WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump is using the power of his office to try to reverse the results of the election, orchestrating a far-reaching pressure campaign to persuade Republican officials in Michigan, Georgia and elsewhere to overturn the will of voters in what critics decried Thursday as an unprecedented subversion of democracy.
After courts rejected the Trump campaign’s baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud, the president is now trying to remain in power with a wholesale assault on the integrity of the vote by spreading misinformation and trying to persuade loyal Republicans to manipulate the electoral system on his behalf.
In an extraordinary news conference Thursday at the Republican National Committee headquarters, Trump’s attorneys claimed without evidence there was a centralized conspiracy with roots in Venezuela to rig the U.S. presidential election. They alleged voter fraud in Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and other cities whose municipal governments are controlled by Democrats and where President-elect Joe Biden won by large margins.
“We cannot allow these crooks - ‘cause that’s what they are - to steal an election from the American people,” said one of the attorneys, Rudy Giuliani. “They elected Donald Trump; they didn’t elect Joe Biden. Joe Biden is in the lead because of the fraudulent ballots, the illegal ballots that were produced and that were allowed to be used after the election was over. Give us an opportunity to prove it in court and we will.”
Neither Giuliani nor other Trump attorneys have furnished evidence to support that or any other claim of widespread fraud.
Thursday’s show by Trump’s lawyers disquieted many, including Christopher Krebs, the Trump-appointed director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency whom the president fired Tuesday after he stated publicly that the election had been secure.
“That press conference was the most dangerous 1hr 45 minutes of television in American history. And possibly the craziest,” Krebs wrote on Twitter.
On Capitol Hill, senior Democrats ratcheted up their rhetoric. “I think this borders on treason,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. “He is undermining the very essence of democracy, which is: You go to the poll, you vote and the people decide. There’s no doubt that the people decided.”
Ben. Ben Sasse of Nebraska was one of the few Republicans to offer criticism Thursday. “Wild press conferences erode public trust,” Sasse said in a statement. “. . . Rudy and his buddies should not pressure electors to ignore their certification obligations under the statute. We are a nation of laws, not tweets.”
In defiance of the vote, Trump and his lawyers are scrambling to stop key states from certifying their results and to enlist Republican state officials to overturn Biden’s wins by seating Trump electors to the electoral college.
Biden’s team expressed confidence Thursday that Trump’s intensifying effort to keep power would fail.
“None of it is legally significant,” said Bob Bauer, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, who runs the election protection legal efforts. “They are pivoting from this completely failed litigation strategy to a strategy of misleading people into believing that he now has a political option. It is a response to failure. It is the last card that he thinks he can pull from his deck here, but his hand remains a completely losing hand.”
But other Democrats voiced more concern about the threat of Trump’s moves.
“Other people looked at me like I was insane, but I have fully anticipated that Donald Trump would try every trick in the book,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich. “The kind of stuff that’s being done now is undermining people’s confidence in the election process and the integrity of the election and it is fundamentally attacking the roots of our democracy, and it is unacceptable.”
Trump’s focus for the moment is centered on Michigan, where Biden is the projected winner and leads by about 157,000 votes. The president earlier this week called a Republican member of Wayne County’s Board of Canvassers, after which she attempted to rescind her vote to certify Biden’s win in Wayne, which is where Detroit is located and is the state’s most populous county.
Trump then invited the leaders of Michigan’s Republican-controlled state Senate and House to meet him Friday at the White House ahead of next Monday’s state canvassing board meeting to certify results.
The president’s allies have said that if the board deadlocks, the legislature could choose to ignore Biden’s popular-vote win and seat Trump electors. But experts say such a move would be on shaky legal ground. And multiple election lawyers have said that scenario is unlikely for several reasons. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has the power to fire members of the canvassing board and appoint interim replacements without legislative approval. And Democrats are highly likely to file suit in the event the board deadlocks, because state law directs the board to follow the popular vote in its decision to certify.
“I can’t tell you all the different actions [Republicans] are contemplating, but I implore people to put country over party and do the will of the people - respect the law, and see through that the will of the people is reflected in our electors and not play games with this fundamental part of our democracy,” Whitmer said at a news conference Thursday.
In Georgia and Pennsylvania, where Republicans also control the state legislatures, officials said Trump’s ploy stood little chance of success.
A top adviser to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, said there is “zero” chance the secretary would take a phone call from the president or his advisers. Raffensperger is expected to certify the statewide result Friday, as required by law. The certification then goes to Gov. Brian Kemp, another Republican, for his signature.
