Trump orchestrates final loyalty test in dying bid to subvert electionDecember 23, 2020
President Donald Trump is plotting a final stand in Congress on Jan. 6, casting it as the ultimate loyalty test in his quest to remain in power and shutting out anyone who won’t get in line.
Trump has been strategizing in recent days with a band of his fiercest congressional supporters about the effort, which will involve lodging objections during the typically pro forma congressional certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
It’s a gambit that even Republican leaders and those around Trump concede is doomed to fail, given the makeup of Congress. But that’s not the only point, according to GOP lawmakers, Trump advisers and Republican operatives.
The objections will also force Republicans in Congress to go on record voting to affirm Biden’s victory — acknowledging the outcome and likely inflaming Trump’s diehard supporters, a crucial GOP faction that has joined the president in denying the election results. Republican strategists and Trump allies inside and outside Washington said Trump’s core supporters will remember how their lawmakers vote on Jan. 6.
It’s a preview of the burgeoning rift between two groups of Trump supporters: Those who will stand with him to subvert the outcome of the election, no matter what, and those who are accepting the results of the democratic process. The split between the groups is threatening to unravel the shaky alliances that allowed Trump to maintain his hold on multiple GOP factions during his tumultuous tenure, with implications for upcoming elections.
“There’s no base of voters more passionate than President Trump’s,” said Lou Barletta, a former congress member and top Trump ally in Pennsylvania. “They are not going away and they will remember who isn’t standing up to fight for President Trump and fair and free elections.”
As the Jan. 6 strategy came together in recent days, Trump started dispatching advisers to decry “weak” Republicans who refuse to back him.
Trump and his allies have even turned on once-staunch supporters who have declined to indulge the president’s baseless claims of election fraud — eviscerating everyone from Attorney General Bill Barr to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to the Supreme Court justices Trump appointed. Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, lamented the “Republican turncoats” and “Republican quislings” who he accused of failing to stand up against pressure to move past the election.
Meanwhile, Trump participated in more than an hour of meetings Monday with hardline GOP House members — including QAnon-boosting Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene — to map out a strategy for one final crack at challenging Biden’s victory.
“This will be the new cause of the right,” said one Trump-allied GOP operative, who predicted Trump would leave office on Jan. 20 but keep animating his base with a slow drip of information to fuel election-fraud theories he’s pushing. “Joe Biden will take the oath of office and then his problems begin.”
Trump has made no secret of his plans to remain a political force after he leaves office. His closest campaign advisers have relaunched a consulting firm that aims to keep Trump’s hold on Republican politics in 2022 and beyond — with a particular focus on primary challenges to Republicans Trump has clashed with in recent months.
But the president is not done yet with his quixotic attempts to cling to power.
Over the last few days, Trump has flirted with increasingly drastic maneuvers to stave off his unceremonious exit from the White House. He huddled with advisers over the weekend to discuss a proposal to forcibly seize voting machines used in swing states where Biden won. And on Friday and several times since, he hosted Sidney Powell, a firebrand attorney promoting false voter-fraud theories in a series of lawsuits, to discuss that plan.
Also at the Friday meeting were former national security adviser Michael Flynn — who has pitched the possibility of deploying the military to redo the election — and Patrick Bryne, the CEO of Overstock.com, who has become an increasingly prominent Trump adviser. U.S. Army officials have rejected the notion that the military would have any role in the election process.
Late on Monday, Powell amplified a suggestion that an executive order had been drafted empowering her to probe the election as a special counsel, including through the forceful seizure of voting machines — and that all Trump has to do is sign it. But the White House has given no indication that Trump intends to do this, and by late Tuesday, there had been no developments.
Powell, said a Trump campaign official, “represents one of the last hopes that he and the campaign has for any legal remedies. We’re getting down to the point where there aren’t a lot of options left and we’ve exhausted a lot of legal remedies so far. She represents that last grasp of hope for what he’s trying to do.”
That Friday meeting was the first time anyone in Trump’s inner circle had heard about the possibility of an executive order, according to three sources familiar with the meeting. Giuliani raised the idea in response to a Trump query: What options do I have left to stay in office?
When White House counsel Pat Cipollone and chief of staff Mark Meadows said the executive order was unconstitutional, Powell and Byrne sharply pushed back. Trump remained open to the possibility.
