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President Trump has turned a narrow electoral defeat into a bid for infamy.
His goal in the post-election interlude has been more and more explicitly to overturn the results; indeed, a couple of weeks ago he tweeted, simply, #OVERTURN.
We now know, thanks to a recording of his phone conversation with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger over the weekend, how far he has gone to pressure state officials to join him in this reprehensible goal. His hour-long lobbying of Raffensperger to declare him the winner in the state is among the worst things an American president has ever been caught saying on the record.
There is no doubt that Trump lost Georgia. Both machine and hand recounts have confirmed a Biden lead of fewer than 12,000 votes. Trump has been agitating for a signature audit, and state officials examined a statistically significant sample of 15,000 absentee ballot envelopes in Cobb County. They found 10 mismatched signatures, but the voters in question all vouchsafed for the legitimacy of the ballots when contacted by investigators.
Georgia has certified its results multiple times and appointed its electors in time to meet the “safe-harbor” deadline under federal law, when they are supposed to be considered final and conclusive by the federal government.
Yet here comes Trump with an LBJ-style bout of arm-twisting to get Raffensperger to insist all that a grievous mistake. The power differential between a president of the United States and a state secretary of state is vast — Trump is the most powerful man on the planet, whereas Raffensperger isn’t even the most powerful man in the Peach State.
Trump put Raffensperger in the inherently awkward position of having to tell him “no” over and over — snowing him with a variety of numbers for supposed illegal votes, making him parry wild accusations, mocking him and threatening him with vague legal repercussions and, implicitly, with the end of his political career.
There is a reason that Raffensperger didn’t take any of the reported prior 18 attempted calls from the White House.
Still, to his great credit, he did indeed tell Trump “no,” politely and firmly. Of the two elected officials on the call, only one was calm, reasonable and cogent — and it wasn’t the president.
Trump was repetitive and ill-informed. He had no idea what charges had been debunked weeks ago. He didn’t, or couldn’t, distinguish between true and false information. He was fuzzy on the details of his own legal case. He retailed conspiracy theories about ballots being burned and voting machines being removed that would be embarrassing if your uncle shared them on Facebook.
The only thing that mattered to him was getting Raffensperger to pronounce him the winner — legal process and truth be damned.
The problem with Trump has always been his highly personal view of the presidency, wherein institutions, constitutional principles and sheer propriety take a backseat to the felt needs of his ego.
At times in his presidency, this failing has been made to serve worthy ends, e.g. stoking economic growth and confirming record numbers of conservative judges as bragging points.
Since the election, though, this tendency has been particularly stark and unredeemed. His personal inability to accept the sting of defeat has led him, shamefully, to wage war on a legitimate election.
If he were to somehow succeed in his goal of overturning the result, he would subvert American democracy and irreparably harm our governing institutions, while stoking a constitutional crisis of a magnitude we have only experienced rarely in our history.
And for what? To avoid admitting that he lost.
Trump has gotten nowhere, except in convincing some Republican senators and House representatives to indulge his insistence that he really won. Every time the president hoped someone with authority over the election would bend his way, whether an elected official or judge, he has found someone like Raffensperger: dutiful and conscientious enough to say “no.”