The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump sabotaging GOP on his way out of office with push to overturn election

President Trump leaves the White House en route to a rally in Georgia. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

President Trump is effectively sabotaging the Republican Party on his way out of office, obsessed with overturning his election loss and nursing pangs of betrayal from allies whom he had expected to bend the instruments of democracy to his will.

Trump has created a divide in his party as fundamental and impassioned as any during his four years as president, with lawmakers forced to choose between certifying the results of an election decided by their constituents or appeasing the president in an all-but-certain-to-fail crusade to keep him in power by subverting the vote.

As Republican lawmakers took sides ahead of Wednesday’s joint session of Congress to certify the electoral college results, some on Monday voiced rare criticism of Trump for his attempt to pressure Georgia elections officials to change vote totals there during a Saturday phone call, a recording of which was published by The Washington Post.

Some congressional Republicans on Jan. 4 criticized President Trump for asking Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” votes. (Video: The Washington Post)

Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the No. 3 House Republican, said the call was “deeply troubling” and urged all Americans to listen to the hour-long conversation, while Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) condemned it as “a new low in this whole futile and sorry episode.” Even one of Trump’s most loyal defenders, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), said it was “not a helpful call.”

Trump signaled he had little patience for defections by members of what he dubbed the “Surrender Caucus.” After Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) announced that he was not joining the band of GOP lawmakers objecting to the electoral college results, Trump attacked Cotton on Twitter and warned that voters would “NEVER FORGET!”

The president is trying to mobilize a show of strength that could intimidate lawmakers who certify the result, exhorting his supporters to travel to Washington for mass protests Wednesday. He is planning to speak to the crowd on the Ellipse around midday Wednesday, two officials familiar with the planning said.

Trump in recent days has blasted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for having “NO FIGHT,” publicly recruited a primary challenger to the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Thune (S.D.), and called on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) to resign.

Thirteen senators and more than 100 House members are planning to object to the electoral college results in Wednesday’s proceedings, but Trump is befuddled as to why many more Republicans are not falling in line with him, advisers said.

Fueling the president’s indignation is his belief that he is the true victor because that is what the advisers in his ear continue to tell him, according to one of Trump’s closest advisers, who like some others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

“He incontrovertibly thinks he won — and he thinks he won big — and the people around him don’t disabuse him of that because they don’t want to get crosswise, and because they told him he was going to win, so they can have it both ways,” this adviser said. “It’s not about his inability to move on. It’s about his inability to even diagnose what happened. He won’t yet conduct the autopsy, if you will.”

Still, Trump is not entirely blind to reality. He has asked several advisers in recent weeks for advice on what he should do instead of attending President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, according to two people who have spoken to him.

After days of watching Trump toss hand grenades at fellow Republicans, party officials said they were deeply concerned he might veer off script and continue his destructive antics onstage Monday night in Georgia, at a rally on the eve of runoff elections that will decide which party controls the Senate.

Aides had encouraged the president to deliver a simple message to Georgia voters that they must turn out to protect his legacy. But Trump had something else in mind. The first words out of his mouth at the rally in Dalton were: “There’s no way we lost Georgia. That was a rigged election.”

Trump went on to bash Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, claim they were not real Republicans, and promise to campaign against both men when they stand for reelection in 2022.

The president also falsely said he had won reelection “in a landslide” and suggested that he expects Vice President Pence to make it so when he fulfills his constitutional duty to preside over Wednesday’s joint session of Congress, even though the vice president does not have the power to overturn the results.

“I hope Mike Pence comes through for us, I have to tell you,” Trump told the applauding Georgia crowd. “Of course, if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much.”

GOP strategists say Trump’s infatuation with personal grievances and false claims of a “rigged” and “stolen” election in November could depress their party’s turnout Tuesday, dooming Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.

Georgia’s voting systems manager, Gabriel Sterling, refuted Trump’s voter fraud claims point by point at a news conference Monday in Atlanta. “This is all easily, provably false, yet the president persists,” Sterling said. “We have claim after claim after claim, with zero proof. Zero.”

Trump has been uninterested in governing or managing the pandemic — or even burnishing his legacy — and is almost entirely focused on the election, spending considerable time talking about it with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and presidential personnel director Johnny McEntee, officials said.

Trump has complained that he does not think he will get credit if Perdue and Loeffler win but will be blamed if they lose, according to the close adviser.

Trump’s focus on Georgia has been less about the marquee Senate contests than about rewriting his own history. Though he has been preoccupied by scheming to reverse the national outcome, advisers said Trump has been singularly fixated on Georgia — a once solidly red state he had assumed he would easily carry.

Instead, Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to lose Georgia in three decades — a fact he cannot fathom and a historical distinction he loathes, according to people familiar with his thinking. Trump campaign officials were so convinced they’d win in Georgia that they rejected calls to direct more money and staffing to the state, a former senior campaign official said. 

“Honestly, I think that he cannot handle being the sitting Republican president that lost Georgia,” said a GOP official in frequent touch with the White House.

Several Republicans in Georgia said they’re not sure Trump really wants Loeffler or Perdue to win because if they do, it undermines his central complaint that the state’s elections are rigged. It would also pour salt in the wound of his defeat in the state, something he has struggled to understand, stating repeatedly on the weekend call with Raffensperger that it’s simply not possible for him to have lost there.