Kemp told reporters last week that he was glad Raffensperger ordered the hand-counted audit of the presidential vote. “Let’s let that happen and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.
Yet Trump has for the past several days been publicly badgering Kemp to intervene in the recount to reject ballots and “flip” the result, which currently has Biden winning by 12,284 votes. “Republicans must get tough!” Trump tweeted at Kemp on Thursday morning. Privately, Trump has told advisers he is furious with the governor for not doing more to overturn the outcome.
Trump also is consulting with advisers about how he might get Wisconsin ballots discarded, and his lawyers say they believe he has a relatively strong case in Dane and Milwaukee counties because of how officials there conducted absentee balloting. They have offered no evidence to bolster their case.
These are the words and actions of an attempted coup, according to historians and other experts.
“We have never seen anything like this before,” historian and author Michael Beschloss said. “This is a president abusing his very great powers to try to stay in office, even though it is obvious to everyone that he has been defeated in the polls. That is a prospect that terrified most of the founders.”
Beschloss added, “I don’t want to be alarmist, but I do think it’s our job as citizens to keep watch on every one of these things with an eye to that ultimate dread of the founders, which is that a president rejected by the voters would use his powers to try to stay in office anyway.”
The latest evolution in the Trump strategy came into view Thursday at RNC headquarters, where Giuliani and campaign attorneys Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell presented their argument for widespread fraud but provided no evidence.
Powell argued that the voting systems used in many states, including those manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems, use software “created in Venezuela at the direction of Hugo Chávez to make sure he never lost an election.”
The conspiracy theory that machines by Dominion, a Colorado-based manufacturer, were programmed to rig the election has spread widely on right-wing websites and social media and has become an obsession of Trump’s in recent days. A Republican who has spoken with the president said he has been telling his team that votes should be thrown out in any state, such as Georgia, where Dominion machines were used.
There is no evidence to support this theory, however.
The Trump campaign did not raise objections to Dominion equipment or software before the Nov. 3 election. And the company’s products are certified for use in states that Trump won, including Utah and Florida.
In addition, Giuliani and Powell’s claims have been disproved in Georgia, where the state’s hand recount of nearly 5 million paper ballots affirmed that the Dominion scanners accurately counted the vote, state officials said.
Ellis swatted away questions from reporters asking for evidence of the massive fraud that she, Powell and Giuliani claimed, saying they would produce it later.
Trump was said to be enthused about the news conference and asked allies to watch it, a White House official said. The event seemed at times farcical, with streaks of what appeared to be black hair dye mixed with sweat dripping down the sides of Giuliani’s face as he spoke.
Giuliani has assumed control of the president’s strategy, which is in part to build a public-relations case on television that amps up political pressure on Republican officials in key states to make decisions more amenable to Trump, according to two campaign officials.
At first, officials said, Trump seemed rather deflated with the election results and only going through the motions of a legal fight. But his attitude changed in recent days. Although Trump has long vacillated on Giuliani, he has been buoyed by the former New York mayor’s energy - and, after so many other advisers told him he was unlikely to win a second term, by Giuliani’s proclamations that he just might, two campaign advisers said. They, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
But not everyone in the president’s orbit shares his enthusiasm. One senior White House official, asked for comment about Giuliani, let out a long laugh. Some advisers think Giuliani sees this ongoing effort as a way to make money and remain relevant.
Some of Trump’s most valued lawyers - including White House counsel Pat Cipollone and private attorneys Jay Sekulow and Jane and Marty Raskin - have not played large roles in this post-election fight, while former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, a public face for the effort in the early days, has all but disappeared.
Trump campaign lawyers Justin Clark and Matt Morgan were not at Thursday’s news conference and were not part of the Giuliani discussions. “They’ve been totally cut out,” a senior campaign official said.
Clark and campaign manager Bill Stepien were said to be at headquarters Thursday and aides were winding down the operation, dealing with contracts and offboarding hundreds of employees.
Also not present was RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who was in Michigan. The RNC granted Giuliani’s request to use its building after officials there were informed by the president that Giuliani was in charge of all efforts, an official said.
Giuliani did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment.
Election law experts said the clock is ticking on Trump, as states will soon certify their results.
“Every day that the process continues as normal solidifies Biden’s position,” said Rick Hasan, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine. “Anything he has a chance to win is not enough to change the outcome in any state. The legal path is dead.”
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The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis, Michael Scherer and Matt Viser contributed to this report.