WASHINGTON – When President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20, he will face a fundamental challenge unlike any incoming president before him: Tens of millions of Americans who doubt his legitimacy and question the stability of the country’s democratic traditions – in part because of his predecessor’s unprecedented attempt to set both ablaze before leaving office.
For the past three weeks, as President Donald Trump has refused to concede the election, the federal government, the Trump campaign legal team and whole swaths of the Republican Party have worked in tandem to interfere with the peaceful transition of power.
By lodging baseless claims of voter fraud and embracing – or declining to reject – outlandish conspiracy theories about the electoral process, Trump and his allies have normalized the kind of post-election assault on institutions typically seen in less-developed democracies, according to historians, former administration officials, and lawmakers and diplomats from across the political spectrum.
Lingering damage to the U.S. electoral system could be among the most consequential legacies of the Trump presidency, said Michael Chertoff, a homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush
Trump’s effort to overturn the election results in the days after the race has so far proved unsuccessful, as Biden has moved ahead with hallmarks of a presidential transition such as building a Cabinet. But Chertoff and others said the harm inflicted on the democratic process since Nov. 3 should not be underestimated.
“We’ve now seen a blueprint, which has been road-tested in other parts of the world, being adopted by Donald Trump here in the U.S.,” he said, adding that Trump’s attempts have been ineffective in part because of their clumsiness. “But a more effective and a more skillful want-to-be autocrat could use the same playbook.”
Trump has continued to declare himself the winner of the election, even as several key swing states have moved forward with certifying Biden’s victory and the federal government has ascertained that a new administration is likely to take over in two months. Trump’s GOP allies, despite multiple losses in court, have continued to press their case with the public – making an ever-growing list of specious allegations about fraud involving mail-in ballots, voting machines, signature-matching, late-arriving votes, poll workers in heavily minority cities, foreign interference, dead people voting, unbalanced voter rolls, nonresident voters, Sharpie-stained ballots and the traditional tabulation process.
But as Trump has tried unsuccessfully to win over judges and state lawmakers, Biden’s lead has remained secure – and has grown nationally as more ballots have been processed. As of Tuesday, Biden’s popular vote total had surpassed 80 million, the largest in the country’s history.
Still, Trump’s repeated claims of election rigging have led many of the 74 million people who cast ballots for him to doubt the reliability of the voting process. Even as the transition proceeds – with the General Services Administration announcing late Monday that the administration could begin coordinating with Biden’s incoming team – Trump has continued his onslaught.
“What does GSA being allowed to preliminarily work with the Dems have to do with continuing to pursue our various cases on what will go down as the most corrupt election in American political history?” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “We are moving full speed ahead. Will never concede to fake ballots & ‘Dominion,’ ” the latter reference being about a company that supplies voting equipment.
The claims about vote-changing machines and fraudulent ballots have been repeatedly rejected by judges, local officials and even the president’s own administration. Last week, Trump fired a top Department of Homeland Security official who had vocally dismissed allegations of widespread fraud in the Nov. 3 election.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The lack of pushback from Republican lawmakers signaled a willingness by them to accept Trump’s post-election denial despite the danger it poses, said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.
“This is the story of the Trump presidency,” he said. “The GOP not only stood behind the president, regardless of what he did, but even as he used his power to attack the basic element of the democratic process, very few took action.”
While a growing number of Republicans have publicly acknowledged Biden’s victory, more have remained silent or echoed Trump’s allegations of fraud. Some local Republicans have challenged the results of their own races as Trump has done, making post-election allegations about rigged voting a more mainstream proposition up and down the ballot.
Kimberly Klacik, a Republican who lost a Baltimore-area congressional race by 72% to 28%, claimed on social media that the result had been rigged.
“Luckily, we raised enough money to investigate,” she wrote earlier this month, in a tweet that referred to the president’s allegations of fraud.
Trump’s campaign has also been soliciting donations to continue the president’s quest to overturn his defeat.
“We cannot let the Democrats STEAL this Election from your all-time favorite President,” Trump said Tuesday in a fundraising pitch. “I’m calling on YOU to FIGHT BACK. We need to bolster our critical Election Defense Fund if we’re going to keep going. We can’t do this without you.”
Gene Rechtzigel, a Minnesota Republican who ran for the U.S. House, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State, the Minnesota State Canvassing Board and the Ramsey County Elections Office. He lost to Democrat Betty McCollum by more than 30 points – 133,086 votes – but claimed that the state should delay certification of the results because of allegations of election irregularities.
Other Republicans have taken up the Trump campaign’s push to delay the certification of vote totals in other states ahead of the electoral college’s formal vote electing Biden in mid-December.
