Election 2020 Politics

Trump’s quest to overturn election runs into quiet resistance from local and state Republicans

The top GOP lawmakers in Pennsylvania, where counties must submit their official results by Monday, have said they have no role in deciding the winner of the state’s electoral college votes, writing in an op-ed last month that the law “plainly says that the state’s electors are chosen only by the popular vote of the commonwealth’s voters.”

And Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, moved to certify his state’s results Friday, confirming Biden’s win there and refusing to endorse Trump’s claim that the vote was tainted by fraud.

While some Republican officials in presidential battleground states have given credence to Trump’s baseless fraud claims by launching websites and tip lines aimed at uncovering election irregularities, only a few have appeared willing to endorse an extraordinary move to appoint pro-Trump electors in states Biden won.

A reminder of continued GOP support for Trump’s efforts was apparent Saturday in Michigan, where the state’s Republican chairwoman, Laura Cox, issued a joint statement with Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel calling on the state to delay final certification of the vote and conduct a “full audit and investigation.” This came a day after the state’s top GOP lawmakers met with Trump at the White House but declared afterward that they had “not yet been made aware of any information that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan.”

For the most part, local and state officials have either remained silent or moved forward with the process of certifying election results, potentially closing the door to Trump’s post-election gambit to change the results — first through the courts and then by way of GOP-led statehouses.

Republican officials have been reluctant to openly defy Trump, and many have either humored him or echoed less incendiary versions of his evidence-free claims about rigged voting machines and mail-in ballots. Others have offered only milquetoast and vague statements aiming to defend the integrity of their states’ voting processes while not offending a prickly and vindictive president.

Their delicate posturing underscores the challenge Republicans face as the president solicits their complicity in undermining the democratic process while maintaining an ironclad grip on the party’s voting base.

And it mirrors the approach of some federal officials, including in the Justice Department, where Attorney General William P. Barr touted false claims about mail-in ballots but prosecutors have made no moves to investigate the recent baseless allegations by Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani of a global conspiracy by Democrats to steal the election.

“Republicans knew they’ve been damned if they do and worse if they don’t when it comes to crossing Trump,” said Doug Heye, a former top official at the Republican National Committee and a Trump critic. “But they thought that would end post-Election Day. Instead, they’re stuck in the same time warp: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

In recent days, Trump and his legal team have put their attention more squarely on GOP state lawmakers in a last-ditch attempt to get them to fix the electoral college in his favor.

Under a highly disputed legal theory, Republican lawmakers in key swing states could potentially vote to appoint Trump-supporting electors even if their constituents voted for Biden.

Trump’s most aggressive attempt yet to use the weight of the presidency to lean on state lawmakers — summoning the Michigan legislators to the White House coincided with Trump’s legal team’s effort to force a delay in the certification of that state’s election results. President-elect Joe Biden won the state by more than 150,000 votes.

The details of the meeting are not known. But if Trump’s goal was to get Michigan’s GOP-led legislature to commit publicly to backing his push to toss out Biden’s win, he did not appear to make much headway.

After the meeting, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield said that while they supported investigating fraud allegations, they would honor the outcome of the state’s election. A joint statement issued after the meeting said that “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.”

But although Shirkey and Chatfield, who later Friday were seen having drinks at Trump’s hotel near the White House, did not endorse the president’s baseless claims or embrace the prospect of disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Black voters in cities like Detroit, they did not directly denounce the claims, either. And on the same day, Cox, the state GOP chairwoman, said that Republicans would continue pressuring the state to audit the vote in Wayne County, home to a large percentage of Michigan’s Black residents.

The state canvassing board is to meet Monday to certify the vote. One of the two Republican members, Norman Shinkle, told The Washington Post on Thursday that he was leaning toward seeking a delay and requesting an audit of the vote, citing debunked conspiracy theories touted by Trump and his attorneys about voting machines. But the statement by Shirkey and Chatfield suggested that any delay would not ultimately result in Trump’s reversing Biden’s win through legislative edict.

While a growing number of state officials have begun to speak out against the president’s entreaties, more have remained silent or taken steps to indulge him.

As Trump and his allies have floated the idea of delaying certification of election results and having GOP-led legislatures fix the electoral college in his favor, the unwillingness of many state-level Republicans to forcefully denounce such a move has been interpreted in the White House as a green light to press ahead.

Out of more than three dozen top Republican officials in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and Georgia contacted by The Washington Post on Friday, only a handful have commented on the record about Trump’s push to overturn the election results. This reticence has left breathing room for Trump’s claims about widespread voter fraud to flourish, despite a lack of evidence that there was any such fraud or that irregularities had shaped the results of the election.

Though some Republican officials have increasingly dismissed or ignored the incendiary fraud claims by Trump and Giuliani, the slew of carefully worded statements, declinations to comment and vague attempts to defend the president reflect the enduring power of the president’s grip on his party.

Some historians say legislators’ willingness even to entertain the idea of overturning voters’ choice sets a dangerous precedent.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) is one of a small number of Republican officials who have not minced words as Trump has attacked and undermined a bedrock component of the democratic process.

“It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American President,” Romney said in a statement Thursday that blasted Trump for attempting to put “overt pressure on state and local officials to subvert the will of the people.”

But the sentiment from Romney was far from a mainstream position within the party that selected him as its presidential nominee in 2012.

