President Donald Trump’s desperate effort to subvert democracy and steal the election will hit a brick wall of truth and America’s constitutional defenses when Congress meets Wednesday to finalize President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
But a futile bid by radicalized pro-Trump Republicans to block the process based on bogus vote-fraud claims will inflict new blows on national unity, respect for bedrock institutions and the public legitimacy of Biden’s presidency. The objections to state results expected to be lodged by a dozen Senate Republicans could drag out the process for hours and are likely to deepen the conviction of Trump voters, battered by a barrage of propaganda from the President and conservative media, that he was unfairly beaten in November.
A sense of history at a brittle national moment is being fueled, meanwhile, by counts in two Senate runoffs in Georgia that will decide who controls the chamber — a critical concern for the incoming president. CNN projected early Wednesday that Democrat Raphael Warnock will flip one of those seats. Control of the US Senate now comes down to Republican David Perdue, who is running to keep his seat against Democrat Jon Ossoff.
In retrospect, it might have been inevitable that Trump’s presidency — with its autocratic chest beating, demands for total loyalty, limitless vanity, abuses of power and TV stunts — would push the system to its limits on a Capitol Hill stage normally used by victors and the vanquished to promote national healing.
Just as the Covid-19 pandemic exposed Trump’s method of wishing inconvenient facts away, Wednesday’s events will reveal the absurdity of Trump’s false alternative reality in which he claims a landslide election win.
That will complicate Biden’s hopes of forging patriotic unity and a belated national plan to tackle a pandemic that has never been more alarming and that is being made worse by the halting rollout of vaccines.
Wednesday’s drama is also certain to carve deeper divides in the Republican Party, which has been split in two by Trump’s demands for lawmakers to keep faith with his personality cult instead of respecting a free and fair election.
And Vice President Mike Pence’s four-year strategy of unctuousness toward his boss is about to come unstuck. Trump has no patience for the law that means the vice president merely presides over the certification of the process and has no power to reject electoral votes for Biden on the basis of lies about fraud. But Pence on Tuesday gave the President a step-by-step explanation for why he lacks the power to block the certification process, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins reported.
Relations between Trump and Pence frayed in recent days, CNN reported Tuesday, as Trump piled pressure on Pence to act on the wild theories and constitutional illiteracy of fringe lawyers and advisers that have repeatedly been thrown out by GOP-appointed judges and the Supreme Court.
“The Vice President has the power to reject fraudulently chosen electors,” Trump declared falsely in a tweet. But a person close to Pence said Tuesday that the vice president would “follow the law and Constitution” in a manner that would be likely to unleash an eruption of fury from the President.
The sense of disequilibrium in Washington is being intensified by the arrival of large numbers of pro-Trump demonstrators hoping to intimidate lawmakers; the President will address the protesters at a rally on Wednesday morning.
City authorities are deploying the National Guard amid fears of a repeat of the violence between pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators seen at previous events. The atmosphere is not being helped by the President’s inflammatory tweets.
Video: Warnock reacts to GOP’s planned certification opposition (CNN)
“I hope the Democrats, and even more importantly, the weak and ineffective RINO section of the Republican Party, are looking at the thousands of people pouring into D.C. They won’t stand for a landslide election victory to be stolen,” Trump wrote on Tuesday, tagging GOP leaders.
The President’s unbalanced mood and vengeful temperament are casting an ominous shadow, amid uncertainty over how he will react once Congress closes off the final venue for his always-doomed-to-fail attempt to overturn the election during the two weeks before Biden’s inauguration.
A ceremonial process
Pence, as the titular president of the Senate, will preside in the House of Representatives when Congress meets in joint session at 1 p.m. ET. Four lawmakers picked as tellers will read out the certified Electoral College tallies from the states. If there is an objection to state results — which must be lodged in writing and include the signatures of a member of each chamber — the session will be paused and the Senate and House will retreat to their own turf for two hours of debate before voting on the objection.
Despite the misinformation from Trump’s legal team and some supporters, there is no route for him to overturn the election. Even if there were a majority in favor of objections in the Republican-led Senate — and there is not — the Democratic-controlled House would vote to reject them. An objection must be sustained by both chambers in order for electoral votes not to be awarded.
It remains unclear how many objections Republican lawmakers intend to lodge. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri has already pledged to challenge the results in Pennsylvania, where courts have repeatedly rejected Trump’s cases.
“At the very least, Congress should investigate allegations of voter fraud and adopt measures to secure the integrity of our elections. But Congress has so far failed to act,” Hawley said in a statement.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas plans an objection to the results in Arizona, where multiple state and federal courts have already dismissed false claims of voter fraud and irregularities. Covid-19 protocols, which are currently lengthening debates and votes on Capitol Hill, could drag out the joint session for hours.
The prominence of Cruz and Hawley in the bid to thwart the democratic election is seen as an early marker of the 2024 presidential race and has critics accusing them of putting personal ambition above personal principle.
Other Republicans involved may not have visions of the White House but are loath to turn their backs on Trump’s base voters and risk primary challenges.
Many of the Republicans who have decided not to join the attempt to overturn the election, like Arkansas’ Sen. Tom Cotton, are arguing that the effort — imposing federal power over state election results — runs counter to conservative principles. A trickle of Republican senators revealed their antipathy to the challenges on Tuesday.
South Carolina’s Sen. Tim Scott, for instance, concluded the insurrection was neither constitutionally viable nor politically feasible.
“For their theory to work, Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats would have to elect Donald Trump president rather than Joe Biden. That … is not going to happen, not today or any other day,” he said in a statement.
Even if Pence were to launch procedural shenanigans by refusing to accept electoral vote counts from the critical states that decided the election for Biden, it is likely his action would be voted down in each chamber. So he has no escape from an invidious position that will provide television footage of a moment that could harm his own future presidential hopes.
“It is a strictly ceremonial role where he is the emcee. I’ve compared it in the past to the Academy Awards presenters,” Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general, told CNN.
“It might be Thursday, it might be Friday, where he has to say the most loathed words to President Trump, which is ‘The next president of the United States is Joe Biden.’ “
Pence is not the first vice president saddled with the uncomfortable task of finalizing the defeat of a presidential ticket on which he was a candidate. In 1961, outgoing Vice President Richard Nixon had to announce his own loss — after a tight election that some Republicans claimed had featured fraud — to John Kennedy. Burying his disappointment, Nixon described the ceremonial process as a “striking and eloquent example of the stability of our constitutional system” and extended his best wishes to the new president.
In 2001, Vice President Al Gore tallied an election that some Democrats still believe was unfairly decided by the Supreme Court. In what was seen as a gesture of national unity and support for constitutional institutions, Gore said, “May God bless our new president and our new vice president.”
Such magnanimity from Pence would go down poorly with Trump.