President Donald Trump has abandoned his plan to win reelection by disqualifying enough ballots to reverse President-elect Joe Biden’s wins in key battleground states, pivoting instead to a goal that appears equally unattainable: delaying a final count long enough to cast doubt on Biden’s decisive victory.
On Wednesday, Trump’s campaign wired $3 million to election officials in Wisconsin to start a recount in the state’s two largest counties. His personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who has taken over the president’s legal team, asked a federal judge to consider ordering the Republican-controlled legislature in Pennsylvania to select the state’s electors. And Trump egged on a group of GOP lawmakers in Michigan who are pushing for an audit of the vote there before it is certified.
Giuliani has also told Trump and associates that his ambition is to pressure GOP lawmakers and officials across the political map to stall the vote certification in an effort to have Republican lawmakers pick electors and disrupt the electoral college when it convenes next month – and Trump is encouraging of that plan, according to two senior Republicans who have conferred with Giuliani and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly.
But that outcome appears impossible. It is against the law in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin law gives no role to the legislature in choosing presidential electors, and there is little public will in other states to pursue such a path.
Behind the thin legal gambit is what several Trump advisers say is his real goal: sowing doubt in Biden’s victory with the president’s most ardent supporters and keeping alive his prospects for another presidential run in 2024.
The shift in strategy comes after the president has suffered defeat after defeat in courtrooms around the country. And it serves as a tacit acknowledgment that Trump has failed to muster evidence to support his unfounded claims about widespread fraud.
While he continues to make such false allegations on Twitter and in fundraising emails driving money into his new leadership PAC, the president’s legal cases have largely been focused on attempts to discard ballots for missing information or on other technicalities. On Wednesday, the Trump campaign agreed to a joint stipulation in a lawsuit in Bucks County, Pa., that there was no fraud, even as it continued to press for the tossing of mail ballots with voter information missing from their envelopes.
Several Republicans said that even Giuliani believes the legal path is arduous. The goal now is to play for delay and cast doubt on the election, they said.
According to people familiar with their conversations, Giuliani is conferring regularly with Stephen Bannon, the controversial former White House adviser who earlier this month called for Anthony Fauci, the coronavirus task force member, to be beheaded.
“We continue to push forward,” said Boris Epshteyn, a Trump ally and strategic adviser to the campaign, who appeared with Giuliani at a federal court hearing Tuesday in Pennsylvania, where the president’s lawyer faced skeptical questioning from the judge. “The push is to determine what truly happened in this election and the point is to get to the bottom of how many people voted legally for President Trump and how many for Joe Biden.”
The toll of the president’s false claims on public confidence in the election was apparent in a new poll from Monmouth University that found that 77 percent of Trump supporters believe Biden’s win was due to fraud.
“Anything that aids and abets doubts about an election that has been conducted with integrity makes the future of democracy darker,” said William Galston, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “To weaken a democratic people’s faith in its fundamental institutions of self-government is inexcusable.”
And the president faces growing skepticism within his own party – and outrage elsewhere – about his drumbeat of false statements.
Former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, in an interview Wednesday on Fox Business, criticized Trump’s hiring of Giuliani to litigate a federal lawsuit in Pennsylvania.
“It strikes me that this is the most important lawsuit in the history of the country, and they’re not using the most well-noted election lawyers,” Mulvaney said. “There are folks who do this all of the time. This is a specialty. This is not a television program. This is the real thing.”
Trump’s current chief of staff, Mark Meadows, told reporters on Capitol Hill on Wednesday that he “personally” has evidence of ineligible voters casting ballots. “But the real question fundamentally continues to be: Are there enough votes out there to overturn the election?”
In Arizona’s Maricopa County, which the state Republican Party has sued over the way the county conducted a required hand-count audit, the GOP chairman of the county Board of Supervisors has expressed exasperation with the claims.
“It’s time to dial back the rhetoric, rumors, and false claims. There is no evidence of fraud or misconduct or malfunction,” Clint Hickman wrote in a public letter Tuesday.
Roopali Desai, an attorney representing Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, accused Republicans of using the lawsuit to delay the vote certification by furthering claims that the election was riddled with problems.
In asking Judge John Hannah to dismiss the case quickly, Desai said it was “dangerous” to allow that narrative “to go on even one more day.”
Hannah appeared skeptical of the Republicans’ claims, saying they waited until after the election results were known to raise concerns about a hand-count procedure they knew about before Election Day.
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Guiliani submitted a new filing showing that he plans to argue in federal court that election officials violated the campaign’s constitutional rights because observers were not able to watch votes being counted. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Philadelphia authorities gave reasonable access to the observers.
In a new court filing asking for permission to amend the campaign’s lawsuit, Giuliani said Trump would ask the judge to consider declaring the state’s election results “defective” and order Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature to select the state’s presidential electors rather than Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.
Under state law, the governor appoints the electors based on the popular vote – a fact that even Republican legislative leaders have emphasized.
In Nevada, the Trump campaign is asking a state judge to overturn or annul Biden’s victory under a state law that allows candidates to contest an election based on allegedly fraudulent votes and other grounds.