Most of his fellow Republican U.S. senators have remained silent about Trump’s actions, leaving the work of defending the integrity of the election to the local and state officials tasked with overseeing voting issues in their respective states.

After largely staying on the sidelines in the debate over Georgia’s election, Kemp said on Friday that he would follow state law requiring him to accept the secretary of state’s certified results.

“State law now requires the governor’s office to formalize the certification, which paves the way for the Trump campaign to pursue other legal options and a separate legal option if they choose,” he said in a statement. “As governor, I have a solemn responsibility to follow the law, and that is what I will continue to do.”

There was little pushback among state lawmakers.

While one Georgia state legislator, Rep. Colton Moore, wrote a letter to Kemp earlier Friday calling on him to allow the legislature to assume “the burden” of deciding the election, few joined him.

Some in the party wanted to quickly move on from the election and the claims of vote-rigging to turn their attention — and Trump’s — to a pair of critical runoff races that could determine control of the U.S. Senate. Undermining faith in the electoral system could make it harder for incumbent Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue to corral enough support in the Jan. 5 races, said Brian Robinson, a GOP communications consultant in the state who was a longtime spokesman for Nathan Deal when the Republican was Georgia governor.

“We need to move our focus to the Senate races. Georgians single-handedly get to determine who operates Washington for the next two years,” he said. “Senators Loeffler and Perdue need their voters to have faith in the integrity of the election system, and they need President Trump to engage and rev up his turnout machine.”

Republicans who have remained silent in the face of Trump’s antics have done so in part out of fear of angering the president’s base — which turned out in force to back him in November, Heye said.

Still, some of the most forceful pushbacks to Trump’s claims have come from local GOP officials.

On Friday, the five-member Maricopa County Board of Supervisors — all but one of whom are Republicans — voted unanimously to certify the county’s election results, which showed Biden had won Arizona’s largest county.

Before doing so, they questioned county elections officials for nearly three hours in painstaking detail about how votes had been cast and tabulated, an effort to show that the process had been transparent and airtight.

Board Chairman Clint Hickman (R) noted that his own office had received 180 letters, 4,000 emails and nearly 3,000 voice mails about the election.

“I continue to hear from government leaders and the public about the integrity of Maricopa County elections,” he said. “I have listened to and considered all theories about what might have happened. Let me be clear: There is no evidence of fraud or misconduct or malfunction in Maricopa County, and that is with a big zero.”

Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Chucri (R) shot down conspiracy theories that Trump’s allies have circulated regarding Dominion voting machines. Election officials also testified that results of a hand audit of a portion of ballots had matched 100 percent with machine-tabulated figures, and that representatives of the state’s Republican, Democratic and Libertarian parties had all signed off on that audit earlier in the week.

Hickman closed out the meeting with a veiled but pointed message for those, including Arizona GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward, who continued to allege widespread voter fraud when there was no evidence to support it.

“I have learned a lot about the character of people in this community regarding this matter. I’ve been disheartened by individuals using this time to find relevancy or fundraise off this issue,” he said. “It’s time to dial back the rhetoric, conspiracies and false claims.”

While the GOP caucus in Arizona’s state Senate announced it was setting up an email address to collect new claims of voter fraud, it did not appear prepared to take more aggressive steps to deliver the state to Trump. Senate President Karen Fann (R) did not respond to The Post’s request for comment but told the Arizona Republic on Thursday that she did not intend to try to delay the certification of Arizona’s vote.

“There’s no way we can say we’re going to change this now,” she said.

A similar dynamic was at play in Nevada, where the state party has been using its official social media accounts to solicit potential examples of voter fraud from whistleblowers but where officials have not taken steps to overturn Biden’s win.

Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, published a statement earlier this week in which she denied she had met with any Republicans in Congress about the election results and distanced herself from the certification process.

“At no point do I, as Secretary of State, have the authority to certify or not certify election results. Ultimately, it is the Governor who declares the outcomes and issues certificates of election,” she said in that statement.

A spokeswoman for Cegavske said the secretary of state was unavailable for comment.

Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman declined a request for comment on Trump’s efforts to reverse the election results through statehouses.

The op-ed he wrote last month with House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff was blunt: “We have said it many times and we will happily say it again: The Pennsylvania General Assembly does not have and will not have a hand in choosing the state’s presidential electors or in deciding the outcome of the presidential election.”

But Corman told the Philadelphia Inquirer this week that “we need to be patient and allow the process — the constitutional process that has been laid out for us — to unfold” and that legal processes still in motion should be allowed to conclude before results are certified. He also said the only way the state legislature might be involved in that process would be “if there was no certification of the results.”

In Wisconsin, the GOP-led Committee on Campaigns and Elections said it was collecting “complaints, concerns or allegations” about the November election, but few lawmakers spent time discussing Trump’s allegations that Biden’s 20,000-vote victory in the state resulted from widespread fraud. Instead, Republican House Speaker Robin Vos spent Friday meeting with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers discussing a coronavirus relief package.

When three voters dropped their lawsuit seeking to disqualify all the votes in Democratic-leaning Dane, Milwaukee and Menominee counties last week, Republican House Majority Leader Jim Steineke responded with a two-word tweet: “Good news.”

Amy Gardner, Tom Hamburger, Emma Brown, Michelle Ye Hee Lee and David Fahrenthold contributed to this report.

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