Trump advisers said he is especially bothered that a Democratic politician he has long disdained, former state House minority leader Stacey Abrams, is credited with orchestrating the winning ground game in Georgia and that two Republican politicians he thought would do his bidding, Kemp and Raffensperger, refuse to try to rig the result in his favor.

The president’s animus toward Kemp is especially pronounced. As one Republican familiar with his transactional thinking explained it, Trump believes that he made Kemp governor by endorsing him in a competitive primary in 2018, and therefore Kemp is his lackey and should do precisely what Trump instructs him to do.

Still, reversing the Georgia result would not be enough for Trump to retain the presidency.

“Let’s say you get Raffensperger to commit fraud and get you the 11,000 votes — what does that even get you?” said the Republican official in frequent touch with the White House. “You still need three other states. I don’t understand what the ‘win’ is here. There’s no strategy.”

Trump has been focused on reversing the outcomes in other states, too — including Arizona and Pennsylvania. But of the states where Biden notched narrow wins, only Georgia has a Republican governor and secretary of state, a fact Trump has assumed could work to his advantage. Elections officials in several other battlegrounds where he contested his defeat said the president has not reached out to them as he did to Raffensperger.

In private conversations with advisers and associates, Trump has been fixated on a handful of states and ticking through various ways he says he was robbed in each of them, according to one adviser who spoke to the president about the issue last week.

“Most everyone doesn’t want to talk to him about it anymore,” this adviser said. “He’s a broken record.”

The president’s comments to Raffensperger on their hour-long phone call echoed comments he has made privately to aides and advisers recently.

Trump had tried to reach Raffensperger at least 18 times before Saturday’s call, according to Raffensperger’s deputy, Jordan Fuchs, but the calls were patched to interns in the press office who thought it was a prank and didn’t realize it was actually the president on the line. Meadows arranged Saturday’s call after collecting all the participants’ cellphone numbers and connecting with them directly.

Trump’s intensifying drive to overturn the election results has deepened a GOP divide on Capitol Hill. McConnell last month urged Republican senators not to object to the electoral college vote certification in Wednesday’s joint session. But now that 13 have said they would, the leader has stepped back from any significant effort to tamp down the brewing rebellion. He is not whipping votes and has not spoken to Trump in weeks.

In conversations with other Senate Republicans, McConnell has stressed that their decision now will be a matter of conscience and that each senator should vote the way he or she has to vote, according to two senior GOP officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay the majority leader’s private posture.

Some Republican senators have expressed concerns that voting to certify — and against Trump — would open them up to a primary challenge from the right, while others worry that voting to object would make them vulnerable in a general election, a person familiar with the deliberations said.

“I think it is revealing that there is not a single senator who is arguing that the election was stolen from President Trump,” said Josh Holmes, an outside adviser to McConnell. “The divide in the party is whether it’s appropriate to pull the pin on an electoral college grenade, hoping that there are enough responsible people standing around who can shove it back in before they detonate American democracy.”

Loeffler on Monday said she would object to certification, as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and a separate coalition of 11 senators led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) have also pledged to do.  

Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee chairman and a Trump critic, warned of the long-term peril for those who object.

“They are sealing themselves inside the very tomb that Donald Trump built for them,” Steele said. “When they commit this act on Wednesday, where do they go from there? . . . These people are wholly owned subsidiaries of Trump Inc. They are functionaries like the men and women who manage his properties and mop his bathrooms and clean his hotels.”

At least two more GOP senators said Monday that they would vote to affirm the electoral college results, joining Toomey and others. In a lengthy statement, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is up for reelection in 2022, said he would vote to affirm the duly chosen electors from any contested state. He said that he “cannot support allowing Congress to thwart the will of the voters.”  

And Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said it would be a “grave step” for lawmakers to reject votes that were certified by the states. “I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” she said. “Recognizing the individual chosen by the American people to be our president is in keeping with this oath.” 

Trump sought Monday to try to scare Republican lawmakers from breaking with him on certification. He tweeted, “The ‘Surrender Caucus’ within the Republican Party will go down in infamy as weak and ineffective ‘guardians’ of our Nation, who were willing to accept the certification of fraudulent presidential numbers!”

Senate GOP leaders have remained in the dark about the extent of the rogue senators’ objections, largely because the rebels had yet to finalize their strategy with less than 48 hours before the joint session. 

Hawley has said he will object to the counting of electors from Pennsylvania but has not ruled out other states. Members of the faction led by Cruz have yet to identify a single state they plan to contest, saying only that they plan to reject electors from unspecified disputed states unless they secure a 10-day audit of election returns. 

GOP officials said Monday that the extent of the Cruz group’s objections was still being discussed, although the lack of a clear endgame has privately worried even some aides involved in the effort. 

In the House, the top two Republican leaders have largely remained silent on efforts to object, but the No. 3 official, Cheney, circulated a detailed memo warning that questioning the state-certified results would “set an exceptionally dangerous precedent” that essentially usurps the responsibility of individual states. Objecting to the electors, Cheney argued, was “directly at odds with the Constitution’s clear text and our core beliefs as Republicans.”

Amy Gardner and Paulina Firozi contributed to this report.