In a 21-page statement of contest filed Tuesday, Republicans focus largely on the Democratic stronghold of Clark County, repeating some of the same allegations they put forth in recent lawsuits – and that state and federal judges summarily rejected.
The election contest also makes a number of other new allegations, including that thousands of people voted improperly in the state and that some people were offered improper incentives to vote. The document does not provide evidence for those claims but says evidence will be forthcoming.
Linda Fitzsimmons, a Democratic lawyer who has done voter protection in the state for decades, said she sees the election contest as a delay tactic to disrupt certification.
“They’re just desperate,” she said. “They probably know better than the rest of us that their allegations are unfounded, and they’re just seeking a delay for some reason that is tactical, but not legal.”
Trump is increasingly relying on Giuliani and campaign advisers Jenna Ellis and Jason Miller for legal guidance, several campaign officials said – in part because Trump has stopped listening to the original legal team and in part because of those lawyers’ decision to distance themselves in recent days from the president’s increasingly erratic effort to reverse the election’s outcome.
As a result, Trump increasingly is hearing only from aides who are maintaining that the election is not over. He remains hopeful about Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania largely on the advice of Giuliani, who is close to Bannon, and Trump has urged Giuliani to continue the fight, several officials said.
Giuliani “is crazy and actually believes Bannon,” one senior Republican adviser said.
Giuliani could not be reached, and Bannon declined to comment. On his conservative podcast, Bannon said Trump should continue to urge Michigan Republicans to block certification.
“You can’t certify Michigan,” he said. “You don’t have to put up a slate of electors.”
The president was furious Wednesday morning about the decision by election officials in Wayne County, Mich., to certify their results after initially deadlocking along partisan lines, according to aides familiar with his reaction. He is also increasingly angry at Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans who have given no indication that they will intervene to block certification there.
Nothing on the ground in any of the key states that helped propel Biden to victory suggests good reason for Trump’s optimism. The states continued their march toward vote certification, with election officials saying they expect to complete the process by the statutory deadline.
In Georgia, Raffensperger announced Wednesday the near-completion of a hand-counted audit that reduced Biden’s lead in the state from 14,156 to 12,781 – but revealed no evidence of fraud. County officials have until midnight Wednesday to wrap up their audit before certifying results by Friday. The Trump campaign has two business days after the certification of results – by Tuesday evening, at the latest – to request a recount.
In Pennsylvania, a GOP attempt to throw out thousands of ballots suffered a further setback in state court Wednesday when a judge in Allegheny County rejected a pair of requests to bar a total of 2,649 ballots where voters either did not write the date on their mail ballot envelope or signed on only one line rather than two when casting a provisional ballot.
“In light of the fact that there is no fraud, a technical omission on an envelope should not render a ballot invalid,” the judge, Joseph M. James, wrote in one order.
In Michigan, Democrats and some Republicans said the effort to force an audit before certification of the vote is unlikely to succeed because it is not required by Michigan law. Although Trump amplified the written request by retweeting it Wednesday, it was signed by only 10 out of 70 Republican lawmakers, none of them in leadership positions.
Even inside Trump’s inner orbit, evidence that reality was setting in came into view on Wednesday.
Trump signed off on the Wisconsin recount the previous evening after talks with Giuliani and other aides, and he urged them to “go to the limit” of contesting the election and delegitimize Biden’s win in the eyes of Trump’s core supporters, one of the senior Republicans said.
But in the end, the Trump campaign asked for a recount only in Dane and Milwaukee counties – at a cost to the campaign of about $3 million instead of about $8 million if he had requested a recount for the entire state. Wisconsin state law requires campaigns to pay upfront for recounts.
Veteran Republicans, meanwhile, expressed unease and apprehension Wednesday about a mission tying Giuliani, Trump and Bannon together, calling it embarrassing and ill-fated.
“Giuliani is turning this into a clown car and Bannon has never had a plan. They think they’re being aggressive but it’s disorganized,” said longtime GOP strategist Scott Reed. “Bannon thinks he’s disrupter in chief.”
Giuliani and Bannon last worked in tandem in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 vote, when they sought to publicize emails and photos belonging to Biden’s son that they said had been taken from a laptop abandoned by Hunter Biden at a Delaware computer repair shop. Reporters for the New York Post, which published some of the material, indicated they were first told about the material by Bannon and provided copies of it by Giuliani.
Bannon was charged in August with fraud, accused by federal prosecutors in New York of duping Trump supporters into giving money to a charity dedicated to building a wall on the southern border and then redirecting the money for his own purposes. He has pleaded not guilty.
Earlier this month, Bannon was permanently barred from Twitter after posting a video to YouTube in which he said that Trump should behead Fauci, the leader of the government’s effort to fight the coronavirus, as well as FBI Director Christopher Wray.
“I’d put the heads on pikes. Right. I’d put them at the two corners of the White House as a warning to federal bureaucrats. You either get with the program or you are gone,” Bannon said in the video.
The next day, William Burck, a prominent Washington attorney who had been representing Bannon in his criminal case, told the court that he intended to withdraw from the case. He has declined to comment.
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The Washington Post’s Emma Brown, Josh Dawsey, Mike DeBonis, Paul Kane, John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez in Washington; Tom Hamburger in Detroit; and Jon Swaine in New York contributed to this report.