The Morning Dispatch: Desperate President, Divided GOP

A growing chorus of congressional Republicans speaks out against Trump's attempted election theft.

Happy Monday! Any team can make it to the playoffs by “winning games,” but it takes a truly special squad to fail their way into the postseason. Go Bears!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Washington Post on Sunday published a full recording and transcript of an hour-long phone call between President Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which Trump implored Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” for him. “We won the election,” Trump falsely said, “and it’s not fair to take it away from us like this. And it’s going to be very costly in many ways.”

  • Eleven additional Republican senators—including Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson, and James Lankford—announced over the weekend they plan to challenge President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College win on January 6. “We intend to vote on January 6 to reject the electors from disputed states as not ‘regularly given’ and ‘lawfully certified,’” the group said.

  • The Senate voted 81-13 to override President Donald Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act, a sweeping $740.5 billion defense bill passed by both the House and the Senate. The vote represents Congress’ first veto override of Trump’s presidency, which comes to an end in just over two weeks.

  • Nancy Pelosi was officially reelected to serve another term as House speaker on Sunday, narrowly beating out House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy in a 216 to 209 vote.

  • The United States confirmed 205,403 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 14.6 percent of the 1,402,813 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,394 deaths were attributed to the virus on Sunday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 351,580. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 125,544 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 13,071,925 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been distributed nationwide, and 4,225,756 have been administered.

Trump to Raffensperger: Find Me the Votes

If President Trump wasn’t set to leave office in 16 days, the country may have had another impeachment trial on its hands.

A stunning report from Amy Gardner of the Washington Post yesterday detailed a private phone call between President Trump and Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Saturday, in which Trump implored Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” for him. President-elect Joe Biden won the state by 11,779 votes. 

“So tell me, Brad, what are we going to do?” Trump said. “We won the election, and it’s not fair to take it away from us like this. And it’s going to be very costly in many ways. And I think you have to say that you’re going to reexamine it, and you can reexamine it, but reexamine it with people that want to find answers, not people that don’t want to find answers.”

You’ll notice we wrote “said” and not “reportedly said.” That’s because the Washington Post published all 62 minutes of the call online for anyone to listen to, a move that blunted the predictable cries of “fake news” and instead led pro-Trump forces to attack Raffensperger for recording and leaking the call. (The Washington Post story does not say how they received the recording, or from whom, but Raffensperger did respond to a misleading Trump tweet yesterday morning saying “the truth will come out.”)

Raffensperger has been a target of President Trump and his allies for months now, and the post-election attention has led to him and his wife receiving numerous death threats. Back in November, the secretary of state said he received a call from Sen. Lindsey Graham, who asked if he had the power to toss all mail-in ballots from certain counties. Georgia Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue demanded Raffensperger resign because he “failed to deliver honest and transparent elections,” but they did not explain what they meant by that or provide evidence to support their allegation.

But the Saturday call between Trump and Raffensperger provides the best window into the intense pressure that the secretary of state—a lifelong Republican who voted for and donated to Trump—has been under. Trump’s voice was raised for much of the call, but he sounded increasingly desperate as it became clear that his appeals to Raffensperger’s Republican “loyalty” weren’t going anywhere.

“Brad, whether you know it or not, they’re laughing at you,” Trump said at one point. “I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break.”

Some election lawyers said yesterday that Trump’s ask to Raffensperger may have violated the law, but that it would be difficult to pin him down on it. “Ultimately, I doubt this is behavior that would be prosecuted,” Republican lawyer Matthew Sanderson told the New York Times.

The bigger takeaway from the call, therefore, is that Trump is not just promulgating insane election fraud conspiracies, many of them with roots in QAnon, to satiate his supporters: He really, genuinely believes them to be true.

“Do you think it’s possible that they shredded ballots in Fulton County? Because that’s what the rumor is,” he said at one point. “They are shredding ballots, in my opinion, based on what I’ve heard.”

When Raffensperger questioned the president’s sources, Trump pushed back. “Mr. President, the problem you have with social media, they—people can say anything,” Raffensperger said.

