Signaling their willingness to go to the mat for the president, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) declared falsely on Fox News on Thursday night that “President Trump won this election,” while Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) donated to a new Trump legal fund and parroted Trump’s dangerous claims of foul play at the polls while providing no evidence.
Even some Trump supporters are battling among themselves about how hard they are fighting for the president to reverse the vote counts in states such as Pennsylvania and Georgia, which flipped to Joe Biden early Friday. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) tweeted in agreement with Trump’s claims that “irregularities have been flagrant” in the vote counting but opened the door slightly to a concession, suggesting that Republicans “must accept the final results” if they eventually consider it a fair review process.
He was immediately denounced by Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a supporter of the QAnon conspiracy movement, who told Crenshaw to “STAND UP” for Trump.
“This loser mind-set is how Democrats win,” she tweeted at Crenshaw, who received two Bronze Stars as a Navy SEAL.
A small faction of anti-Trump Republicans have pined for a soul-searching moment, hoping that once Trump is defeated, the party will shun his divisive rhetoric and return to its traditional conservative roots in line with the more hopeful tones of Ronald Reagan and the Bush presidents.
But the president fared far better on Election Day than even many Republicans had predicted, boosting Trump loyalists hoping to build on the president’s populist and combative style. Instead of shunning him, many are doubling down on Trumpism, in part by supporting his election conspiracy theories.
Sen.-elect Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), the former college football coach endorsed by the president, said on Twitter that “the election results are out of control.”
“It’s like the whistle has blown, the game is over, and the players have gone home, but the referees are suddenly adding touchdowns to the other team’s side of the scoreboard,” he wrote.
Republicans repeating the president’s evidence-free claims focused on some of the same states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan — that delivered the presidency to Trump in 2016. Four years ago, none of these Republicans challenged the integrity of the election results.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R), who won reelection in Wisconsin in 2016, told WTMJ-AM in Milwaukee on Friday, “I’m not alleging anything because I have no proof. All I’m saying is there are enough irregularities.”
Standing in the middle, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who will become the de facto party leader should Trump lose, has been walking a fine line. In a Friday morning tweet, McConnell wrote that “every legal vote should be counted” and “any illegally-submitted ballots must not.”
“All sides must get to observe the process,” he tweeted. “And the courts are here to apply the laws & resolve disputes. That’s how Americans’ votes decide the result.”
At a news conference in Kentucky, McConnell directed reporters to his tweet.
“I’m not going to answer any hypothetical about where we go from here,” he said about the potential transfer of power.
A small faction of senior Republicans, as well as GOP governors, is signaling discomfort with adopting Trump’s position. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, a retiring Pennsylvania Republican, for example, defended his state’s election authorities.
“The president’s speech last night was very disturbing to me because he made very, very serious allegations without any evidence to support it,” Toomey, on “CBS This Morning,” said. “I am not aware of any significant fraud, any significant wrongdoing. If it’s happened, then the evidence needs to come out, we need to go to court, we need to punish the wrongdoers, we need to redress whatever went wrong. But I’m not aware of any such evidence.”
Few Republicans pushed back on Trump’s claims as forcefully as Toomey did, and most have been from the typical Trump-critic crowd, including Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Ben Sasse (Neb.).
This group urged Trump to engage the existing process in the states for doing a standard canvass of votes and recounts where warranted, saying his lawyers should handle the legal process.
Romney, who voted to convict Trump during his impeachment trial, wrote that while Trump is “within his rights” to ask for recounts or investigations into any voting irregularities, “he was wrong to say that the election was rigged, corrupt or stolen.”
“Doing so damages the cause of freedom here and around the world,” he said in a statement.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who once oversaw Missouri’s elections as secretary of state, told reporters that so many states are so close that Trump’s team has an understandable right to examine those outcomes. “I think the president should turn this discussion over to his lawyers. And if they have a case to make, there’s a process where they make that and that process is timely,” he said.
