There is largely no point in trying to rationally rebut an irrational or emotional belief. But I hold the irrational belief that it can’t hurt, and I will not be rationalized out of it. So let’s walk through what we know about why Trump’s claims are false and were known to be false when he offered them.
We can begin with the fact that the former president is fundamentally not credible. The Post has a team of fact-checkers who reviewed every claim Trump made from the outset of his candidacy in 2015. They found tens of thousands of examples of dishonest, misleading or false assertions from him. Often, Trump repeated false things he’d said previously, marking at the very least a remarkable disinterest in accuracy. But given that most of his false claims were intertwined with his political rhetoric it was clearly the case that he was more interested in the impression his words left than their accuracy.
We begin here in part because it is something of a railroad switch for the rest of this discussion. If you think that Trump was honest or that The Post’s rigorous, daily review of his comments was universally flawed, we’re not going to make any headway. You’re incorrect, for a variety of reasons, but there’s no more utility in trying to convince you otherwise. What’s remarkable about defenders of Trump’s honesty, of course, is that one assumes they would readily accept that other elected officials, even Republican ones, were being dishonest with regularity. Trump, though, is spared — all of his falsehoods waved away after cherry-picking individual criticisms as unwarranted or because of a sense that the media was out to get him. This was always an undercurrent to Trump’s tenure in politics: Was he a focus of unusual scrutiny because of bias or because he was unusually prone to taking actions that deserved scrutiny? The answer to that question almost certainly overlaps with politics.
In the last two months of his presidency, the falsehoods that Trump offered most often were ones about the results of the election. Hours after the polls closed, he began making false claims about the results, ones that carried over for months. “Voter fraud” is Trump’s ship of Theseus, almost every claim included at the outset later worn out by close examination and replaced with a newer claim that the fact-checkers haven’t yet gotten to. Or, more accurately, the new claims are just tacked onto the vessel as it sits at the bottom of the ocean, its rotten planks quickly leading to its having been swamped. And there’s Captain Trump, submerged but still standing at the bow, telling his crew that land is just over the horizon.
We know now that even Trump allies asked for proof that his claims about fraud were warranted. In “Peril,” Woodward and Costa describe a meeting in the White House between Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a former Trump foe who became one of the president’s most stalwart defenders. Giuliani made sweeping claims about fraud, and Graham demanded he prove them. Giuliani assured Graham he’d provide the direct evidence of specific fraudulent votes.
A few days later, Giuliani provided Graham a memo that the senator’s team began to review, the book reports. The claims of dead people voting in Georgia were found to consist mostly or entirely of people who voted legally but died before the election itself. A slew of other numbers making claims about illegal votes were unsupported by specifics and ones for which Graham’s team couldn’t figure out any provenance. Some of the figures came from an employee of the Trump-obsequious One America News. Another claimed that there were more than 11,000 “overvotes” in Arizona — though that overstated the number of such votes in the presidential race by a factor of 100.
This was the genesis of Graham’s much-reported disparagement of the evidence as being “third-grade” level. Yet these claims about dead voters, surplus votes and other things still pepper discussions of what occurred in 2020. Yes, the media has repeatedly shown these things to be unsubstantiated (should you choose to seek out that reporting), but so did a Republican Trump ally. Because they are unsubstantiated. Or, more accurately, they’re simply noncredible, given the multiple internal and external reviews of the vote in contested states and the utter lack of reason to think that anything suspect happened.
Nor was it just Trump. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Trump’s campaign had prepared an internal memo in November undercutting various extreme claims about electronic voting in the election. Yet Trump’s attorneys and the president himself were undeterred, nonetheless presenting these wild assertions of an international conspiracy to throw the election as valid and credible. They were neither. No evidence has emerged to suggest that there was any nonaccidental problem with votes cast on voting machines. What’s more, there’s never even been a credible argument made for why or how vote totals might somehow be routed overseas for manipulation.
Again, all of this happened before Jan. 6. Trump put his allies in a difficult position, stoking false claims and demanding action. Many of those allies — Graham included — clearly wanted to be able to encourage Republican voters by supporting Trump but he also wanted to not expose himself by embracing obviously dubious information. Some found a middle ground: insisting that their objections to the election were rooted in technical debates over the way votes were cast. Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) made such claims a feature of their pre-Jan. 6 objections to the counting of electoral votes.