“Oh, this isn’t social media,” Trump responded. “This is Trump media. It’s not social media.”

The call also touched on Kraken lawyer Sidney Powell’s unsubstantiated claims about voting machinery. “That Dominion is really moving fast to get rid of their machinery,” Trump said. “Have they moved the inner parts of the machines and replaced them with other parts?”

Raffensperger and Raffensperger’s lawyer Ryan Germany (who Trump said must be a good lawyer because he has a “nice last name”) repeatedly swatted down the president’s rants. 

“Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong,” Raffensperger said at one point. After Trump expressed disbelief that Raffensperger wasn’t doing more as a Republican to ensure an “accurate election,” the secretary of state responded that “we believe that we do have an accurate election. … We have to stand by our numbers. We believe our numbers are right.”

Toward the end of the call, Trump made a prediction sure to anger Mitch McConnell and many of his fellow Republicans.

“You have a big election coming up, and because of what you’ve done to the president … a lot of people aren’t going out to vote,” he added ominously, pointing to the runoffs in Georgia tomorrow that will dictate control of the Senate for the next two years. “And a lot of Republicans are going to vote negative because they hate what you did to the president. Okay? They hate it. … It’s going to have a big impact on Tuesday if you guys don’t get this thing straightened out fast.”

Trump is scheduled to hold a rally in Dalton, Georgia, later today—where all of this is all but certain to come up yet again. 

Intra-GOP Divisions Over Trump Spill Out Into Public

In a call with House Republicans on Friday, Rep. Liz Cheney—the third-ranking Republican in the lower chamber—made clear she opposes any effort to block the electors on January 6, according to several GOP sources on the call. CNN had reported a day earlier that as many as 140 House Republicans were prepared to do the president’s bidding after Sen. Josh Hawley released a statement saying he would not “vote to certify” the election. On the New Year’s Day call, Cheney made an impassioned case that the vote would be among the most momentous she and her colleagues would cast, emphasizing that their obligation to the Constitution, sworn before God, was far greater than any perceived commitment to the president or their party.

Once Cheney finished, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader, spoke up to make clear that Cheney was speaking only for herself and “not for leadership.” In the question-and-answer session that followed, several members—including Reps. Mike Gallagher, Anthony Gonzalez, and Adam Kinzinger—asked McCarthy to lay out his own views on the matter. McCarthy repeatedly refused to do so, but those leading the pro-Trump faction say McCarthy has privately blessed their efforts and participated in calls to help organize.

Cheney expanded on her case in a 21-page memo she sent to her colleagues on Sunday. “There is substantial reason for concern about the precedent Congressional objections will set here. By objecting to electoral slates, members are unavoidably asserting that Congress has the authority to overturn elections and overrule state and federal courts,” it reads. “Such objections set an exceptionally dangerous precedent, threatening to steal states’ explicit constitutional responsibility for choosing the President and bestowing it instead on Congress. This is directly at odds with the Constitution’s clear text and our core beliefs as Republicans.” 

Cheney also took direct aim at Sen. Ted Cruz in her memo, referencing Cruz’s (and ten other Republican Senators’) recent call for an Electoral Commission to “conduct an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in the disputed states.”

“The recent proposal for a new ‘Commission’ is even more problematic,” Cheney’s memo reads. “It is not reasonable to anticipate that any commission so formed could wrap up its work in 10 days; indeed, the subsequent debate at both the state and federal level would likely require months. Did those proposing a new commission realize that they were in essence proposing to delay the inaugural? Did they mean to set up a new future precedent where the inaugural is delayed and we have an ‘Acting President?’ For how long? Who decides when that process is over? Will that require another Act of Congress? Could the Acting President veto any such future Congressional action? If Congress has authority to create such a commission now, are state elections, recounts and state law legal challenges just ‘make-work’ until Congress gets around to investigating and deciding who should be President? Members who support the new commission proposal may need to answer each of these questions. And in particular, Members should be prepared to answer how such a commission would be justified by the actual text of our founding documents.”