With Trump potentially out, Republicans realize the party will be looking for its next standard-bearer. Many Republicans speculate that only a GOP leader who stands by the president can succeed him — not someone who could be accused of being a “Never Trumper” or frequent critic.
Many Republicans with 2024 presidential ambitions have tried to walk a careful line in recent years. They know they need the support of Trump’s base if they are to rise in the ranks, but they also want to be careful about not following in his controversial footsteps.
This week, however, Trump’s allies have pressured those interested in leading the party to prove their loyalty as Trump faces the prospect of losing. Trump’s sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump have made the loudest demands, with the former tweeting Thursday afternoon that “the total lack of action from virtually all of the ‘2024 GOP hopefuls’ is pretty amazing.”
“They have a perfect platform to show that they’re willing & able to fight but they will cower to the media mob instead,” Donald Trump Jr. said Thursday night.
On cue, the pile-on began. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who lost the nomination to Trump in 2016, called for a Justice Department investigation. On Sean Hannity’s Fox News show Thursday night, Graham declared that “Philadelphia elections are crooked as a snake.”
“Why are they shutting people out?” he said, echoing Trump’s unfounded allegation that vote-counting observers were being denied access when in fact they were watching the proceedings. “Because they don’t want people to see what they’re doing.”
McCarthy, whom Trump has dubbed “My Kevin” for his unwavering loyalty, went on Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox and made a plea for Republicans to mobilize.
“So everyone who is listening, do not be quiet, do not be silent about this,” McCarthy said in a chilling call to action. “We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes.”
During a conference call of House Republicans on Friday, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) spoke up against McCarthy’s comments on Fox the previous night, along with a few other Republicans, who said that members of leadership should not embrace unfounded conspiracies in TV appearances, according to a GOP aide familiar with the private call who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The issue dominated the call, with some Republicans urging restraint and others clamoring for the party to fight.
And Friday morning, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), an early Trump supporter who remains one of his most aggressive defenders, asked her constituents to donate to Trump’s legal defense fund to contest the election in court.
“It’s a shame that we have to fight for a fair election in the greatest democracy the world has ever known, but we do,” she said in a statement. “President Donald Trump has always had our backs, and now, Tennesseans need to have his to make sure every single legally cast ballot is counted.”
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) chimed in Friday, writing on Twitter that his state ensures that poll watchers from both parties have access to the vote counting process but said that “what is happening in some states undermines trust in elections.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who did not vote for Trump, rejected Abbott’s claims and said there was “no defense” for the president’s misleading speech claiming victory.
“No election or person is more important than our democracy,” he tweeted.
Meanwhile, some Republicans who have set themselves up to lead the party in a different direction have remained quiet, suggesting that the Trump wing may win the battle for the future — at least in the short term. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who has criticized Trump on national security policies, retweeted McConnell’s missive about ensuring that all votes are counted. She declined a request for an interview.
In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp (R), a Trump supporter, also appeared to be carefully considering his next steps. His office has declined to comment on Trump’s allegations of fraudulent voter activity after news that Biden surpassed the president in votes. Kemp, who is up for reelection in 2022, said in a statement Friday that the election is “far from over,” vowing to send lawyers to eight counties to “ensure that the process is fair and transparent.”
“There are ballots left to be counted, and we must protect the integrity of Georgia elections,” he said.
It is unclear how far the pro-Trump wing of the party will go. The president has suggested he would welcome GOP state legislators trying to overturn the will of the voters in states such as Pennsylvania and instead pick their own slate of pro-Trump electors for the electoral college to make him president instead of Biden.
However, Cruz, while defending Trump, appeared to hesitate when Hannity asked him about that idea specifically — or even the possibility of holding a “do-over” election.
“Now, that’s a big cannon to use,” Cruz said, noting that when he helped litigate the Bush v. Gore election recount in Florida in 2000, “we were having very explicit conversations about that.”
“The answer that I want to see, the outcome that I want to see, is to count every vote that was legally cast and for the president to win,” Cruz said.
Seung Min Kim and Erica Werner contributed to this report.