The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Growing number of Trump loyalists in the Senate vow to challenge Biden’s victory

The sun sets on the Capitol last week. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

A last-ditch effort by President Trump and his allies to overturn the election thrust Washington into chaos Saturday as a growing coalition of Republican senators announced plans to rebel against Senate leaders by seeking to block formal certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

The push to subvert the vote is all but certain to fail when Congress gathers in joint session Wednesday to count electoral college votes already certified by each state. Still, Trump is continuing to press Republican lawmakers to support his baseless claims of election fraud while calling on thousands of supporters to fill the streets of the nation’s capital on Wednesday in mass protest of his defeat.

A group of 11 Republican senators and senators-elect, led by Ted Cruz of Texas, vowed to join Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) in challenging votes from some contested states, calling for an “emergency 10-day audit” to investigate Trump’s unfounded claims. Hours later, Trump wrote on Twitter that there would be “plenty more to come.”

The move amounts to an open rebellion against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who last month pleaded with GOP senators to avoid a public debate over the legitimacy of November’s election results. McConnell has personally congratulated Biden on his victory.

The high drama at the Capitol is set to punctuate a momentous week in politics that will delineate power at the dawn of the Biden presidency. The new Congress to be sworn in Sunday will reduce the size of the Democratic House majority. Trump and Biden will both campaign Monday in Georgia ahead of twin runoff elections for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday that will determine which party controls the upper chamber. Later in the week, members of the Republican National Committee will gather at a Florida beach resort to chart the party’s future beyond Trump’s presidency.

“What’s happening [Wednesday] foreshadows what’s going to be happening for the following 24 months,” said Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster. “It’s a question of do we start to move to the future or get locked into the past. . . . This [could] continue to rip apart the fabric of this country that has already been torn through.”

Weeks before the 2020 presidential election, congressional Republicans said President Trump would accept the election result. (Video: The Washington Post)

Congress is all but certain to drive a final stake through the heart of Trump’s dream of four more years on Wednesday. But the gulf between the reality of the certification process and Trump’s fantasy of subverting the vote to stay in office is politically perilous for Republicans — none more than Trump’s unfailingly deferential No. 2, Vice President Pence.

As president of the Senate, Pence will wield the gavel when the electoral votes are counted and Biden is declared the winner by a wide margin, 306 to 232.

Though Pence’s role is strictly ceremonial, lawyer Sidney Powell and other conspiracy-minded Trump allies are trying to convince the president that Pence has the power to overturn the election by rejecting some of Biden’s electors, according to two senior administration officials with knowledge of the conversations. After Pence labored for four years to stay in the mercurial president’s good graces, his performance on Wednesday could risk a rupture on their 14th-to-last day in office.

While the growing GOP chorus to challenge Biden’s victory may ease the burden on Pence to lead the charge for Trump, it increases the likelihood of a volatile, discomfiting debate. And it virtually guarantees that Republicans will face a vote that forces them to decide whether they will honor the collective will of the voters or stand with Trump — a vote that could long serve as a litmus test for the GOP base.

With dozens of House Republicans expected also to challenge the election results, Wednesday’s event is likely to be a very public showcase of Trump’s two-month campaign to delegitimize Biden’s presidency, even as Washington barrels inexorably toward Biden’s inauguration.

For days, Trump has been urging supporters to converge on Washington on Wednesday — in a showing that could offer a measure of the enduring popular appeal of his unfounded claims of fraud.

As many as four rallies are expected to draw pro-Trump demonstrators to the Washington Monument, Freedom Plaza and the Capitol. The Proud Boys, white supremacists and members of armed right-wing groups have pledged to attend, while threats of violence and calls for an “armed encampment” on the Mall are proliferating online.

“I’m focused on the long-term damage rather than the short-term turbulence — the formation of a very large group of people who simply will not accept the legitimacy of Joe Biden as president of the United States or the legitimacy of the processes by which he ascended to the presidency,” said William A. Galston, the chairman of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “That, in my view, is the fundamental danger.”

Trump has made plain his goal with the certification process: to overturn the results of an election he insists was “rigged,” though he has produced no evidence to support that claim. But so far, at least, he has not provided clear directives about how, procedurally, he intends for that goal to be accomplished.

Trump wants Pence and others to help recruit lawmakers to join the effort led by Hawley and Cruz in the Senate and a handful of Trump allies in the House, and to publicly present what he considers evidence of voter fraud, according to a senior administration official, who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss internal deliberations.

Pence and others have explained to Trump that the vice president does not have the power to take substantive action on Wednesday, such as moving to invalidate the results, administration officials say. Pence’s legally prescribed duties are strictly ceremonial: read aloud the electoral votes from each state and officiate any debate that unfolds.

However, Pence is encouraging lawmakers to publicly debate what they see as voting irregularities in key states, said Pence Chief of Staff Marc Short.

“Vice President Pence shares the concerns of millions of Americans about voter fraud and irregularities in the last election,” Short said. “The vice president welcomes the efforts of members of the House and Senate to use the authority they have under the law to raise objections and bring forward evidence before the Congress and the American people on January 6th.”

Late Friday, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) arguing that the Constitution gives the vice president sole discretion to determine whether electors put forward by the states are valid. Gohmert’s suit asked the judge effectively to tell Pence that he has the right to invalidate electoral college votes cast for Biden and instead recognize other slates of Trump electors.

Pence asked that the suit be rejected, and the judge, Jeremy D. Kernodle, complied. Kernodle, who was nominated by Trump to serve on the federal bench in Texas in 2018, wrote that Gohmert lacked standing to sue.

For Trump, the dismissal compounds nearly two months of anger and agita over the election outcome and his failure to reverse it, either through dozens of lawsuits or by personal pressure on state and local officials.

