After ignoring for weeks, months even, repeated attacks by President Trump on the integrity of the 2020 election, some members of the GOP are crossing their party leader in what will amount to their greatest act of defiance after four years of nearly none.
To be sure, it's not a full-throated effort. You could call it a strained, sore-throated one, talking about finishing vote counts in an effort to tamp down on Trump’s authoritarian power grab in the wee hours of Wednesday morning when he declared himself the winner of the election, which had not yet been called. There’s a huge difference between “we are winning” -- which would be fine -- and using the past tense. It was this fraudulent claim, combined with a dictator's demand to shut down vote counting, that simply couldn’t be defended.
Trump not only announced that “frankly, we did win this election,” but said, “We want all voting to stop.” Of course the voting had stopped, the counting hadn’t. Trump also declared, “We’ll be going to the Supreme Court,” without citing any actual fraud that would provide the basis for a lawsuit.
This from the president of the United States on a day that culminated months of hard work by Americans in thousands of separate election systems to help an unprecedented number of people -- 160 million -- vote peacefully, and without incident, during in a once-in-a-century pandemic that is now reaching its most dangerous peak.
But, no surprise, it got worse as the day wore on. By nightfall Trump “claimed” several states in his Electoral College column that he had not won and where votes were still being counted.
Conservative columnist Michael Gerson, who worked in the administration of George W. Bush and is a Trump critic, tweeted Wednesday: “To be clear, what Trump is doing — trashing the electoral system — is not a future threat to democracy. Not a potential threat to democracy. It is an unfolding attack on democracy. It is not just Trump venting. It is Trump corrupting and diminishing every institution he touches.”
The most forceful Republican statement came from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who told Fox News on Wednesday: “We count the votes. We believe in the rule of law. I am for Trump, but if it ends up being Biden, all of us will accept that. ... Every vote has to be counted. We as a country accept election results. We believe in counting all the votes."
Sen. Roy Blunt echoed this point, writing, “We have set all-time records for voter participation. Every vote that was legally cast needs to be counted. America will once again serve as an example to the world.”
But the other messages were more vague. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stepped out gingerly, having secured his seventh term in the upper chamber the night before, and said, “Claiming you have won the election is different from finishing the counting,” adding that it may take a while to complete that process.
Sen. Rob Portman put out a statement that politely explained the rules: “Under our Constitution, state legislatures set the rules and states administer our elections. We should respect that process and ensure that all ballots cast in accordance with state laws are counted. It’s that simple. I hope we can reach a final resolution as quickly as possible.”
Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted: “The result of the presidential race will be known after every legally cast vote has been counted.”
Republicans will need to keep up the pressure that Blunt and DeWine delivered. It’s not as if they didn’t know this was coming: Trump told us months ago just what he would say after the election about mail-in ballots. The part about declaring victory prematurely, reported by Axios last weekend, had been planned all along.
Republicans are also aware that the president has linked the counting of legally cast votes after Election Day to potential violence. Days ago at a rally, Trump excoriated the Supreme Court for deciding mail-in ballots could be counted after election night in North Carolina and Pennsylvania: "They made a very dangerous situation, and I mean physically dangerous." Trump, never one to discourage violence, later tweeted the ruling would "induce violence in the streets.”
Influential Republicans, if they can’t silence Trump, should place a call to Newt Gingrich to shut up the former House speaker. Like Trump, he is working to inflame tensions, not ease them. Wednesday morning Gingrich appeared on “Fox & Friends” and used the word “steal” as many times as he could when ranting about plots by Democrats that he couldn’t detail. They were taking place in Nevada and Philadelphia, where all Democratic evildoers scheme, but without specifics Gingrich boiled it down to asking how we could watch returns with Trump ahead all night, but then “you’re asked to believe that none of that counts? You wonder what is going on,” said the 2012 presidential candidate, who knows exactly what’s going on. To make it really clear to the viewers, he said, “This looks like a set-up to steal the presidency by the Democrats.”
This is sick. No one knows more than Gingrich that Gingrich is lying. As a former college professor and historian, who purportedly takes pride in fealty to the nation, we know for certain his keen understanding of federal election rules. It was in stunning contrast to Mike Huckabee, who urged Trump in a Fox appearance to act as president now, instead of candidate, and said, “It's not yet time to declare this as being over.” Someone should tell Newt it’s gotta be really bad for Huckabee to play grown-up.
When this is over, win or lose for Trump, Republicans should take a long look at just how hard the party fought to restrict, slow or stop voting, or the counting of votes, and then roundly reject that posture. The late-counted ballots Trump is questioning were not counted early because Republican state legislatures worked to make sure they were not. As Trump railed against the practice in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, it's critical to remember who made sure those ballots would be counted later -- and could then be attacked by the president.
Those interested in facilitating voting would have supported the early counting of ballots. In not one lawsuit the GOP filed this cycle did the party make it easier for votes to be cast, and in most cases the suits seek to erect barriers to voting, noted Ben Ginsburg, one of the party’s most prominent election lawyers. Ginsburg, of Bush v. Gore recount fame, came forward in September to counter Trump’s arguments by stating that after searching for 38 years he can unequivocally say there is no substantial fraud in elections. He has urged his party not to embrace the president’s dangerous rhetoric, and also not to be complicit in any disenfranchisement of voters -- “calling elections ‘fraudulent’ and results ‘rigged’ with almost nonexistent evidence is antithetical to being the ‘rule of law’ party,” he wrote. In his Sunday Washington Post piece, titled “My party is destroying itself on the altar of Trump,” Ginsburg wrote that Trump’s two-pronged approach to making voting harder in a pandemic while challenging ballots of voters likely to support his opponent is “as un-American as it gets.”
We need Republicans to protect our system in the days to come. Fiercely and forcefully -- for the legitimacy of a Trump second term if he wins, the legitimacy of the GOP and the legitimacy of our democracy. The hour is woefully late.