A Most Dangerous Game
It is hardly a surprise that Donald Trump has refused to concede the election and is fighting to stay in power with frivolous lawsuits and baseless accusations of fraud. It was all entirely predictable. The more frightening aspect of this attack on democracy is that the vast majority of the Republican caucus has been willing to play along with this charade. And even as they try to slowly distance themselves by agreeing that Biden should at least start getting intelligence briefings, they are playing a most dangerous game.
Depending on which poll you believe, either 70% or somewhere around 50% of Republicans now believe that Biden was elected illegitimately. That bloc will make it hard to throw Trump under the bus. Worse, by binding themselves to Trump’s strategy of delaying the inevitable, congressional Republicans provide more and more opportunity for Trump to do something drastic that will force them to choose whether to stand with him or against him and that segment of their base.
Trump’s decapitation of the Defense Department leadership and replacement with loyal sycophants is alarming. The most benign interpretation is that his loyal soldiers will merely ensure that any information that incriminates the administration in any illegal foreign and domestic deals is destroyed. More worrying is the idea that the goal is to collect as much incriminating material on others, providing Trump with a raft of material to be used for blackmail or to sell to foreign interests in order to defray the enormous debts he will facing in the next few years. The most frightening interpretation is that Trump is preparing for a military strike against Iran. That would seem to coincide with Mike Pompeo’s whirlwind 10-day excursion that include stops in Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, the latter two being Iran’s staunches opponents in the region. The darkest but thankfully least likely scenario is an attempt by Trump to use the military as part of some sort of declaration of national emergency in order to stay in the White House.
Similarly, Bill Barr’s recent memo authorizing US Attorney to investigate claims of voting fraud is equally concerning. Barr’s memo changed the DOJ’s role from investigating voter fraud only after the electoral counts had been certified to a more proactive effort to potentially intercede in the counting of votes. Barr also has lowered the threshold for voter fraud investigations. The prior rule was that US Attorney should only investigate where there is potential criminal activity. Barr has changed that to allowing investigation into mere irregularities where there is no apparent evidence of a crime. Finally, Barr has authorized all 93 US Attorneys to start these investigations without authorization from the Justice Department’s career Public Integrity Section, a move that prompted the head of that section to resign. As Ryan Goodman and Jordan Weissman write, “Barr’s new policy allows the Justice Department to lend credibility to false claims of election fraud by opening ‘preliminary inquiries’ into such allegations in the coming days. Indeed, the memo encourages prosecutors to take this step: ‘It will likely be prudent to commence any election-related matters as a preliminary inquiry, so as to assess whether available evidence warrants further investigative steps,’ Barr instructed his subordinates.”
The other nightmare scenario for keeping Trump in power is having state legislatures throw out the electoral results in their state, claiming widespread fraud, and then adopt their own slate of Electors for the Electoral College in order to swing the state to Trump. Already one Wisconsin Republican has floated that idea in that state and the GOP Senate Majority leader in Pennsylvania is already backing away from his earlier statement that the legislature should play no role, now adding the caveat that that would be the case “in normal circumstances”. The legality of such a move is questionable but there is no doubt that once a Republican legislature took that step, they would take their case all the way to the Supreme Court.
Will Republicans still stay on board with Trump if he attacks Iran and declares a wartime emergency. Will they still support Trump’s claims of fraud if a couple of Barr’s crony US Attorneys start preliminary investigations of voting fraud in a couple of critical swing states like Wisconsin, Georgia, and/or Nevada. What would they do if an extremist Republican legislature like the one in Wisconsin adopts their own slate of electors. Or if the GSA finally allows Biden to begin the transition and Trump orders that it be shut down.
The point being that the longer Republicans continue to indulge Trump’s fantasies about retaining power, the more vulnerable they are to being forced into a position to keep on supporting him in those fantasies. We also know that the GOP could care less about democracy and are only interested in maintaining power. If there was any chance that Trump could get away with any of those options mentioned above, they will support that effort fully. Considering their posture now, imagine what they would be doing if this election had just come down to one state, instead of three or four.
Do I think that the possibilities are likely? No. But they are just that, possible. And the longer congressional Republicans continue to indulge Trump, the greater the damage that they are doing. The core of the Republican base will now probably never accept Biden as a legitimate president and that will ensure even more obstruction from the GOP Senate going forward, assuming Democrats can’t win the two special elections in Georgia. What the Republicans have clearly shown is that, for them, democracy is optional and only important when they win.