The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘What’s the downside for humoring him?’: A GOP official’s unintentionally revealing quote about the Trump era

In this May 21 photo, President Trump holds a face mask in his left hand as he speaks at a Ford plant in Michigan. (Alex Brandon/AP)

When the history of the Trump era is written, we’ll struggle to find quotes that are as revealing as one recorded Monday evening by The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner, Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Emma Brown.

Speaking about President Trump’s and his legal team’s myriad and baseless claims of massive voter fraud, an anonymous senior Republican official offered a rhetorical shrug.

“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” the official said. “He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”

Indeed, what’s a little undermining of democracy between friends?

The quote has some substance to it. As I wrote this weekend, Trump’s heart doesn’t truly seem to be in it when it comes to mounting a full-throated, guns-blazing legal and PR challenge to the election results. He’s golfing. He tweets with all the gusto of the Trump era, but he’s not holding public events. His legal team put on a news conference that was bizarrely held at a landscaping company next to a sex shop and across from a crematorium, and one of their witnesses was a convicted sex offender. The same legal team is getting shut down in court and has yet to enunciate a coherent set of legal arguments. It looks as if Trump is laying a predicate for claiming he never lost rather than trying to overturn the election.

But there’s always the possibility it ramps up in a serious way. And the idea that there’s no harm in going through the motions for Trump was belied by something that happened almost immediately after that quote was published.

Attorney General William P. Barr issued an unusual memo giving federal prosecutors approval to pursue “vote tabulation irregularities” and said some such inquiries had already been authorized. This goes against the Justice Department’s long-standing practice to wait until states certify their election results. The worry from opponents is that such probes could be politically weaponized to give Trump’s voter fraud claims an air of substantiation, and The Post’s Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report that the political leadership in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division pushed back on the idea initially. Now that it has happened, Richard Pilger, head of the Justice Department’s Election Crimes Branch, has stepped down in protest.

The significance of Barr’s memo is the subject of real debate right now. Some argued that, practically speaking, it may not matter much. That’s because Barr is limiting such investigations to allegations that, “if true, could potentially impact the outcome of a federal election in an individual State.” (Other probes of smaller scale are to be deferred until after the states certify their results.) Trump would need to overturn the results in at least three states, and the margins in those states are in the tens of thousands. Given that we’ve never witnessed voter fraud on that scale in American history, that would suggest this might be less than meets the eye. In addition, the Justice Department has relatively little authority to halt vote counts or throw out ballots, because our elections system is so state-centric.

“The best-case scenario is that Barr did this to appease Trump and add credibility to his allegations of voter fraud,” Matthew Miller, a former top DOJ aide in the Obama administration, told The Post. “The worst-case scenario is that DOJ is planning to intervene in some way and try to throw the election to the president. Neither one is good, but one is much, much worse than the other.”

Miller’s point is well taken. It’s possible Barr is doing the thing that anonymous GOP official did: humoring Trump in the name of getting past this particularly ugly episode in American history. While Barr has taken a series of controversial, pro-Trump positions with major implications, particularly on the Russia investigation, he has also at times apparently mollified Trump with requested investigations that ultimately led to little or nothing (see: unmasking, the John Durham probe).

The problem, though, is that to do so, Trump’s enablers are breathing life into Trump’s and his legal team’s haphazard and specious claims of fraud.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Nov. 9 threw his support behind President Trump’s legal challenges in the wake of his election loss. (Video: Reuters)

Are we really going to reject democratic elections to soothe Trump’s ego?

The ultimate electoral result might not be different when all is said and done, but how you get there matters, because it has an impact on people’s faith in our electoral system and confidence in the result of this particular election. Wild theories are proliferating on social media right now more than most of us even realize, and early post-election polling suggests a sharp drop in GOP faith in our elections. What happens if and when the Justice Department begins looking into some of these things and making public disclosures? For the many people credulously passing along baseless accusations and data that isn’t all its cracked up to be, it will be validation. It will also help Trump feed his base’s sense of righteous persecution, which could give him more power over the future of the GOP once he’s out of office.

This is a constant tension inside the Trump administration. So many aides have seemingly tried to make the best of a chaotic situation and an unwieldy boss. Often, as with John Kelly, they have reasoned that they could do more good by playing the game and remaining on the job in the name of steadying the ship. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, whom Trump fired Monday, says as much in a newly published interview with the Military Times.

“I could have a fight over anything, and I could make it a big fight, and I could live with that,” Esper said last week in a preemptive exit interview. “Why? Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man.’ And then God help us.”

Folks like Esper, Kelly, Barr and the anonymous GOP official might genuinely believe they are doing what’s best by pacifying Trump (though in Esper’s case, he overstates his reluctance to stroke Trump’s ego). But that pacification comes with a price. Just because it’s difficult to quantify or fully grasp doesn’t mean it won’t have lasting implications.

And feeding into the thus-far completely baseless idea that an American election was stolen — what longtime Post reporter Dan Balz has called Trump’s most blatant effort to undermine democracy — would seem to be pretty high on the things you should approach with extreme caution.