Republican elected officials have been intensely divided for years over how to handle their precarious relationship with President Trump, who all but commandeered their party five years ago. Very few actually enthusiastically support the man, and many are more than happy to chastise him in private, even as they sing his praises publicly. GOP leaders have, for the most part, forged their own paths and done what they’ve needed to do to get reelected—regardless of their policy views or principles—and given their colleagues space to do the same.

But on the precipice of an entirely avoidable constitutional crisis, some Republicans have begun calling out Trump’s chief enablers in Congress. Cheney’s memo is perhaps the best example of this trend, but the House GOP Conference Chair is far from alone in her concern.

Sen. Pat Toomey—a Pennsylvania Republican who is retiring in 2022—slammed his colleagues on Saturday for their undemocratic ploy. “A fundamental, defining feature of a democratic republic is the right of the people to elect their own leaders,” he said. “The effort by Sens. Hawley, Cruz, and others to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in swing states like Pennsylvania directly undermines this right.” 

“I voted for President Trump and endorsed him for re-election,” Toomey continued. “But, on Wednesday, I intend to vigorously defend our form of government by opposing this effort to disenfranchise millions of voters in my state and others.” 

Other Republican leaders called out what they saw as the naked political ambition underlying these recent stunts. “When we talk in private, I haven’t heard a single Congressional Republican allege that the election results were fraudulent—not one,” Sen. Ben Sasse wrote last week. “Instead, I hear them talk about their worries about how they will ‘look’ to President Trump’s most ardent supporters.”

Sasse then took a thinly veiled shot at Hawley & Co. “We have a bunch of ambitious politicians who think there’s a quick way to tap into the president’s populist base without doing any real, long-term damage,” the Nebraska Republican continued. “But they’re wrong—and this issue is bigger than anyone’s personal ambitions. Adults don’t point a loaded gun at the heart of legitimate self-government.”

“The egregious ploy to reject electors may enhance the political ambition of some, but dangerously threatens our Democratic Republic,” Sen. Mitt Romney said in a statement that called out Cruz by name. “I could never have imagined seeing these things in the greatest democracy in the world. Has ambition so eclipsed principle?”

Romney’s 2012 vice presidential nominee expressed similar sentiments. “It is difficult to conceive of a more anti-democratic and anti-conservative act than a federal intervention to overturn the results of state-certified elections and disenfranchise millions of Americans,” former House Speaker Paul Ryan—who has rarely spoken out publicly since his retirement in 2018—said in a statement. “The fact that this effort will fail does not mean it will not do significant damage to American democracy.”

Sen. Tom Cotton, who is considered in Washington to be a reliable Trump ally, announced late last night he will not be objecting to the electoral results come Wednesday. “The Founders entrusted our elections chiefly to the states—not Congress,” he said. “They entrusted the election of our president to the people, acting through the Electoral College—not Congress. And they entrusted the adjudication of election disputes to the courts—not Congress.”

A group of current House Republicans also released a statement criticizing the effort on Sunday, making the case that Congress should not be able to dictate election results to the states. “To unconstitutionally insert Congress into the center of the presidential election process,” they argued, “would amount to stealing power from the people and the states.”

The group included Reps. Thomas Massie, Mike Gallagher, and Nancy Mace, a freshman, among others. The members also pointed out that undermining the Electoral College could harm Republicans in the future, considering how rarely their party has won the popular vote in recent presidential elections.

“If we perpetuate the notion that Congress may disregard certified electoral votes—based solely on its own assessment that one or more states mishandled the presidential election—we will be delegitimizing the very system that led Donald Trump to victory in 2016, and that could provide the only path to victory in 2024,” they wrote.

Rep. Chip Roy, a conservative from Texas who once served as Sen. Ted Cruz’ chief of staff, was also involved in the statement. He took things a step further later in the day, objecting to seating 67 members of the House of Representatives elected in November from Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. 

The move essentially called his fellow House Republicans on their bluff: They are planning to object to the results of the presidential election in those six swing states, but not the results of their own elections. Roy pointed out that many of his colleagues have expressed “deeply held belief[s] that those states conducted elections plagued by statewide, systemic fraud and abuse.” 

