Even before the latest outrage, this week already marked a watershed moment for Biden’s coming presidency, a ruptured Republican Party and the integrity of the US political system.
In fact, the President blasted the world-leading US death toll as “fake news” on Sunday, while disregarding growing evidence his White House has botched the rollout of crucial new vaccines just as it did earlier stages of the pandemic.
‘I just want to find … votes’
The release of the stunning telephone conversation between Trump and Georgia’s GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger escalated the constitutional crisis Trump started stoking even before his election loss.
“So look, all I want to do is this: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state,” Trump said in a comment that at best was an abuse of power and could raise legal questions. Throughout the hour-long call, the President repeatedly prods Raffensperger to agree to his false claims that thousands of votes were illegally cast, that some ballots were destroyed or came from dead people or out-of-state voters. The Georgia secretary of state tells the President that he has false information.
In the latest smoking gun call, Trump is heard trying to convince Raffensperger to announce that he had recalculated the vote totals and that the President won, and threatening criminal reprisals if his fellow Republican failed to act.
“At the very least it’s an abuse of presidential power, which in a normal time would be impeachable,” said CNN presidential historian Timothy Naftali.
John Dean, a former White House legal counsel in the Watergate scandal, told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield that Trump was at “the edges of extortion.”
Biden senior legal adviser Bob Bauer said in a statement that the tape offered “irrefutable proof of a president pressuring and threatening an official of his own party to get him to rescind a state’s lawful, certified vote count and fabricate another in its place.”
“It captures the whole, disgraceful story about Donald Trump’s assault on American democracy.”
Call heaps pressure on Trump’s GOP backers
Trump’s call with Raffensperger suddenly heaped new scrutiny on Republican members of the House and Senate who have pledged to challenge the normally pro forma certification of the election result in Congress.
As they criticize results already ratified by Republican-appointed judges and the conservative majority Supreme Court, as well as state officials, many of whom are Republicans, they must now decide whether they stand by Trump’s flagrant attempt to overturn the rule of law in Georgia.
“Do … Republicans want to be on the side of an abuse of power or a criminal conspiracy?” Naftali asked.
The shallowness of the Republican effort is revealed in lawmakers’ arguments that it is being pursued not on the basis of new evidence of fraud but on the grounds that millions of Trump voters believe the election was corrupt.
But Trump and his acolytes have spent months making false claims about election fraud, aided by conservative media organizations and White House officials who have blatantly lied about an election that Trump’s Justice Department and other appointees have said was free and fair.
A Republican breach
The challenge to the certification and demand for a commission on false claims of voter fraud is just the latest in a long list of efforts by Capitol Hill Republicans to appease an unchained and lawless President who threatens to back primary challenges against those who cross him.
But several GOP senators, including Utah’s Romney, Maine’s Susan Collins and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse have registered frustration with their colleagues.
“The egregious ploy to reject electors may enhance the political ambition of some, but dangerously threatens our democratic Republic,” Romney said in a statement Saturday. “I could never have imagined seeing these things in the greatest democracy in the world. Has ambition so eclipsed principle?”
His 2012 running mate, former House Speaker Paul Ryan, vocalized his concerns in a rare public statement Sunday, saying, “Efforts to reject the votes of the Electoral College and sow doubt about Joe Biden’s victory strike at the foundation of our republic.”
Republican leaders are angry that Hawley — a potential 2024 presidential candidate — has effectively forced his colleagues into a vote on the election that is doomed to fail but leaves them to chose between democracy and a GOP President who is popular with the base.
“I think that if you have a plan, it should be a plan that has some chance of working. And neither of the two proposals that have been advanced will produce a result,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership.
While McCarthy is backing the challenge, the third-ranking Republican in the House, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, sent a memo to colleagues on Sunday warning that it set a “dangerous precedent” that threatened to snatch away the responsibility of states for running their own elections.
“This is directly at odds with the Constitution’s clear text and our core beliefs as Republicans,” she wrote.
Another group of seven House Republicans — including a couple in the conservative House Freedom Caucus — also spoke out Sunday, calling on their colleagues to “respect the states’ authority here” even “though doing so may frustrate our immediate political objectives.”
Trump heads to Georgia
Trump’s bombshell call could affect what are shaping up as two tight races in Georgia, where GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are facing voters. Republicans need just one of them to prevail to retain their Senate majority. If Democrats welcome both Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock as new senators, they will split the chamber 50-50, allowing Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to cast deciding votes on tied legislation.
Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who earned credit for helping engineer Biden’s victory in the state, said on “State of the Union” that it could take several days for the results to become clear.
But she said she believed that strong turnout among Democrats casting mail-in votes had put the party in a strong position.
“This is going to be a very tough battle, but it is absolutely within the realm of possibility, in fact, the realm of likelihood, that Democrats can win,” Abrams told Tapper.
Republicans need a strong Election Day turnout to compete. But there are fears among local activists that Trump’s relentless assault on the probity of the presidential election in Georgia will convince his supporters that their votes will not count in the senatorial runoff races.
The President will seek to rally his base when he travels to Georgia for an election eve rally on Monday. Based on the contents of his call with Raffensperger, though, it is not clear whether his intervention will help.
CNN’s Ryan Nobles and Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.