The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump and the GOP try to put the monster they created back in the cage

Attorney Sidney Powell looks at attorney L. Lin Wood as he speaks during a news conference on election results this week. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

Republicans are in damage-control mode in the Georgia runoffs, launching a nascent effort to delegitimize Trump-aligned lawyers who have led calls for a potential GOP boycott of the January races.

L. Lin Wood has been suggesting such a boycott for more than a week, saying it’s necessary to force GOP elected officials in Georgia to act on trying to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s win in the state. And in recent days, Wood has been joined in that effort by Sidney Powell, who until recently was a prominent member of President Trump’s legal team. Stories have begun cropping up in conservative media about Wood’s past donations to and support for Democrats. Some GOP officials have joined in suggestions that he’s some kind of sleeper agent seeking to hurt the Republican Party. They’ve begun distancing themselves from Powell, too, despite her having been on Trump’s legal team less than two weeks ago.

There are two main problems with this.

One is that some top GOP figures — including Trump — have in the past and very recently promoted Wood’s and Powell’s work. The other is that Trump continues to send very mixed messages about whether Republicans should or will turn out to vote.

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Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, Thursday called Wood and Powell “totally destructive” because of their boycott suggestions. Just four days earlier, though, he had retweeted Wood’s call to order a special session of the Georgia legislature. (This, notably, came after Wood was already suggesting a boycott.)

Gingrich has also promoted Powell in the past, including her 2017 book and her recent representation of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham hit back at the effort by Trump’s lawyers Thursday night, saying, “You almost don’t deserve to win if you’re that stupid, I’m sorry.” Ingraham has featured Powell on her show in recent weeks, telling her she is “a really top lawyer” and played up Wood’s efforts on behalf of Nicholas Sandmann, who sued The Washington Post for defamation. Ditto Fox News host Sean Hannity, who in the summer labeled Wood “one of the best” for his work in the Sandmann case.

Powell’s involvement in the boycott effort might be even more troubling for the GOP, given that, until recently, she was a member of Trump’s own legal team. And while Republicans are distancing themselves from Wood and now Powell, Trump has played up their efforts until very recently. In mid-November, in fact, Trump even promoted a tweet that described Wood as having “joined Trump’s election team.” (Wood has not otherwise been identified as Trump’s lawyer.)

Since then, Trump has retweeted Wood four times and also promoted his and Powell’s lawsuit challenging the validity of the presidential election results in Georgia. That most recent retweet came Nov. 26, even after some top GOP officials were cautioning that Wood’s efforts might depress GOP turnout if voters decide the elections are rigged.

Trump also reportedly spoke with Wood and Powell recently, according to his campaign, to urge them to back off. That doesn’t appear to have worked.

And there is a real question about just how much Trump disagrees with what they are doing. Facing pressure, Trump has tweeted multiple times about the importance of reelecting Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.). But interspersed in that have been messages that aligned with what Wood and Powell are doing. Trump has now repeatedly promoted the idea that it’s not worth it to elect Republicans if they don’t stand sufficiently with him.

The first time came Monday, when Trump retweeted a user who said “why bother” electing Republicans if they might turn out to be like Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), both of whom Trump has attacked for certifying Biden’s win in their states.

The second came Friday morning, even amid the growing effort to combat Wood and Powell’s efforts. After Senate Republicans declined to include Trump’s desired changes to the defense authorization bill — including striking protection for social media companies known as Section 230 and another section creating a process to rename military bases named for Confederate generals — Trump retweeted a user who said sarcastically “LOL keep the Senate red!”

The thread went on to defend Wood’s and Powell’s efforts.

The night before, Trump suggestively tweeted that Kemp should make a change to Georgia’s ballot-counting process if he wants to help Loeffler and Perdue — a tacit suggestion that failing to fall in line could indeed hurt the GOP in the runoffs.

As I wrote this week, there is a real question about just how devoted Trump is to electing Perdue and Loeffler. Republicans are girding themselves for his appearance in the state Saturday, worrying he might do more to question the election results — and potentially feed into efforts to question the necessity of voting — than to help the GOP ticket. Trump is and has always been more concerned about himself than his adoptive party, and those competing interests could collide in a major way in his speech.

There is also a certain irony in the lawyers Trump and his allies have promoted now seemingly going rogue. There is a real price to be paid for elevating extremists and conspiracy theorists such as Wood and Powell, but the Trump effort has struggled to find credible stewards of his legal case. And Republicans were largely silent about promoting such characters despite their demonstrated histories of wild claims.

It’s almost as though you should be careful with whom you choose to align.