President Donald Trump continued his multi-pronged, ultimately doomed effort to overturn the presidential election results over the holiday break, pressuring Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” votes for him in a remarkable phone call recorded and leaked to the Washington Post.
“There’s nothing wrong with saying, you know, that you’ve recalculated,” Trump said on the call Saturday. “I think you have to say that you’re going to reexamine it.” While spouting various false conspiracy theories about vote fraud and irregularities, Trump claimed that Raffensperger and his lawyer were taking a “big risk” by not stepping in. Raffensperger rebutted Trump’s claims and, in any case, Georgia’s electors already cast their electoral votes weeks ago.
Trump’s call (which experts said may have been illegal) came as he and his allies have increasingly focused their attention on the next key date in the process: This Wednesday, January 6, when a joint session of the new Congress will count the electoral votes that were cast back in mid-December.
Of course, we already know the count of electoral votes — 306 were cast for Biden and 232 for Trump, back on December 14. But Trump allies in Congress have decided to mount bogus “objections” to those counts, claiming that the results in key swing states where Biden won cannot be trusted. Any objection backed by at least one House member and one senator will force both houses of Congress to separately vote on whether to approve the results in question.
So some ambitious Republicans like Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) have decided to object to the results, seeking to pander to Trump voters before their own future presidential runs, and they’ll likely be joined by more than half of House Republicans and at least a quarter of Senate Republicans. But other Republicans have condemned the effort, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY).
Crucially, both the House and Senate would have to vote to change the results in a state for it to have any impact. And Democrats control the House, so this effort has no chance of overturning Biden’s win. (Enough Senate Republicans have also condemned the ploy that it seems likely to fail in the Senate, too.)
But Trump shows no sign of letting up yet, and he has encouraged his supporters to come to Washington, DC, as Congress counts the electoral votes this Wednesday, tweeting that the protest “will be wild.” Amid all this, every living former secretary of defense got together to write a highly unusual op-ed for the Washington Post saying that the military shouldn’t be involved in any election disputes — raising questions about what, exactly, they may be worrying Trump will do.
Since the election, it has been widely reported that Trump has pressured Republican officials in swing states Biden won to try and change the results somehow. But on Sunday, we got our clearest look yet into how he’s doing that — when the Washington Post’s Amy Gardner reported on an hour-long call Trump had with Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, the day before.
Though a staunch Republican, Raffensperger has outspokenly defended the integrity of Georgia’s election process, and made clear that he’s found no substantial fraud and that Biden’s narrow win in the state is legitimate. That has infuriated Trump. So on the call, the president is fuzzy on facts and often incoherent, but his message is crystal clear — he wants Raffensperger to change the results in Georgia so that he will have won the state rather than lost it.
At one point, Trump says that because Raffensperger knows about supposed “corrupt” ballots, Raffensperger himself might be breaking the law — making an apparent threat of legal consequences. “It is more illegal for you than it is for them because you know what they did and you’re not reporting it. That’s a criminal offense. And you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer.”
Trump goes on to say, “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state.” Throughout the call, Raffensperger rebuffs Trump’s efforts and tries to debunk his claims. (Flipping Georgia’s result also wouldn’t even be enough to flip the Electoral College to Trump, he’d have to change the results in at least two other states — raising questions about whether he’s made similar calls to GOP officials elsewhere.)
According to NBC’s Julia Jester, Trump had made 18 previous attempts to speak with Raffensperger since the election, but had been spurned each time by the secretary of state. Finally, this Saturday, with Georgia’s results long since certified and its electoral votes cast, Raffensperger agreed to talk to Trump. But per Politico’s Marc Caputo, Raffensperger’s advisers were expecting some unethical pressure, and decided to record the call. It was Trump’s berating Raffensperger on Twitter Saturday night that apparently spurred his team to get the audio out.
Rick Hasen, a law professor for the University of California Irvine, wrote in Slate that Trump’s conduct on the call “likely violate state and federal law” that prohibits the solicitation of voter fraud, and argues that he should be prosecuted. But Brad Heath of Reuters points out that, because Trump arguably appears to believe the false claims he is making about the results, his intent to commit fraud would be difficult to prove.
