President Donald Trump on Thursday accelerated his efforts to interfere in the nation’s electoral process, taking the extraordinary step of reaching out directly to Republican state legislators from Michigan and inviting them to the White House on Friday for discussions as the state prepares to certify President-elect Joe Biden the winner there.
For Trump and his Republican allies, Michigan has become the prime target in their campaign to subvert the will of voters backing Biden in the recent election. Trump called at least one GOP elections official in the Detroit area this week after she voted to certify Biden’s overwhelming victory there, and he is now set to meet with legislators ahead of Michigan’s deadline on Monday to certify the results.
The president has also asked aides what Republican officials he could call in other battleground states in his effort to prevent the certification of results that would formalize his loss to Biden, several advisers said. Trump allies appear to be pursuing a highly dubious legal theory that if the results are not certified, Republican legislatures could intervene and appoint pro-Trump electors in states Biden won who would support the president when the Electoral College meets on Dec. 14.
The Republican effort to undo the popular vote is all but certain to fail, as even many Trump allies concede, and it has already suffered near-total defeats in courts in multiple states, including losses on Thursday when judges in Georgia and Arizona ruled against the Trump campaign and its allies. The president suffered another electoral blow Thursday when Georgia announced the completion of a full recount, reaffirming Biden’s victory there.
Biden, whose transition has been hindered by Trump’s attempt to cling to power, on Thursday delivered his most forceful condemnation yet of the president’s refusal to acknowledge his loss, saying Trump would be remembered as “one of the most irresponsible presidents in American history.”
“It sends a horrible message about who we are as a country,” Biden said in remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, after a discussion about the economy with both Democratic and Republican governors.
“It’s hard to fathom how this man thinks,” Biden added. “I’m confident he knows he hasn’t won, and is not going to be able to win, and we’re going to be sworn in on Jan 20.”
Election officials and legal experts say there is virtually no scenario in which a Republican-controlled state legislature could legitimately override the results of a properly held vote. And some GOP legislators in battleground states said they would not intervene.
“Under our statutes, we have no part in the process,” said Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly.
In Arizona, the Republican speaker of the House, Rusty Bower, sent a letter to his Republican colleagues emphasizing that he voted for Trump, but noting that the courts had already debunked some of the president’s claims and making clear that lawmakers could not interfere with the will of the voters.
“I wish to respond by simply saying — I took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution and laws of the State of Arizona,” he wrote, according to a copy of the email obtained by Yellow Sheet Report, an Arizona political tipsheet. Biden won Arizona by about 11,000 votes, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has won Arizona since 1996.
Despite Trump’s increasing brazenness, Republican leaders in Washington and in state capitals have mostly stayed quiet on his latest effort to interfere with the results of the election.
Aides to the Republican governors of Ohio and Maryland did not respond to messages, and a spokeswoman for Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, among the nation’s most anti-Trump elected Republicans, referred to remarks he made on Nov. 10 in which he asserted that Biden was the rightful winner of the election. (Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland later said on CNN that the president’s interference was “bad for the country and our standing in the world.”)
The Trump maneuvering has intensified in part because many states are now poised to certify their election vote totals; crucially, six key states that Biden won — Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin — have deadlines between Friday and Dec. 1 to certify his victories.
Facing those deadlines, the president has grown more strident with his false messages about a stolen election in a last-ditch bid to do nothing less than disenfranchise the legally registered votes of entire states and cities.
Trump’s outreach to Republican officials in Michigan represented a remarkable intrusion into state and local politics: a sitting president personally contacting officials who usually play a small and invisible role in a routine process.
The president requested the White House meeting with Mike Shirkey, the state Senate majority leader, and Lee Chatfield, the speaker of the Michigan House, and they will sit down with him on Friday afternoon, according to a person briefed on the arrangements. It is not clear what the president will discuss.
On Tuesday night, Trump called Monica Palmer, a Republican member of the canvassing board of Wayne County, which includes Detroit. Palmer was at the center of a fast-moving controversy over the routine certification of votes, when she and the other Republican board member at first declined to certify the county’s votes, then changed their minds under pressure from angry voters and officials.
Palmer told The Washington Post that Trump — who had celebrated on Twitter after her earlier vote against certification — called her after the meeting, to inquire about her safety. She said he did not pressure her to change her mind yet again.
Roughly 24 hours after that contact by the president, Palmer and the other Republican board member, William Hartmann, announced late Wednesday that they were reversing their move to certify the results.
