The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The hollowness of the ‘but it didn’t work’ defense of Trump’s attempt to retain power

People shelter as protesters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Distilled to its essence, the United States held an election last year in which it elected a new president who took office on Jan. 20. This sequence of events has happened dozens of times before. It is how power is and always has been transferred in our nearly 250-year-old republic.

But, of course, this is not the entire story. The period between the election and that inauguration was an unusually turbulent one, in which the incumbent president flailed against his loss, welcoming the assistance of various allies and deploying myriad tactics in his effort to prevent Joe Biden from assuming his elected position.

That effort peaked on Jan. 6 but began hours after polls closed. Early in the morning of Nov. 4, President Donald Trump spoke to the media from the White House, appearing beside large screens emblazoned with his campaign logo — itself an abuse of his position. He pushed for states to stop counting legally cast votes, a continuation of his deliberate months-long effort to raise doubts about the validity of mail-in ballots. He followed up this demand with tweets — “STOP THE COUNT!” — encouragement to his supporters, some armed, who protested outside vote-counting centers in close states or who interrupted the count by insisting that they had a right to observe the process.

Each time a benchmark toward the finalization of Trump’s loss approached, tensions rose. Prior to the Nov. 7 determination that Biden would carry enough states to win the electoral college, Trump and his allies filed legal challenges aimed at halting the count. When the races had been called, Trump and his allies sought to disrupt the certification of results. In Michigan, this nearly worked, with Republican (and at least one overtly pro-Trump) members of the election board in Wayne County initially refusing to finalize vote totals from Detroit. After relenting under public pressure, the board members confirmed the vote totals though later (after speaking with Trump) they tried to rescind that decision.

The next benchmark was Dec. 14, when presidential electors met and cast ballots. State legislators began holding hearings to elevate the unfounded claims of fraud, inviting Trump allies and lawyers to offer testimony, rarely under oath. By this point, Trump’s serious legal challenges had mostly evaporated, leaving just wild conspiracy theories about international vote-rigging and nonsense about vote-dumps.

In some states, electors who would have voted for Trump had he won did so anyway on Dec. 14, hoping to produce alternate slates of electors for Congress to consider. Again, though, Trump came closer than people might recognize: one conservative justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court was the deciding vote in rejecting Trump’s effort to throw out a number of votes from Democratic strongholds in that state.

It was also on Dec. 14 that Trump announced that Attorney General William P. Barr would be leaving his administration, soon after Barr acknowledged publicly that Trump’s fraud claims were meritless. That helped launch the most dangerous phase of Trump’s effort, the one that culminated in the counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6.

Trump entertained the idea of replacing acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen with a Justice Department official who eagerly echoed Trump’s false fraud claims, Jeffrey Clark. Clark had a plan for the department to inform Georgia that its results were suspect (they weren’t) and to encourage the state legislature to reconvene to consider whether to submit an alternate slate of electors. The intent was to establish a pattern that could be repeated in other states. Ultimately, faced with the threat of a mass desertion of senior staff that would reveal the intent of his plan (as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake reported on Thursday), Trump backed down.

This was only one of several aspects of his last-ditch attempt to hold power, though. He also tried to simply cajole states into rejecting vote results, as he did in calling Georgia’s secretary of state and asking him to “find” votes. The most visible component of Trump’s plan, of course, was to encourage his supporters to come to Washington on that day, where there would be a “wild” rally in support of his presidency and in defense of his ongoing claims of electoral fraud. This meant thousands of angry Trump supporters milling around the National Mall, hundreds of whom later beat back law enforcement to storm the Capitol and block the electoral-vote counting.

The component that’s spurred the most discussion in recent weeks was Trump’s elevation of an assertion from a right-wing lawyer named John Eastman in which Vice President Mike Pence, overseeing the counting, could simply declare that Trump had won. The idea was that Pence could ignore the law that establishes the vote-counting process by deeming it to be unconstitutional.

Eastman wrote two versions of a memo explaining how, in his estimation, this might work. The first was glib and reportedly met with skepticism from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) when it was presented to him. The second was lengthier, seeking to present this idea as one of several paths forward for the vote-counting. Republican officials eager to appeal to Trump’s base, like Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), announced their intentions to object to the counting of votes, helping set the stage for the sorts of conflict that would give Pence more space to ignore submitted votes or to throw the election results back to the states, if he chose to do so. He did not make that choice.