The culmination of this argument, though, came in that six-page memo. It was a lengthier version of a two-page memo written by a legal expert named John Eastman, a document presented to a bemused Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) who was “shocked” when he read it, according to Woodward and Costa. After all, the two-page memo simply stated that Vice President Mike Pence could ignore established precedent for counting electoral votes and try to declare certain electoral-vote tallies unacceptable out-of-hand, essentially pushing the finalization of the election to a legal decision from the courts.
In the lengthier memo, published in full this week, Eastman takes a slightly less aggressive tack. It begins by delineating various ways in which “state election laws were altered or dispensed with altogether in key swing states and/or cities and counties.” In essence, he’s arguing that Pence would be warranted in throwing out the results in some states not because people cast illegal votes but because states allowed people to vote in ways they shouldn’t have. It’s an argument for throwing out the demonstrated will of the people based on the way they were told to express that will. (A court in Pennsylvania, hearing such a claim before Jan. 6, had rejected the idea that votes cast using a process that shouldn’t have been authorized should stand, calling a rejection of them an “extreme and untenable” remedy.)
Even here, though, Eastman oversteps. For example, why should bringing “[p]ortable ‘polling places’ targeted to heavily democrat” areas be considered a rationale for rejecting the results of those votes? Or: “[f]ederal court reduced Arizona’s 29-day-before-election registration requirement”? Because a federal court changed a rule, no votes from Arizona should count? It’s quite simply a rejection of the will of the voters for no reason other than that Eastman didn’t like how they voted.
The memo also falls victim to a logical flaw that we see repeatedly in fraud allegations: Because Eastman identified a way in which he thinks fraud might have been committed, we should assume it has been committed. It’s like finding a crowbar in someone’s garage and assuming they are part of a burglary ring. Not a fair assumption. A better crime-fighting technique would be to identify actual jimmied locks on actual houses and then trying to figure out who did it and how. That’s what Graham wanted, and he was simply told that there might be thousands of houses somewhere that had been broken into.
There was no rampant fraud, but that didn’t deter Eastman. He, like so many others, expressed the same false belief that animated everything else after the election. His memo operates from the assumption that there had been “outright fraud (both traditional ballot stuffing, and electronic manipulation of voting tabulation machines)," claims that remain untrue. But that was the foundation of his delineation of the laws that he found unacceptable (though many had been validated by courts) and, therefore, for having Pence simply ignore the election results. It all, once again, flowed from false claims about fraud.
People still say that fraud occurred. Most Republicans, in fact, say it did. Trump is still hammering on it, nailing new planks on his sunken ship. Those looking for his endorsement in 2022 are amplifying such claims, jockeying to be the loudest voice to earn Trump’s approval. People such as MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell — who has himself been repeatedly shown to have no actual evidence of fraud — continue to nonetheless claim that something illegal occurred. (He’s moved on to falsely alleging massive fraud in red states, somewhat missing the point.) In Lindell’s case, he insists that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear his evidence and somehow overturn the election. He’d predicted that would happen in August; the timeline now is November.
The story of the Trump presidency, a story still being fleshed out, is one of a cadre of yes-men facing off against realists. Then and now, Trump used the power of his large, loud and credulous base to tip the scales in his favor, forcing the Grahams, Pences and Rep. Liz Cheneys (R-Wyo.) to consider the costs of going not just against him but against all of those supporters as well. Trump’s dishonesty helped create a political army that he used bluntly.
There’s a scene recounted in “Peril” that speaks to this. On Jan. 5, Pence spoke to Trump in the Oval Office and told him that he would not deploy Eastman’s strategy of rejecting the results of the election. Woodward and Costa describe what happened next.
“Once Pence left, Trump opened a door near the Resolute Desk. A rush of cold air blasted the room. The temperature was around 31 degrees Fahrenheit outside, with the wind making it feel even colder,” they write. “Trump stood there, still, and listened. Through the din of police sirens and the whir of a city, he could hear his people. They sounded joyful. He breathed in the cold air and smiled.”
Those supporters, at least, were doing what he wanted.