Astonishing new evidence of a desperate President Donald Trump caught on tape trying to steal the election exposes the depth of his corruption and makes his Republican Capitol Hill allies complicit in his bid to thwart the will of voters.
In a fresh abuse of power, Trump tried to bully a top Georgia GOP official into finding votes to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s win in the state. The staggering telephone call, audio of which was obtained by CNN and first reported by The Washington Post, amounted to the most serious threat yet posed by his authoritarian instincts to American democracy.
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.
Trump White House
A GOP attempt, for example, to block Congress’ certification of Biden’s win based on lies and false conspiracy theories about fraud on Wednesday has no chance of succeeding because of the Democratic majority in the House and the lack of a majority to overturn the results in the Senate. But it will further convince millions of Trump voters that the election was rigged. Scores of GOP lawmakers plan to choose the vanquished President and his voters over the cherished principles of free elections in a fracturing that will have lasting consequences for the GOP and the nation.
On Tuesday, two Georgia runoff elections will decide whether Republicans will hold their Senate majority and retain the power to block Biden’s sweeping agenda and hopes of swiftly confirming a Cabinet at a time of national crisis.
All of this is coming to a head as Trump incites protests in Washington in a bid to disrupt the election certification effort, amid fears of violence, while ignoring a worse-than-ever pandemic and the consequent deaths of 350,000 Americans.
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.
But Surgeon General Jerome Adams contradicted Trump’s false claim on CNN’s “State of the Union,” telling Jake Tapper: “From a public health perspective, I have no reason to doubt those numbers.”
‘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.
Trump had repeatedly pushed his staff to get him on the phone with Raffensperger and other Georgia officials, according to two people familiar. This was a weeks-long effort, CNN is told. Between the election and Saturday’s phone call, there were 18 attempted calls from White House to the Georgia secretary of State’s office, a source with knowledge and a Georgia state official told CNN.
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 an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” Monday, Raffensperger said “the truth matters” and complained of facing a “rumor whack-a-mole” for the last two months.
A string of recounts, audits and legal cases have affirmed Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia in November in one of the clutch of swing states he won on the way to 306 electoral votes and a clear victory over the President.
The tape recalled the kind of coercive, corrupt behavior that led to Trump’s impeachment over a call with Ukraine’s President, but that all Republican senators, with the exception of Mitt Romney, decided last year did not merit his ouster from office.
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.
A total of 12 Republicans, including Missouri’s Josh Hawley and Texas’ Ted Cruz, have said they will seek to disrupt the certification on Wednesday. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, has signaled support for a move that may be supported by a majority of his members in the House, CNN reported.
“Do … Republicans want to be on the side of an abuse of power or a criminal conspiracy?” Naftali asked.
In a sign that the revelations of Trump’s conduct in Georgia may be hurting the President and further splitting the Republican Party, Sen. Tom Cotton, a possible 2024 presidential hopeful, announced he would not oppose the election results. While saying he sympathized with concerns over “irregularities,” the Arkansas senator warned in a statement against taking away the right of states to run elections.
“If Congress purported to overturn the results of the Electoral College, it would not only exceed that power, but also establish unwise precedents,” Cotton said.
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.
“We have an unsustainable state of affairs in this country where we have tens of millions of people who do not view this election result as legitimate,” Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, one of the senators who plans to support an objection, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
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.
The corruption revealed on Trump’s call to Georgia, meanwhile, removes any doubt that the President is trying to steal the election. That makes it harder for Republicans to argue they are replicating symbolic objections to election results in Congress adopted by isolated Democrats in previous years.
A Republican breach
Sunday’s staggering developments sharpened the divide in the GOP after Hawley’s decision to challenge the results burst open a breach that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had tried for weeks to mend.
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, Arlette Saenz, Kaitlan Collins, Kristen Holmes and Jim Acosta contributed to this report.