losses, losses and that in effect is going to be part of his legacy when we look back at this.”
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s Donald Judd and Ryan Nobles contributed to this report.