The announcement of that decision was sent to reporters by a public relations firm called ProActive Communications. The firm, based in Virginia, has close ties to Trump and received about $2 million in payments from his campaign during the 2020 election cycle, according to records compiled by the campaign finance website OpenSecrets. The firm declined to answer questions about how it had come to represent Palmer and Hartmann.
ProActive later issued a statement explaining Palmer and Hartmann’s position from Phill Kline, the director of the Amistad Project, a legal initiative with the conservative public interest law firm the Thomas More Society. That firm lists Jenna Ellis, a senior legal adviser to the Trump campaign, as its “special counsel.”
In the statement, Kline said that the decisions by Palmer and Hartmann to rescind their votes for certification meant that Wayne County’s results remained uncertified.
But Michigan’s secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said he was wrong.
“There is no legal mechanism for them to rescind their vote,” Tracy Wimmer, a spokeswoman for Benson, said Thursday. “Their job is done and the next step in the process is for the Board of State Canvassers to meet and certify.”
At the White House, Trump has been toggling between appearing to recognize his loss and expressing bitterness and disbelief that what he believed was a victory was his was being taken from him, aides said. Bolstered by some core supporters, he has hardened in his belief that state legislatures could hold the keys to his political salvation.
The few people who have tried to intervene and tell him that it is time to let Biden begin a transition have been shut down by Trump.
The president has been goaded along in particular by his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has further stoked Trump’s fury, along with his hope of overcoming the reality of Biden’s victory, a half-dozen White House and campaign advisers said.
The president has become obsessed with a conspiracy theory advanced by one of his lawyers, Sidney Powell, about Dominion Voting Systems machines, aides said, asking one adviser after another about whether there is something to the theory that there was a global effort to hack the election. Cybersecurity officials have said that “there is no evidence” voting systems were compromised.
Though Trump has discussed reaching out to Republicans in other swing states, so far he has called officials only in Michigan, aides said.
The next step in the election process in Michigan comes on Monday, when the four-member state canvassing board faces a deadline to finalize the certification of the state’s vote, after the submission of all 83 county certifications that were completed by Tuesday.
During an interview on Thursday morning, one of the Republican members of the state board of canvassers, Norm Shinkle, said he had not made up his mind as to how he would vote, especially given the questions in Wayne County. He said he was being deluged with calls about his upcoming vote.
At a news briefing Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a Democrat, was asked about what her message to Trump would be on his election efforts.
“Stop spending energy to mislead about what happened in this election and spend it on a real COVID relief package,’’ she said. “This election was overwhelmingly decided. It was a safe, it was a secure, it was a fair election, and Joe Biden won the state of Michigan by over 150,000 votes.” She added, “The canvassers need to do their job. I expect that they will do their job and certify this result.”
Bob Bauer, a senior adviser to Biden and a longtime election lawyer, said there was no legal means by which Republicans in Michigan could cast aside a duly held election without violating the voting rights of the state’s entire electorate. “They cannot change the outcome after the fact,” he said.
Still, he acknowledged, Trump could try, and it could create “a disgraceful spectacle.”
Initially, Trump campaign aides favored a discreet series of challenges and recount requests, people briefed on the discussions said, saying they would have been long shots but would not have been laughed out of a courtroom.
Now, the effort has been taken over by Giuliani, who has embraced a scattershot strategy and promoted wild conspiracy theories even in court proceedings, as he did at a hearing in Pennsylvania this week.
On Thursday, Giuliani appeared in a cramped room at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, where he and his team of lawyers unspooled a meandering thread of conspiracies, alleging a “centralized” plot of widespread fraud with no evidence. (Though Giuliani said that he had evidence, he said that he could not share it to protect personal identities, and that there were other allegations that “at this point, I really can’t reveal.”)
Powell, another lawyer for the Trump campaign, followed Giuliani and furthered the baseless claims, including a lengthy digression that involved Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader who died in 2013.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who just won reelection, was sharply critical of Powell’s false allegations that both Republicans and Democrats had been paid to have the system rigged on their behalf.
“To insinuate that Republican and Democratic candidates paid to throw off this election, I think, is absolutely outrageous, and I do take offense to that,” Ernst said on Fox News Radio. “To have that accusation just offhandedly thrown out there just to confuse our voters across the United States, I think that is absolutely wrong.”