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Opinion As Trump rages, a new plan to prevent a 2024 coup quietly advances

Former president Donald Trump. (Go Nakamura/Reuters)

In a welcome turn of events, a new plan to “Trump proof” the 2024 election is advancing in Congress. Surprisingly, it appears to have some Republican support.

And Donald Trump is in a fury over it.

The plan in question concerns reform of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which governs how Congress counts electoral votes. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) has introduced an ECA reform bill, and a bipartisan group of senators is negotiating another version.

These seek to patch holes in the ECA that Trump relentlessly tried to exploit to overturn his 2020 loss. Which may be why Trump has issued two statements raging about these efforts.

What’s darkly amusing here is that Trump himself is making the case for ECA reform as powerfully as anyone could want. He is telegraphing with absolute clarity his intention to rerun his effort in 2024 if the conditions are there for it.

As it turns out, a close look at the specifics of these ECA reforms shows that they actually would help thwart Trump’s 2024 designs.

Trump’s unabashed corruption

Given the disordered jumble of corruption and malevolence that characterizes Trump’s mental universe, it’s hard to pin down his thinking. But Trump is tipping his hand.

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For instance, Trump’s latest claim is that the mere fact that we’re debating ECA reform shows he was right in saying his vice president should have invalidated Joe Biden’s electors, kicking them back to states. They could have then sent sham electors, overturning Trump’s loss.

Trump’s thought is this: Because one facet of ECA reform would clarify that the vice president has no role in counting electors, this must mean Mike Pence did have the power to refuse to count them.

“It has now been shown that he clearly had the right to do” this, Trump raged in one statement. He insisted the only reason Jan. 6 happened at all is because Pence blinked. Trump also fumed that Pence should have “overturned the election.”

In other words, the attack Trump incited on our government was a righteous effort to correct a grievous wrong done to him and his supporters. The move to reform the ECA proves it: Pence did have the power to correct that wrong but didn’t use it.

What would a 2024 coup look like? A new paper offers a worrying answer.

By doubling down on this unabashed stance — that exploiting the ECA to keep him in power illegitimately would have been the right thing to do — Trump has strengthened reformers’ hand. In flaunting his corruption, Trump has clarified the debate: Opposing ECA reform is now firmly aligned with making it easier for him to pull off a rerun next time.

But it’s important to get the details right.

What ECA reform would do

King’s proposal would clarify the vice president’s role as ceremonial, which is necessary. But that isn’t what would thwart a coup rerun, because on Jan. 6, 2025, Kamala Harris will presumably be vice president.

However, other things in the King proposal likely would thwart a future attempt.

One danger is that a single GOP governor and/or state legislature could send a fake slate of electors to Congress, defying a Democratic popular vote win, in a state set to decide the election.

A GOP-controlled House could count those sham electors. Under the current ECA, a single slate only gets tossed if both chambers vote to invalidate it. In that scenario, the Republican might win.

So the King bill would trigger a new process of judicial review if electors are appointed in defiance of a state’s previously existing procedures. When courts declare those electors invalid — and validate the winner’s electors — the King bill would require Congress to count the right ones.

“The right principle here is that once courts have spoken on who the valid electors are, Congress’s hands are tied,” Matthew Seligman, a legal scholar who specializes in the ECA, told me. “They have to count those electors.”

Another danger: A GOP-controlled House and Senate could refuse to count a state’s legitimately appointed electors. So King’s bill would raise the threshold to invalidate electors from a simple majority to an elusive three-fifths in both chambers. The bipartisan group also appears supportive of such a fix.

The differences between now and last time are crucial. In addition to pressuring Pence, Trump tried to get state legislatures to send fake electors and got dozens of congressional Republicans to object to Biden electors.

Both failed. But now, Trump is supporting many candidates for state-level offices who have pledged fealty to his 2020 lies — and likely would execute such schemes in 2024. His gubernatorial candidate in Georgia is running on an implicit promise to do just this.

If a corrupt secretary of state or governor does help send fake electors, do you doubt that a Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) would count them?

ECA reform would cut off these pathways at a time when Trump himself is telegraphing his intentions to exploit those pathways.

So it’s heartening that some Republicans appear supportive of reform. Here, a mea culpa: I recently suggested that if Trump opposed reform, it might become impossible for Republicans to support it. So far, that isn’t happening.

So what will Republicans ultimately do, now that Trump himself has confirmed that opposing ECA reform is tantamount to enabling him to execute his corrupt designs? We’ll see, but it would be amusing indeed if Trump’s flaunting of his own corruption ultimately helped push them to action.