Georgia lawyer Lin Wood, a Trump ally, is appealing a federal judge’s rejection of Wood’s attempt to block the certification of Biden’s victory in the state, according to a new filing Tuesday.
Wood had challenged the way Georgia election officials check signatures submitted with absentee ballots and raised questions about the rate of rejection of ballots on the basis of mismatched signatures.
U.S. District Court Steven Grimberg, a Trump appointee, on Friday denied Wood’s request for a temporary restraining order on Georgia’s certification of election results. Grimberg wrote that doing so “at literally the eleventh hour would breed confusion and potential disenfranchisement that, I find, has no basis in fact or in law.”
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp, both Republicans, certified the state’s election results on Friday. The Trump campaign has said it will file a separate lawsuit challenging Biden’s win in Georgia, where a second recount is underway at the president’s request.
Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania and Michigan plan to hold hearings over the next week on the election – elevating fraud claims even as their states move forward to certify Biden’s victory. Trump’s campaign celebrated the events Tuesday, announcing that the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, will make a presentation Wednesday before Republicans in the Pennsylvania state Senate.
“It’s in everyone’s interest to have a full vetting of election irregularities and fraud,” Giuliani said in a statement. “And the only way to do this is with public hearings, complete with witnesses, videos, pictures and other evidence of illegalities from the November 3rd election.”
In a scathing ruling Saturday, a judge in Pennsylvania dismissed Giuliani’s allegations as meritless and blasted what he said was the Trump campaign’s attempt to disenfranchise millions of the state’s voters.
Trump has been undeterred by the cascade of court losses, and his allies have continued to make the case that the election was stolen from him. Unable to change the results with lawsuits or by persuading state lawmakers to overturn the will of voters, Trump has resorted to pressing the last avenues of protest that remain open to him. His advisers expect him to continue fighting reality as long as possible and do not expect him ever to formally concede to Biden or invite him to the White House in line with tradition stretching back decades.
Biden, who has said Trump’s denial of the election results is “embarrassing,” said Tuesday that he is willing to meet with the president.
“Of course I would, if he asked,” Biden told reporters.
That seems unlikely to happen soon, as Trump and much of his party remain focused on continuing the effort to cast doubt on the election results.
Recounts continued Tuesday in Wisconsin’s two most populous and Democratic-leaning counties, Dane and Milwaukee.
Under Wisconsin law, the Trump campaign had the right to request the recount – provided it agreed to foot the bill – given that Biden’s margin of victory was under 1%. But Biden leads Trump in the state by about 20,000 votes, a gap even many Republicans agree is extremely unlikely to be closed by a recount. In 2016, when Green Party candidate Jill Stein requested a more extensive statewide recount in Wisconsin, it resulted in Trump’s margin growing in the state by just 131 votes.
“Trump representatives saw the process four years ago. They saw how accurate it was – they complimented us on it. Given that, it was really irresponsible to ask for another recount,” said Scott McDonell, the clerk of Dane County, where 80 workers have been staffing the recount for hours each day. “It’s a public health threat.”
Wisconsin Attorney Geneneral Josh Kaul, a Democrat, noted that Trump observers have also slowed the process by objecting to large numbers of ballots. He noted that one Trump observer in Milwaukee objected because a poll worker was placing ballots in a pile – a normal part of the process. Another objected to all absentee ballots that had been folded, as was necessary for voters to place the ballot in an envelope and submit it by mail.
The campaign also formally objected to tens of thousands of ballots that were cast using rules the campaign argued were improper, though the same rules were in place statewide. The challenges were rejected by local officials, but the campaign could still try to sue over its objections and delay Wisconsin’s scheduled certification on Dec. 1.
“What seems to be happening is that representatives of the president are using the recount as a vehicle for challenging certain election practices,” Kaul said.
Kaul said he was confident the challenges would fail, but he said they were obscuring the fact that the voting actually ran very smoothly, with few lines even amid record turnout.
“The real untold story of this election is how efficiently the democratic process worked,” he said.
In the short term, Trump’s efforts could backfire in Georgia, where two runoff races for the Senate could be affected by the president’s continued claims that his loss resulted from fraud.
Georgia’s voting systems manager Gabriel Sterling said during a Monday news conference that he is concerned that “there are going to be some Republicans who don’t trust the outcomes of the system at all” and therefore don’t vote.
“Now, am I concerned that it’s going to end up suppressing the vote, to a degree? Absolutely,” he said. “Whether you’re on the left or the right, anytime you end up questioning the fundamental fairness without any real evidence of there being an issue, you’re undermining the confidence of your voters and everybody else.”
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The Washington Post’s Aaron Schaffer and Maya Smith contributed to this report.