“Such allegations—if true—raise significant doubts about the elections of at least some of the members of the United States House of Representatives that, if not formally addressed, could cast a dark cloud of suspicion over the validity of this body for the duration of the 117th Congress,” he continued. “After all, those representatives were elected through the very same systems—with the same ballot procedures, with the same signature validations, with the same broadly applied decisions of executive and judicial branch officials—as were the electors chosen for the President of the United States under the laws of those states, which have become the subject of national controversy.”

Roy’s clever move forced his colleagues to go on the record with their hypocrisy. Only two—Reps. Morgan Griffith of Virginia and Andy Harris of Maryland—opposed installing members from the states in question.

As Declan wrote in a piece last month, “enterprising politicians aspiring for leadership in a post-Trump GOP are already working to stake out territory in the coming war.” That’s true for politicians like Hawley and Cruz—and it’s true for folks like Cheney, Sasse, Cotton, Gallagher, and Roy, too. A leadership vacuum emerged as a majority of the Republican Party fell in line behind President Trump’s post-election conspiracy theories, and those in the latter group stepped up to fill it. 

It’s far too early to speculate about the electoral repercussions of these actions in 2022, 2024, or beyond. The GOP could adapt and distance itself from the president in the coming years, or it could get even Trumpier. Sasse and Cotton were just elected to six-year terms, but there’s a very real chance all these officials will pay a political price at some point for standing up to the mob.

Roy seemed at peace with that reality yesterday when a pro-Trump personality said he would be primaried for his actions. “Perhaps,” the congressman countered. “But that’s our system. It’s a Republic—and my job is to faithfully defend the Constitution in representing my constituents. I believe I’ve done that.”

Worth Your Time

  • In a Washington Post piece that, in a sane world, wouldn’t have to be written, all 10 living former Secretaries of Defense essentially argue that enough is enough. “American elections and the peaceful transfers of power that result are hallmarks of our democracy,” they write in the essay that William Perry said was Dick Cheney’s idea. Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and his subordinates, they add, “are each bound by oath, law and precedent to facilitate the entry into office of the incoming administration, and to do so wholeheartedly. They must also refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election or hinder the success of the new team.”

  • National Review’s Andrew McCarthy backed President Trump’s reelection back in October, writing that the contest was “a choice between Trump and what the Biden-Harris Democrats would do to the country.” In a piece published over the weekend, however, he argues that—after the past two months—“the case for having supported the president’s reelection bid is harder to make.” The problem with his previous binary-choice line of thinking, McCarthy continues, is that “we who’ve supported the president on that basis are less the bottom-line realists we see ourselves as, and more like riverboat gamblers. And what we’re gambling with is the country.” McCarthy argued that you “don’t so much vote for a president as for an administration,” but concedes that “it has been easier for me to see the weakness of this contention over the last two months. There is no separating the president from the presidency, in competence or character, and this is never truer than in times of crisis.”

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Toeing The Company Line

  • How might we transform our shame-centric social media culture into a much more forgiving one? David took a break from religion and politics in his latest Sunday French Press to talk about the AppleTV+ dramedy Ted Lasso and its profound insights into American social media culture. From hotshot cable news hosts to low-profile Facebook users, it seems everyone is living under a microscope these days. “Talk to anyone who has even the smallest public voice, and they’ll tell you that ‘they’re waiting’ is the constant background of their lives,” David writes. “Every bad tweet. Every bad take. Every bad thought is preserved, catalogued and spit back at you, constantly and with a vengeance.” We would tell you how this ties into the show, but we don’t want to spoil it for you without warning!

Let Us Know

The fault lines of the emerging GOP civil war are interesting, because they don’t seem to fall along ideological lines at all—at least as we typically think of them. Sens. Sasse, Toomey, and Cotton, for example, are routinely among the most conservative members of the Republican Senate conference. The same goes for Roy in the House.

This will be the first of many GOP fights in the post-Trump era. If not right/left or conservative/liberal, what is the best way to think of this rift in the party?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).