Over the Christmas vacation, the president was in a foul mood at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida seaside club. In addition to venting about the election, he fumed about renovations to the property overseen by first lady Melania Trump in preparation for the couple’s impending move from the White House, according to someone who spoke with the president at the club.

Trump left Florida three days earlier than planned, skipping Mar-a-Lago’s annual New Year’s Eve party, which he typically attends. Hundreds of guests bought tickets to the bash, expecting the president to be there. “People go to see him,” said one person who planned to attend but bowed out after learning Trump was returning to Washington.

Trump did not explain his unexpected departure but told some guests at Mar-a-Lago that he thought Iran might seek to retaliate against the United States around the Jan. 3 anniversary of last year’s U.S. killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.

Still, Trump has been in a rancid state since his November loss to Biden. Obsessed with conspiracy theories fed to him by Powell, his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and other allies, he has aired grievances at will on Twitter and been easily provoked to lash out at aides.

“All of us are just trying to stay off the radar,” one senior administration official said. “You have a conversation with him and, the next thing you know, you’re pulled into, ‘Hey, Sidney Powell told me yadda, yadda, yadda,’ or, ‘Rudy said blah, blah, blah.’ There’s no upside to being in his orbit right now.”

A recent advertisement from the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump super PAC run by longtime Republican strategists, drew the president’s fury. In it, the narrator speaks directly to Trump and says, ominously, that Pence is “running away” from him by not fully amplifying his claims of widespread election fraud.

“The end is coming, Donald,” the narrator intones. “Even Mike Pence knows.”

Trump wanted to issue a cease-and-desist letter to the Lincoln Project over the ad, although it is unclear what legal ground, if any, he might have for doing so. Officials said he ultimately was talked out of it.

In recent weeks, Trump also has been displeased with Pence, thinking the vice president and other advisers have not done enough to help him overturn the election results. But people familiar with the dynamic between the two men said the relationship remains strong.

On Monday, they are to fly to Georgia to campaign for Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, Republican incumbents trying to fend off energized Democratic challenges in Tuesday’s runoffs. Both Trump and Pence are expected to emphasize the high stakes, telling Georgia voters that if Perdue and Loeffler lose, Republicans will lose control of the upper chamber — opening the door for a Democratic House and Senate to reverse many Trump administration accomplishments.

However, Trump has been feuding openly for weeks with Georgia’s Republican governor and secretary of state, blasting their unwillingness to reverse the state’s presidential election results. Biden was the first Democrat to win Georgia and its 16 electoral votes in nearly three decades.

As a result, some GOP officials are concerned that Trump might veer from prepared remarks at his election-eve rally and deliver a sour message that risks depressing Republican turnout on Election Day.

Polls show both races are tight, and the outcome may be uncertain when lawmakers gather back in Washington for the presidential certification the next day. McConnell and other party leaders have discouraged their members from interfering with the traditionally pro forma process, contending that any effort to change the outcome would fail.

McConnell has told others privately that he is frustrated by Hawley’s decision to challenge slates of Biden electors and force votes likely to divide Republicans, saying it will serve only to invite a political backlash from Trump supporters against GOP senators who vote to confirm Biden’s victory.

In an open letter to his constituents, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a frequent Trump critic, went further, calling the effort to use the congressional process to reverse the election results a “dangerous ploy,” given that there is no evidence of widespread fraud. Instead, Sasse wrote, the effort is “designed to disenfranchise millions of Americans simply because they voted for someone in a different party.”

On Saturday, the Cruz-led coalition publicly rejected that position, arguing that “deep distrust” among some voters about the legitimacy of the election demands the creation of an “Electoral Commission . . . to conduct an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in the disputed states.” A previous commission appointed to investigate Trump’s allegations about the 2016 election disbanded without finding evidence of fraud or even issuing a report.

Those in the Cruz coalition also said they would reject electors from disputed states as not “lawfully certified,” though they offered no legal basis for doing so. In Georgia, for example, Biden’s victory was certified after three separate recounts.

Late Saturday, Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) issued strongly worded condemnations of the efforts of their Republican colleagues to dispute the results. Romney wrote: “The egregious ploy to reject electors may enhance the political ambition of some, but dangerously threatens our Democratic Republic. The congressional power to reject electors is reserved for the most extreme and unusual circumstances. These are far from it.” And Toomey wrote that the push by Cruz, Hawley and others “directly undermines” the fundamental democratic right of people to elect their own leaders.

Hawley has indicated that he will object to electoral votes submitted by at least one state, Pennsylvania, and that he may challenge some others. He has justified the move as a means of speaking up for the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump. In a statement, Hawley singled out Pennsylvania as failing “to follow their own state election laws,” though he offered no evidence to support that charge.

Hawley and Cruz are among several senators seen as potential presidential contenders in 2024, and their moves could open the floodgates for other ambitious Republicans to lodge similar challenges on Wednesday in hopes of appealing to Trump’s base.

This revolt will put a squeeze on incumbents facing reelection in 2022, including two members of the GOP leadership, John Thune of South Dakota and Roy Blunt of Missouri. Both men are expected to vote to certify Biden’s victory, with Thune telling reporters just before Christmas that any attempt to challenge the election’s outcome is “just not going anywhere. I mean, in the Senate it would go down like a shot dog.”

Since then, Trump has been attacking the No. 2-ranking GOP senator. On Friday, Trump tweeted that Thune was a “RINO” — a “Republican in name only” — and called on Gov. Kristi L. Noem to run against him in the state’s GOP primary.

“South Dakota wants strong leadership, NOW!” Trump wrote.

Never mind that Noem had tweeted just 10 days earlier that she would not challenge Thune, calling him “a friend of mine” and announcing that she would seek reelection as governor in 2022.