In the days after President Trump’s election loss, congressional Republicans sought to let him down easy.
“President Trump is 100 percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on November 9, two days after the presidential race was called by every major network. “This process will reach its resolution. Our system will resolve any recounts or litigation. In January, the winner of this election will place his hand on a Bible. Just like it’s happened every four years since 1793.” He did not mention that Trump and his allies had thus far presented no substantive evidence to support their claims.
Republicans had outperformed even their own internal expectations down ballot, but control of the Senate was not yet assured—that hinged on two January 5 runoff elections in Georgia. McConnell’s comments represented an effort to paper over a real divide within his conference, and placate not only Trump, but the new voters Trump had brought to the party. Republicans needed to hold their fragile coalition together for 57 more days.
GOP officials admitted they didn’t really know where their offramp from the president’s election conspiracy theories would be, but they hoped to outsource the job of admitting Trump’s defeat. “Yeah, taking this one day at a time,” one strategist told The Dispatch on November 10. “Republicans are monitoring the court fights closely, and have confidence the conflict resolution process that’s worked for our country since its founding will produce a result both sides can respect.”
But that calculation fundamentally misunderstood the president and his most ardent supporters, who would never respect a result that rendered him a loser. And now, with less than two weeks until Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue face voters in Georgia, the house of cards could very well come tumbling down.
The Trump campaign and its allies whiffed repeatedly in court for weeks, having their election lawsuits thrown out or dismissed by judges appointed by Presidents Bush, Obama, and even Trump himself. The Supreme Court—with its 6-3 conservative majority—neglected even to hear a case brought by the Texas attorney general seeking to overturn election results in four key swing states. Members of the Electoral College voted 306-232 in Joe Biden’s favor, officially sealing Trump’s demise.
McConnell undoubtedly hoped these developments would soften the blow when he finally acknowledged Biden’s victory on December 15. He even alerted White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows before he first addressed Biden as president-elect on the Senate floor. “Many millions of us had hoped the presidential election would yield a different result,” he said. “But our system of government has processes to determine who will be sworn in on January the 20. The Electoral College has spoken. So today, I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden.”
It wasn’t enough. Unless McConnell agreed to help Trump steal the election, it was never going to be enough. The president on Monday night sent a slide around to Republican lawmakers pointing to what he believed to be his own role in McConnell’s election victory, decrying the Kentucky Republican for being “the first one off the ship.”
After Sen. John Thune—McConnell’s No. 2 in the Senate—told reporters that a longshot bid to overturn the presidential election by House Republicans would “go down like a shot dog” in the Senate, Trump declared the South Dakotan’s political career over, promising “he will be primaried in 2022.”* Trump has in recent weeks made similar threats against Republican Govs. Doug Ducey in Arizona and Brian Kemp in Georgia, and his campaign is launching radio ads in the Peach State talking about election fraud.
As a result, some Republican officials who were once confident about Sens. Loeffler and Perdue winning reelection are now beginning to waver. “The Georgia runoffs are all about blocking AOC [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] from pushing Biden to the far left,” one senior GOP aide told The Dispatch. “It’s a winning message that Georgia voters get, but Trump doesn’t care about any of that. He’s attacking Gov. Kemp and turning our voters against us with conspiracy theories. Indulging his temper tantrum is borderline suicidal for a party that cares about its future.”
With relatively few exceptions, Republican leaders have indulged this temper tantrum for upward of seven weeks. And what has it gotten them? Pernicious conspiracy theories—including ones targeting GOP officials—are seeping deeper into the Republican electorate. More than 120 House Republicans put their names behind a lawsuit seeking to disenfranchise millions of voters in four states. This week, the president vetoed the Republican-supported National Defense Authorization Act, which directs how military funds will be spent for the year. And on Tuesday night, he blew up a months-long negotiation over coronavirus relief that many Republicans believed they had won, siding with congressional Democrats and demanding larger stimulus checks. On a members-only call Wednesday, Rep. Don Bacon accused the president of throwing House Republicans under the bus: “The President’s Secretary of Treasury helped negotiate this bill and encouraged us to support it.”
If the goal was to limit the damage Trump could do to the party on his way out, it didn’t work.
But would the situation actually be different if GOP leadership had ripped the Band-Aid off in November? A large percentage of Republican voters trust Trump and Trump alone. “The reality is there’s no winning strategy here; whatever you do will be subject to the wannabe emperor’s whims of that day,” said Doug Heye, a longtime Republican operative who worked in House leadership. “This is the self-created box that they’ve all found themselves in.”
Maybe Trump is trying to reclaim his “outsider” persona heading into his post-presidency. Maybe he’s looking for another avenue through which he can raise money. Maybe he’s simply thrashing around out of spite. But Republicans were deluding themselves if they thought they could avoid this fight with him. “It’s the natural progression of the Faustian bargain,” GOP consultant Rob Stutzman said. “You can’t just break up with the devil over text.”
Correction, December 24, 2020: John Thune represents South Dakota in the U.S. Senate, not North Dakota.