The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump GOP’s desertion of ‘law and order’ crosses a new threshold

Republican candidate for Arizona governor Kari Lake joins former president Donald Trump onstage during his Save America rally at Legacy Sports Park on Oct. 9 in Mesa, Ariz. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

The Republican Party attempted to make the 2022 election about “law and order” — as it has many times before, and often successfully. But it didn’t work especially well this year. And in the weeks since the election, we’ve seen the leaders of the MAGA movement, including former president Donald Trump, cross new rhetorical lines, suggesting a growing abandonment of the principle of the rule of law.

Where such figures once pursued political strategies of dubious legality and sowed distrust of the democratic process, there’s been a noticeable gear shift: They’re now calling for their followers to disregard the law, period.

The big one is, of course, Trump calling “for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” over the weekend. He added on Truth Social: “UNPRECEDENTED FRAUD REQUIRES UNPRECEDENTED CURE!” (There was no unprecedented or even significant fraud in the 2020 election.)

GOP leaders were, per usual, reluctant to engage on the substance of what the former president said. One Republican operative argued in an interview with The Washington Post that Trump “did not literally advocate or call for terminating the Constitution” — as if social media posts don’t reflect the true feelings of the former and would-be-future leader of the free world. But it’s virtually impossible to square the party’s silence with its long-standing professed affinity for the Constitution.

Republicans have dismissed and will dismiss Trump’s statement as bluster — and as completely impractical. But let’s reinforce what this is: a former president not just complaining about the application of the law with regard to himself personally, but calling for the country’s supreme law to be abandoned. That’s crossing the Rubicon, rhetorically at the very least.

Less noticed but still extremely telling was something that happened last week in Arizona. Defeated GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake — perhaps the closest embodiment of Trump and Trumpism on the 2022 ballot — called for sympathetic officials to show more willingness to break the law for her cause.

A GOP official in Mohave County, Ariz., had voted to certify the election results while saying he did so under “duress,” because he was worried about criminal charges for refusing to do his duty. Lake responded, on Stephen K. Bannon’s show: “I wish somebody would say, ‘You know what? Arrest me then. I don’t care.’ We need people with courage to say, ‘Class what felony? Go ahead, go for it, arrest me.’” She was asking for other officials to refuse to certify the election.

There is no reason to doubt the 2022 election results in Arizona (just as there was no reason to doubt them in 2020). But even if there actually were, the law makes it clear that the method for litigating those doubts isn’t through the election-certification process, which is a ministerial (i.e. not optional) process.

Arizona law states that counties “shall meet and canvass the election not less than six days nor more than twenty days following the election.” The only exception is if any election results are missing (and in this case, they weren’t). And a judge’s order Thursday affirmed that it was “clear” that officials in Cochise County who had also refused to certify their results were “duty bound” to do so.

They quickly did, against Lake’s wishes. But again it’s worth reinforcing what her request was: to break the law. These are two leaders of the MAGA movement — one a former president and the other his most likely heir, were it not for her narrow 2022 loss — suggesting it’s time to abandon the legal process and the law itself.

This country has a long history of civil disobedience, but in this case, there’s simply no factual basis for the purported injustice that warrants such action. This is people losing elections and not liking the results.

It’s the culmination of a long drift for the Republican Party, a direction that has left some members clearly uncomfortable but also unwilling to truly combat it, for fear of sacrificing their careers.

Trump has a long history of flouting the law, including while he was in office. It’s conduct which, at its worst, might have broken the law by obstructing justice in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election — but for which Trump was immune from prosecution as a sitting president.

Then the run-up to Jan. 6, 2021, marked a new phase: Trump sought to overturn the election through methods we later learned he and his team had been affirmatively told and even seemed to know were illegal.

On his way out of office, Trump took documents — including highly sensitive ones — that he was not entitled to take; he then steadfastly refused to return them all when asked.

Trump has also increasingly leaned into the idea of pardoning those who participated in the insurrection on Jan. 6, including as recently as last week. While pardons are a legal prerogative of a president, Trump as president wielded them in exceptionally political ways, granting clemency to various allies, especially on his way out of office.

He hasn’t said which Jan. 6 defendants he would pardon or how many, so it’s not clear he’s talking about blanket amnesty. But his comments, and those of his allies, often focus on the supposed mistreatment of those held in custody, and that universe of people is overwhelmingly those who have been convicted or are awaiting trial for assaulting law enforcement.

That last issue is perhaps the one instance in which many members of Trump’s party have truly rejected his idea — though they don’t come close to a critical mass. The GOP has largely given Trump a legal pass on Jan. 6, declining to form a bipartisan commission while arguing it was simply time to move on from an attack on the seat of American government. And even as Trump appears to have violated the law by retaining government documents, Republicans have mostly attacked the process, arguing that a legal search of the former president’s property might have been overzealous.

Many of their arguments — especially from Trump’s legal team — focus not on the law but on the societal impact of prosecuting a former president. One Trump lawyer warned that it would “cause so much mayhem” and would be “a monstrous mistake.” Some Republicans have even suggested defunding the FBI in response to its search of Trump’s home.

That last call brought a rebuke from Trump’s former No. 2, ex-vice president Mike Pence (who, in a radio interview on Monday, also took some issue with Trump’s Constitution post).

“I also want to remind my fellow Republicans, we can hold the attorney general accountable for the decision he made without attacking the rank-and-file law enforcement personnel at the FBI,” Pence said in August. He added: “The Republican Party is the party of law and order. Our party stands with the men and women who stand on the thin blue line at the federal and state and local level, and these attacks on the FBI must stop.”

Three months later, Pence’s warning about how the party needed to maintain its “law and order” mantle doesn’t appear to have been heeded. Trump will apparently press forward with attacks on not just particular legal procedures but the rule of law itself. And few in his party are summoning the will to do much of anything about it.

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