Trump’s final power play pits Republicans against one another
Washington — Donald Trump’s months-long effort to toss out the election results and extend his presidency will meet its formal end this week, but not without exposing political rifts in the Republican Party that have pitted future contenders for the White House against one another.
Congress is expected to vote overwhelmingly against objections to certification of president-elect Joe Biden’s victory, after several Senate Republicans said this week they wouldn’t join a small group of their colleagues set to challenge electoral college votes from closely fought states Trump falsely claims he lost due to widespread fraud.
The senators who say they’ll affirm Biden’s victory — and who say to do otherwise would defy the constitution — include Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Tim Scott of South Carolina, both of whom are seen as potential future presidential candidates.
The leaders of the 13 Senate Republicans planning to object to one or more states are Josh Hawley of Missouri, also regarded as a potential 2024 candidate, and Ted Cruz of Texas, who finished second in the 2016 Republican Party primary to Trump.
Presiding over the event will be the party’s most obvious standard bearer in the years ahead, besides Trump himself: Vice-President Mike Pence.
He is under pressure from Trump’s supporters and the president to attempt to single-handedly change the outcome of the election by rejecting electoral college votes from states where Trump has baselessly alleged that fraud robbed him of victory. Pence has not said how he will tackle the matter.
Congressional certification of Biden’s win is the final, official act in the drawn-out 2020 election before he’s inaugurated and takes office on January 20. But the complicated political currents roiling the Republican Party are turning what used to be a mere formality to end presidential contests into an unprecedented drama.
“You are looking at ambitious Republican officials placing a bet on president Trump’s influence in the future,” said Michael Steel, a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies and former adviser to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. The fate of the effort depends on Trump’s popularity going forward, he said.
“There is a possibility he becomes highly unpopular — having tried to warp the constitution to protect him will be politically damaging. On the other hand, you have to assume, he will have a substantial impact in the Republican primary, and standing with him will help you avoid a primary challenge.”
On Tuesday night, Trump, in a statement from his campaign, denied a New York Times report that Pence had told him he did not believe he had the authority to stop the certification.
“Our vice-president has several options under the US constitution,” Trump said, an assertion rejected by constitutional scholars. The constitution says only that the president of the Senate — Pence, in this case — shall “open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted.”
Depending on how many states’ electoral college submissions are challenged, Congress may find itself debating whether to affirm Biden’s victory well into the night on Wednesday or into Thursday morning. The ramifications will echo for years.
Republicans objecting to congressional certification of Biden’s victory are aiming to ingratiate themselves with an outgoing president who has made clear he has no intention of retiring from politics. Some, though, have stopped short of embracing his false allegations of widespread fraud — in effect, looking to harness the outrage he’s stoked without actually disputing the election results.
“There will be a lot of competition for Trump’s affection, and Trump will still be very influential in the GOP [Republican Party] primary,” said Mike DuHaime, a GOP strategist who worked for the Republican National Committee and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie. “His tweets could make or break people in 2022 or 2024.”
But the Republicans who say they’ll vote to accept the electoral college results include staunch Trump allies such as Cotton and senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota. They say the constitution gives Congress no real power to decide presidential elections, and describe the effort as violating conservative principles of limited federal government.
“It is disappointing this vote has become the exclusive litmus test for whether or not a member of Congress stands with president Trump,” Cramer said on Monday.
Cotton warned of destabilising the electoral college. A group of House Republicans who oppose calls to object said the same this week, pointing out that the college “could provide the only path to victory in 2024” for the Republican nominee and shouldn’t be weakened on Wednesday.
Scott said the GOP legislators’ efforts aren’t practical, since Democrats control the House. “For their theory to work, Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats would have to elect Donald Trump president rather than Joe Biden,” Scott said on Tuesday, referring to votes triggered by an objection to a state’s certified results. “That is not going to happen.”
That the fight is happening at all is a sign of Trump’s enduring influence. The aftermath may ripple through the 2022 midterm elections — calls for objections are more widespread among House Republicans, who are more vulnerable to primary challenges — and the presidential nomination race that will follow.
Trump again tried to pressure Senate Republicans on Tuesday.
“I think it’s not only ridiculous, I think it’s dangerous,” said former GOP representative Denver Riggleman of Virginia, who left Congress after losing his party’s nomination for re-election in 2020 and has been critical of Trump. “I find it amazing that people are kowtowing to someone who lost an election because they’re worried about primaries or fundraising.”
Riggleman said he doubts any Republican legislators believe there was electoral fraud outside what he dubbed the “QAnon caucus”, referring to the farcical far-right conspiracy theory. “This is simply political and the fact is they don’t care what it does to the republic,” he said.
In the Senate, the push had met a cooler reception until Hawley said last week that he’d object, defying pressure from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. Cruz followed, leading a group of 11 Republicans including four newly elected senators, further eroding McConnell’s grip. Their specific plans are still unclear.
Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia Republican who was defeated in a run-off election on Tuesday, said she backed the effort.
“Clearly, Cruz and Hawley are willing to get in and fight — and I wish some of their colleagues in the Senate had the same fortitude right now,” said Jason Miller, an adviser to Trump’s campaigns in 2016 and 2020. But he downplayed questions about whether political futures are driving decisions.
“This isn’t about trying to thread a needle by anyone not named Trump for the future,” he said. “This is much more a reaction to an angry and ticked-off Trump base.”
Hawley believes he has an obligation to give voice to constituents sympathetic to Trump’s claims of vote fraud.
“If you’ve been speaking to folks at home, I’m sure you know how deeply angry and disillusioned many, many people are — and how frustrated that Congress has taken little or no action,” Hawley wrote to fellow Republican senators last week.
He cited past objections during presidential certifications. “I strongly believe it is entirely appropriate for those of us concerned about the integrity of this last election to do the same,” he wrote.
Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, said Cotton is seeking to broaden his support among mainstream voters, while Cruz and Hawley want to “outdo each other for the conservative vote” heading into the 2024 primary.
“They are setting themselves up to be the heir apparent of Trump. But four years is a long time,” he said. “Identifying yourself now as the torchbearer of Trumpism may or may not pay dividends in 2024.”
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