That is, Trump didn’t say “I lost, but rig the results for me so I win” — he instead insisted, offering an array of false and nonsensical justifications, that he was the rightful winner and that accurately calculated numbers would reflect that. Hasen acknowledges this but says Trump should be prosecuted anyway “despite the long odds,” to deter future authoritarian shenanigans from him or others. The decision, of course, will be up to Georgia state prosecutors and/or US Department of Justice prosecutors under the Biden administration.
The odd thing about Trump’s call with Raffensperger was that Georgia’s Electoral College appointees have already voted, meaning Raffensperger no longer has any actual authority over the process. But Trump likely still hoped to pressure him into changing the results to get a political win of some kind in advance of those electoral votes being counted by Congress this Wednesday — the final key step in finalizing the results before inauguration day.
Congress’s role in counting the electoral votes is usually a purely ceremonial event, ratifying the long-known results. But the Electoral Count Act of 1887 set up a process by which the objections to state election results could be heard and resolved in Congress — and Trump’s allies plan to use that process to object to Biden’s victory.
It’s been clear for weeks that several House members would object to the results of key swing states Biden won, but for an objection to be heard by Congress, at least one senator must join on as well.
And finally last week, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) announced that he “cannot vote to certify the electoral college results” without objecting to the results in Pennsylvania and unnamed other states. Days later, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) organized a group of 11 Republican senators in a similar effort, saying they wouldn’t certify results unless a commission was set up to review claims of election irregularities.
According to some estimates, as many as 140 of the 211 House Republicans plan to vote in support of these objections — which, to be perfectly clear, means voting to disregard the results in swing states that voted for Biden, in defiance of the will of those states’ voters.
Yet others in the GOP have come out against this effort, condemning it as an affront to democracy. These include sometime-Trump critics such as Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Ben Sasse (R-NE), but also staunch conservatives like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), and Rep. Tom Massie (R-KY), all of whom condemned the effort as an affront to states’ rights. Senate leaders such as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are also opposed, with McConnell telling GOP senators on a call that the vote to certify Biden’s win will be “the most consequential I have ever cast.”
Again, these objections have no chance of succeeding. To reject a state’s Electoral College results, both chambers of Congress must agree, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House obviously won’t. So many Republicans appear to be interpreting this as a loyalty test about President Trump rather than a serious effort to change the outcome. (Even Hawley and Cruz, both of whom have presidential ambitions, have been hesitant to fully back Trump’s claims that the election was stolen, offering instead the cop-out justification that they are just objecting to speak for voters who lack trust in the system.)
Still, even some of their own GOP colleagues are alarmed enough by their colleagues’ conduct that they are loudly condemning it. And it’s inarguably disturbing that so many Republicans are willing to rhetorically back the idea of tossing out state election results they don’t like.
Meanwhile, amid Trump’s refusal to concede, every living former US secretary of defense — all 10 of them — signed on to a highly unusual op-ed published in the Washington Post Sunday, which asserts that “efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.”
The secretaries write that “the time for questioning the results has passed,” they stress the need to uphold the peaceful transfer of power, and they urge current officials to “refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election.”
In addition to the secretaries of defense who served under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the op-ed’s signees notably include Bush administration bigwigs Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, as well as Trump’s two former secretaries of defense — James Mattis, who resigned at the end of 2018, and Mark Esper, who Trump fired after the 2020 election.
According to the Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe, the effort came together because Vice President Dick Cheney and Eric Edelman (who served as a Defense Department official under President George W. Bush) had “a conversation” about “how the military might be used in coming days.”
Edelman told Politico’s Bryan Bender and David Cohen that he was particularly alarmed by a December 26 column by the Post’s David Ignatius described “fears” among unnamed government officials that Trump might try and “invoke the Insurrection Act to mobilize the military” and then try to order new elections in swing states, as Trump ally Flynn suggested.
“I’d heard things that were eerily similar to what was in the Ignatius column,” Edelman told Politico. He cited “concerns about what might be going on with this clown car of people that they’ve got over there around [Acting Secretary of Defense Chris] Miller.”