The Republican Party is in an increasingly untenable position — how much longer can it really refuse to recognize Joe Biden as the president-elect?
Nearly two weeks after the election, there are signs that Republicans are starting to accept reality.
President Donald Trump’s legal campaign to reverse his election loss is crumbling all around him and there’s no mathematical possibility that he can reverse margins of 10,000 or more votes in the five states he won in 2016 but lost to Biden. Meanwhile, the Biden transition is stuck in molasses, and Trump is barely addressing the coronavirus spikes across the country, let alone cooperating with the incoming administration on vaccine distribution efforts.
Most Republicans have been reluctant to contradict Trump’s claim that he can still hold the White House, but there’s been a steady trickle of GOP lawmakers defecting from Trump’s false contention that he was robbed by fraudsters. After Trump tweeted Monday, “I won the election,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) told reporters, “I wouldn’t have advised he put it that way.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Trump can and should continue his legal challenges but has “every confidence on Jan. 20 we’re going to inaugurate a president. And it will probably be Joe Biden.”
“It grows increasingly unlikely that a remedy would involve overturning the election,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who said he nonetheless supports Trump’s goals of exposing even small cases of malfeasance on ballots. “Vice President Biden ought to be getting briefings and the transition ought to be in the works so that there’s an infrastructure for that. And if he ends up winning, as it seems likely he will, that he won’t have to get caught up on one day in January.”
Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, referred to Biden as the president-elect unprompted, saying “that’s what the results, the preliminary results, seem to indicate, and we certainly have to anticipate that that’s the highest likelihood at this point.”
“We have to assume right now, based upon the current electoral count, that we are getting closer to the point where the facts on the ground will bear that out,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said when asked about Trump’s lawsuits fizzling in court. “Right now, it looks like it will be President Biden. We understand that.”
Yet acknowledging the fact that Biden will soon be president risks angering Trump and his legion of supporters — including those the GOP needs to turn out in a pair of Georgia runoffs to determine Senate control. Most Republican leaders still won’t do anything to push Trump to accept the inevitable.
Rubio is among a small minority of Republicans who believe that the General Services Administration should formally certify Biden as the winner, which would grant him access to presidential-level intelligence briefings and additional funding for his transition team. Rubio said it’s “for the good of our country.”
The issue could become a new litmus test in the Republican Party. When candidates for House GOP leadership gave speeches to their colleagues in the Capitol on Monday evening, they were only asked one question, posed by hard-line Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas): Should Trump concede the election?
The top Republican leaders all replied that they supported Trump’s decision to let the legal process play out, according to GOP sources in the room.
Other Republicans have been going to greater extremes. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) confirmed he’d spoken to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger about the state’s signature verification process, but denied asking if he could toss out legally-cast votes, as reported by the Washington Post, and called it a “very pleasant” conversation.
Asked if Biden is the president-elect, Graham said: “No, not until the courts have rendered a verdict on the claims made by the president.” He then went on a tirade against the media.
“All of y’all are all over us ‘cause you want the guy to lose. If the shoe were on the other foot, you’d be asking questions about widespread fraud,” Graham said.
Retiring Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) said it’s “inevitable” that the rest of the GOP starts to acknowledge Biden’s victory, especially after states are finished counting votes and conducting recounts.
“You’re hearing murmurs and off-the-record comments and things like that — at some point, there will be more people that peel off,” he said.
Senate Foreign Relations Chair Jim Risch (R-Idaho) acknowledged the coming transition to a Biden administration in an interview with the Spokesman-Review newspaper, and Trump’s own national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said Biden’s victory looks likely.
Still there’s risk to doing anything that could be seen as breaking from Trump. The president attacked Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) on Monday after he indicated Biden won the election.
Republicans have lived in fear of such Trump attacks over the past four years — and there are no signs that dynamic will change. Trump will still be a powerful force in the party when he leaves the White House, whether it’s through launching another bid for president in 2024, starting his own media company or intervening in GOP primaries as soon as 2022.
More immediately, the GOP needs Trump and his base of supporters to win the Georgia races on Jan. 5. Trump tweeted about the contests for the first time this weekend, and Senate Republicans are casting the twin runoffs as a “firewall” against the Biden presidency that they refuse to accept.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has supported Trump’s long-shot legal bid to contest the election results, even though he has been careful not to echo Trump’s unfounded charges of voter fraud. McConnell declined to answer questions about whether Biden is the president-elect on Monday.
Many Republicans are delicately approaching the issue, aware of how politically-charged the simple arithmetic of the Electoral College has become within the Republican Party.
“I’m working on what I want to say about this topic,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). “I think I want to wait … until I get my thoughts cleared on a piece of paper and in my brain.”
Once states have certified their results — which is supposed to happen by early December — Republicans will no longer be able to hide behind their talking point that the “media” doesn’t determine the election outcome. Biden himself acknowledged the political quandary the GOP is in on Monday: “I understand a lot of your reluctance because of the way the president operates.”
There are other factors that may force Republicans to soon embrace the truth. The delayed transition is not only a threat to national security, but it could hinder the Biden administration’s ability to respond to the coronavirus and roll out a vaccine. The pandemic is raging, and is only expected to get worse this winter.
“It’s absolutely imperative for public health that all of the planning that’s gone on — for which the current administration deserves credit — be shared with the new administration,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Still, a clutch of hard-core Trump supporters may never recognize Biden as a legitimate president. “Don’t you just love the way Democrats demand that Republicans acquiesce to their coronation of Joe Biden?” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, wrote in a recent op-ed.
That could become the new dividing line — and defining moment — for the post-Trump GOP.
“The Republican Party has been broken into a couple different pieces,” said retiring Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.), who has publicly pleaded with his party to recognize Biden’s victory. “I don’t know how much longer [the GOP will stand by Trump] … but it’s destructive.”
Now, more than a week since media outlets called the election for Biden, the GOP’s position may be setting the precedent that even handy Electoral College wins will be disputed for weeks.
“This will pass,” Rooney said. “The only question is: what’s the amount of collateral damage that’s done in the meantime?”
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