WASHINGTON – The GOP is plunging into open warfare over President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory – with President Donald Trump taunting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a passive-aggressive email blast, House lawmakers egging on senators to contest the counting of electoral college votes next month and senior GOP senators rebuffing that effort as a pointless political exercise.
And while the internal Republican Party conflict festers, White House officials are scrambling in private to rein in Trump’s increasing embrace of conspiracy theorists as the defeated president and his most ardent allies continue to plot efforts to subvert the outcome of the Nov. 3 election.
But it all appears to have hardened Trump, who – having been out of sight for more than a week – is continuing to push baseless claims of election fraud, while those closest to him are unwilling to challenge him publicly and are instead only bolstering his efforts.
“As our election contest continues, I’ll make you a promise: We’re going to keep fighting until every legal vote is counted,” Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday at an event in West Palm Beach, Fla. “We’re going to keep fighting until every illegal vote is thrown out. We’re going to win Georgia, we’re going to save America, and we’ll never stop fighting to make America great again. You watch.”
The most extraordinary attack, if indirectly, has come from Trump himself on the Senate majority leader, who congratulated Biden as the president-elect in a floor speech last week and privately warned his ranks not to join the long-shot challenge to the electoral college tabulation on Jan. 6.
In an email sent to GOP lawmakers late Monday from White House aide Molly Michael, Trump circulated a compilation of polls in which he appeared to take credit for McConnell’s political standing in Kentucky. The email had the subject line: “From POTUS,” and Michael wrote: “At the President’s request, please see the attachment.”
The attachment was a single-page PDF of polling in McConnell’s reelection bid against Democrat Amy McGrath, whom he handily dispatched in November. It showed polling trend lines for McConnell and McGrath, with McConnell’s numbers rising after a June 19 tweet from Trump endorsing the majority leader and again after Oct. 31, when the president recorded a robocall for him.
At the top of the PDF, in red letters, were the words: “SADLY, MITCH FORGOT. HE WAS THE FIRST ONE OFF THE SHIP!”
The email, obtained by The Washington Post, was copied to a number of GOP lawmakers around 5:30 p.m. Monday, although the size of the distribution list was unclear. McConnell did not respond to a question about the email as he left the Capitol late Monday.
But one of his top deputies dismissed the effort from House conservatives to challenge the votes in a joint session Jan. 6, which would require the assent from at least one senator to proceed. So far, no Senate Republican has publicly said they would be that senator, although several current and incoming GOP members have declined to rule it out.
“I don’t know that anyone is committed to doing it,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, said late Monday night, referring to GOP senators. “But the thing they’ve got to remember is, it’s just not going anywhere. It’s going down like a shot dog. And I just don’t think it makes a lot of sense to put everybody through this when you know what the ultimate outcome is going to be.”
On Tuesday night, Trump put Thune in his Twitter crosshairs: “Republicans in the Senate so quickly forget. Right now they would be down 8 seats without my backing them in the last Election. RINO John Thune, ‘Mitch’s boy’, should just let it play out. South Dakota doesn’t like weakness. He will be primaried in 2022, political career over!!!”
And House Republicans are openly challenging senators to endorse their objection to the vote-tabulating process on Jan. 6. Pence, as president of the Senate, is slated to preside over what otherwise would be a pro forma exercise to ratify the electoral college’s Dec. 14 certification of Biden’s win.
The focus on that potential senator has narrowed to Sen.-elect Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., who some senior GOP officials say is being influenced by Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., the person who first raised the prospect of a challenge to the tabulation this month and is seen as a ringleader of the effort.
Other Senate Republicans are also facing pressure from their home-state House counterparts.
“Foreign countries, Big tech, fake news & the Dems worked together to RIG this election against @realDonaldTrump,” Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Texas, repeating claims for which there is no proof, tweeted on Tuesday. “Americans must have FAITH in the process. Today they don’t. I’m calling on every TX House member, @tedcruz & @JohnCornyn to join me in OBJECTING!”
Behind the scenes, things are even messier.
Trump has been frustrated with his inner circle – including Pence, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows – saying that the officials around him are working to stymie his final hopes of overturning the election results, according to a White House official.
An Oval Office meeting coordinated by far-right Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., with the White House and held Monday was an effort to show Trump that these allies were continuing the fight and, in part, to calm him down, said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private interactions. Some of the House members told Trump that the leadership in the Senate and House was not supportive enough of him, and the chart targeting McConnell came out of those meetings.
Advisers and allies who have called Trump to check in or wish him a merry Christmas have been encouraged to go on TV and fight for him amid complaints that others are not doing so, according to a person who spoke to the president Monday.
Two aides said they are struggling to get Trump to focus on anything other than the election – even perfunctory executive orders or mundane tasks.
People around Trump are continuing to fight over whether to grant a security clearance to Sidney Powell, a conspiracy theorist lawyer who was disavowed by the president’s own campaign amid its legal challenges, according to a person familiar with the internal fracas.
His former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is telling Trump that Powell is to be trusted, while Cipollone is furiously pushing back and even conservative cable host Lou Dobbs is questioning Powell’s accuracy.
Trump is “intrigued” by Powell’s theories, the person said, although others around him are telling him that “it’s crazy and she has no idea what she’s talking about.”
“The president is attracted to people who tell him what he wants to hear. And right now, he wants to hear that there’s a way for him to have won this election,” said Nicole Hemmer, a scholar at Columbia University and author of “Messengers of the Right,” about right-wing media.
Hemmer added: “As we get further and further down the line through the process of certification, there are fewer and fewer people willing to tell him that, and that’s in part why you’re seeing him surrounded more by fringe people.”
At least in public, Trump’s second-in-command continued to keep up the mirage that the election fight was not yet over.
Pence used remarks to a gathering of the pro-Trump group Turning Point USA on Tuesday to recommit to the effort to challenge the election results – to cheers of “four more years!” and “stop the steal!” He implored the group to “stay in the fight for election integrity” and to “stay in the fight in our election.”
Pence and his advisers have begun thinking about how to handle Jan. 6 and escape Trump’s ire, but no final decisions have been made.
“The vice president does not want to leave on bad terms with the president, I can assure you that,” one administration official with knowledge of Pence’s thinking said.
Meanwhile, Meadows paid an unplanned visit to Cobb County, Ga., Tuesday to see for himself how an audit of mail ballot signatures is going. No evidence has emerged of widespread signature-matching anomalies in Cobb or elsewhere in Georgia.
Meadows met with Jordan Fuchs, a deputy secretary of state, and asked her a variety of questions about the audit, Fuchs said. The chief of staff was not allowed in the room where the audit is occurring, Fuchs said, but he was able to peer through the door window. Meadows said he would bring a positive report back to the president about how the audit is proceeding, she added.
“It felt positive,” Fuchs said. “Nothing accusatory. He wanted to have a talk outside of the tweets.”
Even if conservative lawmakers enlist Tuberville or another senator to challenge the results, that only triggers deliberation and a vote in both chambers to accept or reject the certification – an effort sure to lead to defeat for Trump in the Democratic-led House and probably as well in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Each state and their electors can be challenged individually, meaning Trump’s allies – as long as there is one House member and one senator – can drag out the process considerably next month. Still, there are sharp disagreements among House conservatives on specific tactics for Jan. 6, some of which played out in a separate Cabinet Room meeting Monday after the Oval Office meeting with Trump.
“Get a lot of sleep,” Brooks was spotted yelling at Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., as she left the House floor after the chamber’s final vote Monday night. “Because it’s going to be a looooong Jan. 6.”
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The Washington Post’s Paul Kane and Amy Gardner contributed to this report.