“He was in classic CEO mode, wanting to keep all options open until they close,” said a person briefed on the meeting.
The discussion about appointing Powell special counsel was brief, according to two people familiar with the meeting, lasting only about five minutes.
The meeting reflected Trump’s increasing gravitation to those who are willing to offer him extreme ideas that are being dismissed by his day-to-day aides. For instance, Byrne’s sudden presence in the meeting confounded some current Trump advisers.
“No one seems to know where he came from,” said a person familiar with the matter, who noted that Byrne’s tweets after the meeting attacking Trump’s aides rankled the West Wing.
“He’s close with Rudy and that’s why he was able to get into that Oval Office meeting,” the person added, “but it’s not clear what role he has in all of this besides that.”
Plans for an executive order to empower Powell have stalled in recent days, though, according to those around Trump, as the president homes in on the effort to disrupt the Jan. 6 proceedings.
On Saturday, Trump spoke to Greene for 30 minutes, which resulted in the decision to schedule a Monday meeting with a broader group of Republican hardliners prepared to protest on Jan. 6. Trump also indicated in a radio interview that he spoke to Sen.-elect Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) about a congressional challenge.
The broader group of House members that visited the Oval Office on Monday included Greene and Reps. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and others. The group discussed a strategy for the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress, where a single House member, in concert with a single senator, can lodge challenges to any set of presidential electors, forcing debate and votes.
After the White House session, which included breakouts with Giuliani and Vice President Mike Pence — who is set to preside over the Jan. 6 meeting — the lawmakers emerged increasingly optimistic they will be able to force multiple votes on the matter over as many as 18 hours.
Though the participants insist this is a genuine effort to salvage Trump’s presidency, the likelier effect is to force most Republicans in both chambers to vote against Trump — something they’ve been loath to do for four years.
That’s one reason McConnell has urged his caucus to refrain from supporting challenges, a plea that looks increasingly unlikely to succeed. Tuberville has signaled he’s likely to endorse a challenge. And Brooks, one of the leaders of the House effort, indicated that multiple GOP senators are expected to sign on.
Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Texas) on Tuesday sent a letter to Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn urging them to join him in challenging Biden’s electors, saying it would be a “disservice to our nation to turn a blind eye” to the Trump-fueled allegations of fraud, none of which have been substantiated.
But top GOP senators say they won’t get behind an ultimately futile effort. Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) told Capitol Hill reporters Monday that any challenge to Biden’s win is “going down like a shot dog” and that he hoped his colleagues wouldn’t force a vote on the issue.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) agreed that the outcome isn’t in doubt, so a challenge would be fruitless.
“I just think it creates a situation where some of the people who would like to overturn the electoral result would be frustrated like it’s some kind of lack of loyalty,” Tillis said. “But it’s just a procedural reality.”
That fear is even more pronounced in GOP circles outside of Capitol Hill, where operatives fear Republicans who accept Biden’s win will suffer politically.
“It certainly does put Republicans in a position of appearing as though they are actively opposing President Trump when most of them have done pretty much everything they can do to support his presidency,” said a veteran GOP operative. “It obviously sets you off into a 2022 cycle where the president and his supporters are going to play a big role in continuing to shape the party and you want to keep everybody under the tent.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been among the most prominent, vocal supporters of Trump’s efforts to challenge the election results, framed the Jan. 6 protest differently. He described Congress’ role in finalizing the presidential election as a safety valve granted by the framers of the Constitution to prevent a “stolen” result.
“This is not a game. This is the presidency of the United States and whether or not it’s basically been stolen,” Gingrich said in an interview. He added that if indisputable evidence of such fraud doesn’t materialize between now and Jan. 6, he said there would be “no basis” for a challenge.
Some Republicans aligned with Trump say the president is likely to be the last person to realize when his efforts to stay in power have failed.
“You would be hard pressed to find someone besides the president who thinks Jan. 6 is going to stop Biden from taking office,” said a Republican close to the White House.
Still, the person added, making a public display of challenging the results may help assuage the Trump supporters who have bought into false claims of a fraudulent election.
“That’s not going to be enough for the president to just move on,” the Republican said, “but it gives the party a way out without totally infuriating him.”
Melanie Zanona and James Arkin contributed to this report.