WASHINGTON — Caught between an angry president convincing millions of people that the election was stolen on one side, and reality on the other side, Republican senators have plotted out a path through the middle to avoid enraging their supporters: Settle in, do nothing, and wait for this all to blow over.
Like he does most days, President Donald Trump began his Friday by tweeting demonstrably false claims that the election he lost was “RIGGED” against him. He called on Republicans to “GET TOUGH” in his fight to overturn the results.
But outside of a handful of die-hard Trump loyalists led by Rudy Giuliani, no one is getting tough. Republicans widely accept the results of the election, but rather than saying so, they defer to the president’s right to exhaust his legal challenges. Republicans who have dared articulate that President-elect Joe Biden won the election have earned blistering attacks or thinly veiled threats from the president.
If there is something close to consensus among Republican senators, it is that despite being some of the most powerful politicians in the country, the question of election legitimacy is something outside of and detached from them. It’s a matter for the candidates and the courts to hash out. They’ve adopted the compromise of “let the process play out” and are banking on the country coming around by the time Biden enters the White House.
“The further you go down the road, the more you let the process play out, you increasingly diminish [the number of] people who wonder if this was legitimately conducted or not,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of Republican leadership. Trump won Blunt’s state of Missouri by 15 points.
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“You’re already hearing the language that the president’s using. I think he’s coming to grips with reality and I think so will the rest of the country too,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn said Wednesday.
Cornyn didn’t know it at the time, but just minutes earlier Trump had uploaded a 46-minute diatribe online insisting he did not actually lose the election, despite being decisively beaten in both the Electoral College and the popular vote.
His words are having an effect. One Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll found that half of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Trump, setting up a future where tens of millions of Americans see Trump as a sort of rightful president-in-exile. Few Republicans have publicly declared the results of the election legitimate, but also few see it as their responsibility to do so and they’re also rebuffing calls to publicly refute the president’s lies.
Asked if he thinks Trump supporters would accept a Biden presidency, Sen. Josh Hawley, also of Missouri, said “I don’t know the answer to that.” (Hawley, widely considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate, recently said he’d instead support Trump if he decided to run again.)
In a delicately worded op-ed in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said he supports Trump and voted for Trump, but it’s getting close to the point where people need to accept the results of the election. But he also pinpointed the problem for Republicans: “A substantial majority of the nearly 74 million Americans who supported President Trump question the legitimacy of the election,” Portman wrote. Trump won his state by eight points.
“It’s a problem, there’s no doubt,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, which Trump won by three points. “There’s always a concern when the legitimacy of the democratic process is questioned, which is why it’s so important in my mind that the court cases play out, that the process plays out.”
Across the aisle, Democrats are all but screaming that the process has already played out. Most states have by now certified their results, including the key states of Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Nevada.
“I think that it’s just unconscionable that people continue to stoke that. I just think it’s wrong. Every scintilla of evidence points to a fair and secure election,” said Sen. Doug Jones, the Alabama Democrat who lost his seat in November to Republican Tommy Tuberville.
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Trump’s surrogates continue to make sweeping claims of voter fraud, but they’ve consistently failed to back those claims up with actual evidence in court. Trump’s legal team has been hit with a nearly unbroken string of courtroom losses and have failed to overturn the results in a single county, let alone state. A hand recount in Georgia affirmed that Biden had won. Trump’s team put down $3 million to fund a partial recount in Wisconsin, which Biden won by over 20,000 votes. When the results came back, Biden increased his lead by 87 votes.
“It’s played out. It’s done,” said Jones. “And people should accept that and not continue to stoke these crazy conspiracy theories.”
There is a smaller group of Republicans who are more willing to acknowledge that there may be no going back and something like half the country is not going to accept Joe Biden as a legitimate president. They argue that it’s not that big a deal or, for that matter, much of a break from norms.
“Democrats for eight years called George Bush an illegitimate president. Even when he was reelected they called him an illegitimate president,” said Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, referencing the 2000 Florida recount famously ended by a Republican majority on the Supreme Court.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a loyal supporter of President Trump’s who just won reelection, presented half the country rejecting election results as a possible new normal. People who hated Trump spent years arguing that he was illegitimately brought to power by Russian election interference, he said.
“A good chunk of the country never accepted Trump being president,” he said. “That was a problem before, that’s not a new problem.”
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a Trump ally who has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the election results, to this day insists he does not believe Biden won the election. “I want people at the end of the day to have confidence this is a legitimate result,” he said. “And right now that’s not the case. It’s a very sad state of affairs.”