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The big disconnect between Mike Lee’s words and his actions

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in December. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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When the dust began to settle after the Capitol riot, Sen. Mike Lee took to the Senate floor. Unlike some of his GOP colleagues, he reiterated that he saw no role for Congress to question the results of the electoral college.

“Our job is to open and then count — open, then count,” Lee (R-Utah) said on Jan. 6, 2021. “That’s it.”

Lee noted there were instances in which Congress could be called upon to decide things — specifically, when states submit multiple slates of electors for the competing candidates — but that day, it did not face such a situation. And for that, he added, he was quite glad.

“That doesn’t happen very often. It happened in 1960. It happened in 1876. Let’s hope it doesn’t ever happen again,” Lee said, in comments flagged Friday by Allahpundit.

He repeated: “That did not happen here, thank heavens, and let’s hope that it never does.”

In fact, as we’ve now found out, Lee solicited just the situation he later thanked heavens hadn’t materialized. And it reinforces just how Donald Trump’s wild ideas get laundered and legitimized in today’s Republican Party.

CNN on Friday revealed texts between Lee and then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows between Election Day 2020 and Jan. 6. Those texts show Lee expressing considerable interest in obtaining something that would allow him to toe Trump’s line on potentially overturning the election. Ultimately, he indicated he might go along with it even if that something came up shy of what was needed.

“John Eastman has some really interesting research on this,” Lee told Meadows on Nov. 23, after bringing up potential audits of key swing states.

It’s not clear what research Lee was talking about, but it later emerged that Eastman was proposing ways to overturn the election, including states submitting alternative slates of electors — along with some even bolder ideas.

On Dec. 8, Lee texted Meadows: “If a very small handful of states were to have their legislatures appoint alternative slates of delegates, there could be a path.”

Lee made clear that this would need to be backed up by “a strong evidentiary argument,” but even as that never materialized, he kept pushing for that course of action.

After some of his colleagues, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), said they would vote against certifying certain states, Lee again said they needed states to submit alternative slates.

“Everything changes, of course, if the swing states submit competing slates of electors pursuant to state law,” Lee said on Jan. 3, adding, “Again, all of this could change if the states in question certified Trump electors pursuant to state law.”

He then suggested he might not necessarily need that by Jan. 6.

“We need something from state legislatures to make this legitimate and to have any hope of winning,” he said. “Even if they can’t convene, it might be enough if a majority of them are willing to sign a statement indicating how they would vote.”

He added, “And I’ve been working on doing that all day today.”

Precisely how unsavory Lee’s actions were, in the run-up to Jan. 6, is now the subject of an important debate. Post columnist James Downie argues that Lee “misled the country about his participation in a plot to overturn a presidential election” and that we shouldn’t just skate past that simply because he ultimately declined to go along the available path.

Lee has cast himself as refusing Trump’s plot on principled and constitutional grounds. But here is evidence of Lee privately trying to summon what can charitably be described as constitutional workaround — even as he acknowledged in the same texts that the case for malfeasance was unconvincing — and then publicly expressing relief this workaround hadn’t happened.

Indeed, he suggested that something shy of the actual competing slates might have been enough for him — even when it was clear the evidence just wasn’t there.

What comes through in Lee’s texts is a desire to be given justification to follow the party line — something to “make this legitimate” — rather than a desire to gain the actual evidence needed to convince him. It’s not just asking for talking points; it’s also saying, two days before Jan. 6: I’m trying to figure out a path that I can persuasively defend. That’s not pushing for what’s right. That’s pushing for something that gives you cover, that you can pass off as right.

The whole episode echoes what we’ve since learned about former vice president Mike Pence who, according to a book by The Post’s Bob Woodward and CBS’s Robert Costa last year, agonized about Trump’s idea to have Pence help overturn the election in his historically ceremonial role. Former vice president Dan Quayle ultimately told him: “Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away.

Quayle later told The Post he didn’t think Pence was actually seriously considering it. “I did not notice any hesitation on his part," Quayle said. "I interpreted his questions as looking for confirmation that what he was going to do was right and that he had no flexibility. That’s the way I read it.”

As we wrote back then, there’s something to be said for due diligence — for walking through your options. And you’re more liable to seek ways to help out your side. But these Republicans seemed to seriously entertain ways to legitimize overturning a presidential election, in the absence of any real evidence to back up their gambit.

The fact that even these two Republicans — who pride themselves on high-minded constitutional conservatism — apparently considered somehow getting to “yes” tells you plenty about how Trump has hijacked the Republican Party to do his bidding. It might not always work, but Republicans will strain extremely hard to talk themselves into it.

This post has been updated.