Two new developments provide an occasion to look at how Trump might try to burn the place down on the way out — and at the damage he can do in the process. The first has to do with efforts to overturn the results in the courts. The second involves messing with the transition.
Trump’s coming ‘legal war’
Trump and his allies are set to spend at least another month on a “legal war” to reverse Joe Biden’s victory, Axios reports. They are reportedly discussing rallies at which Trump will highlight supposed examples of voter fraud, as well as pursuing targeted litigation in states where the outcome was decided.
Color us skeptical that this will amount to much. First, many Republicans are privately irked by it, Axios reports, noting that it will distract time and money from the two looming Senate runoffs in Georgia. If Democrats win both, they could still recapture the upper chamber.
It would make sense that many GOP leaders have already moved on to the battle over the Senate. After all, that will be their primary bulwark against Biden horrors such as higher taxes on the rich, spending to alleviate widespread economic misery, and efforts to preserve a habitable planet for the future of humanity.
What’s more, Republicans know the legal battle won’t succeed. Biden’s margins are far too large to be overcome by litigation (he’s up more than 45,000 votes in Pennsylvania, more than 20,000 in Wisconsin, nearly 150,000 in Michigan, and more than 10,000 even in Georgia).
And on many fronts, these legal efforts are already falling apart. Indeed, the Associated Press reports that senior officials and allies privately admit that claims of large-scale voter fraud — the basis for efforts to overturn the results — aren’t actually meant to be proved:
The strategy to wage a legal fight against the votes tallied for Biden in Pennsylvania and other places is more to provide Trump with an off-ramp for a loss he can’t quite grasp and less about changing the election’s outcome, the officials said.
That’s extraordinary: Trump allies are claiming in many high-profile forums that the lawfully cast votes of millions of Americans are illegitimate, largely to create space for him to process his rage and grief over losing.
All this sets up another possibility. With Trump unlikely to formally concede, you can see a kind of Lost Cause of Trumpism mythology taking hold, in which many supporters continue believing the election was stolen from him and that squeamish Republicans betrayed him by not fighting hard enough against it.
That could do serious civic damage: As Rick Hasen suggests, it appears designed to place a cloud of illegitimacy over Biden’s presidency. What’s more, it will require Republicans running in 2024 to do a delicate dance maintaining fealty to that mythology for years, just as they tiptoed around “birtherism.”
Still, on this front, Trump’s wind-down will likely be managed. After a few more losses in court, it’s hard to imagine those rallies, which are large logistical undertakings, ever taking place.
Mucking up the transition
Meanwhile, The Post reports on another way Trump could try to burn the place down: The administrator of the General Services Administration, Emily Murphy, has still not signed a letter formally authorizing the transition to begin.
Theoretically, this could do real damage. Transitions are enormously complicated undertakings, and every lost day could matter, particularly with Biden taking over amid a rapidly worsening pandemic and economic calamity.
Don Moynihan, the co-author of a book about the hidden pitfalls faced by government bureaucracies, tells me that in theory, Trump could actively wage private or public pressure on Murphy to continue refusing to sign the letter.
But Moynihan notes that once it becomes clear that Trump’s legal efforts will fail, “the pressure is going to become overwhelming on Murphy to move forward.”
By law, Murphy must authorize the transition once it’s “apparent” that Biden won, as Steve Vladeck points out. Once a few more of Trump’s lawsuits fail, it will be beyond “apparent.”
Obviously, Murphy could break the law. But as The Post notes, numerous agencies have already drawn up detailed transition plans. The appetite for holding out inside the government will likely wane, particularly among career types who have futures to consider.
So the most likely outcome here, too, is that the transition does move forward quietly behind the scenes even as Trump refuses to publicly concede.
It’s absurd enough that managing Trump’s illusion that he didn’t lose is of such all-consuming importance in some quarters that we must endure even the possibility of extensive civic and governmental damage, all so that it can be slowly put out of its misery. That’s what we’ve come to, but it won’t be for much longer.