That he didn’t and that Trump gave up on replacing Rosen and that the physical violence at the Capitol didn’t derail the electoral-vote counting for long have all been elevated as reasons to shrug at Trump’s efforts. He tried all these things and they didn’t work, this line of argument goes, so why should we be concerned about their working in the future? The threat that existed was overstated and has largely passed.

This argument has two critical flaws, though. The first is that it misunderstands Trump’s intent. The second is that it underestimates the assistance he received.

Imagine what would have happened if Pence had gone along with Eastman’s plan. In his memo, Eastman games out what happens next: Pence throws out some votes and Trump wins or it goes to the House where Trump likely wins thanks to the established tiebreaking process (each state gets one vote, determined by its collective delegation).

But all of this is ludicrous to consider in the abstract. The immediate effect of any effort by Pence to subvert the process would have been instantaneous outrage from Democrats in the chamber and in the streets. Eastman waves this off in his initial memo as partisan “howls,” but it’s obvious that such an overt attempt to undercut the will of the electorate would face enormous opprobrium and outcry. We simply can’t say what would happen, any more than we could have accurately predicted what followed when Florida was a toss-up in 2000. At least then, there was real uncertainty about the winner of a close race. Here, there was no such uncertainty, meaning far more likelihood of extreme reactions.

What Trump was trying to do from Nov. 3 to Jan. 6 was slapdash and ad hoc. But it was all directed in the same way: throw as much nonsense as possible in Biden’s path to the presidency. That his pre-Jan. 6 effort included Eastman’s memo and calling Georgia and replacing Rosen and encouraging a rally is a sign of an incoherent strategy except that it was wide-ranging. This is what he always did, saying or doing whatever he thought might convince people to do what he wanted. His was a spaghetti-at-the-wall presidency; his was a spaghetti-at-the-wall coup.

We can use the loaded analogy of the American Revolution itself. The colonists engaged British regulars on Lexington Green, losing quickly and decisively. Then, as the Brits marched forward, the colonists shot at them from the woods, an unfair and unexpected attack on the British army. But it worked. That’s why the analogy is loaded, of course; Trump’s guerrilla effort didn’t succeed. It was nonetheless similar, an asymmetric attack on American institutions that failed in part because there were still enough people in place to keep it from working.

And this is why it’s important not to underestimate the breadth of support Trump’s effort enjoyed. Legislators in multiple states eagerly endorsed and bolstered his claims prior to the inauguration — and afterward, as we’ve seen in Arizona. State legislators held those hearings and signed letters demanding action in Washington on Trump’s behalf. Attorneys general from a number of Republican-run states signed on to an at-times laughable legal effort to challenge his loss at the Supreme Court. The majority of the House Republican caucus voted to object to the ballots submitted by several states. His efforts came down to a handful of people — Pence, the judge in Wisconsin, the capitulation of those board members in Wayne County, Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger — who stood in his way.

All of that was before the months-long post-inauguration effort to rationalize and bolster Trump’s efforts. States have changed voting laws and increased the power of political partisans to evaluate the results of elections. Prominent Republicans like Pence and Raffensperger have been targeted for ouster or criticism. There has been an effort to populate positions within the Republican Party and in election-organizing bodies with people sympathetic to Trump’s claims of fraud. One of the Wayne County officials had publicly endorsed Trump’s claims before the election, in case you’re wondering what effect that might have.

The violence on Jan. 6, once anathema to Republicans, has become increasingly dismissed as overstated by members of Trump’s party. That violence has been downplayed and rationalized, the perpetrators described as political prisoners. Most Republicans continue to incorrectly think that Biden was elected illegitimately, smoothing the runway for future challenges to election results.

Ad hoc efforts can become formal ones. The colonists banded together to form the Continental Army, equipped and trained.

It is certainly true that, in 2024, Mike Pence will not be the person overseeing the counting of electoral votes. It is true that at that point Trump will not be in a position to fire the head of the Justice Department anyway. But it is also true that there will be enormous pressure on officials in various states both to constrain how voting is conducted and how those votes are counted and certified from a fervent Republican base looking to preemptively stop the fraud that it incorrectly believes happened in 2020. It may be the case that Vice President Harris is forced to consider whether to accept electoral votes submitted from a state in which legislators have dubiously decided that the Republican, perhaps even Trump himself, won.

It didn’t work in 2020, no. Happily. But guerrilla efforts are strengthened by probing defenses. You learn where the opponent is weak and where it’s strong. Maybe that involved a sloppy effort to throw things at the wall. But if you learned where the wall was weak, it was worth it.