The Once and Future Coup

https://www.theitem.com/stories/editorial-cartoon-wednesday-jan-6-2021,357112

Trump’s minions had a coherent plan to keep him in power,
and next time it might work.


Last November, the few days after the election were tense. On election night itself, Trump was clearly doing better than the polls had predicted, but how much better was hard to guess. He won Florida and North Carolina, which the polls had said leaned towards Biden. Ohio and Iowa, which were supposed to be close, weren’t. He had leads in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, but there were still a lot of Democratic votes to count. Like Hillary Clinton, Biden had clearly gotten more votes than Trump, but the Electoral College left the final outcome in doubt.

Wednesday, as more of the mail-in ballots got counted, Biden’s chances improved. Thursday, he looked like the winner, but it wasn’t conclusive yet. The major news organizations declared his victory on Saturday.

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Then the focus shifted to Trump’s effort to have the voters’ decision overturned by any means necessary. His lawyers, and various others working on his behalf, filed dozens and dozens of lawsuits, each one a little crazier than the last. Some were based on bizarre conspiracy theories about computers in other countries, others on piles of affidavits described by one judge as “notable only in demonstrating no firsthand knowledge by any Plaintiff of any election fraud, misconduct, or malfeasance”. Some made claims (mainly about the rules around mail-in ballots) that might have been reasonable to raise — and were raised — before the election, but which in no way justified ignoring millions of votes cast in good faith.

I, like many other Democrats, felt uneasy about these suits, but not because of the strength of Trump’s arguments. We worried instead about all the right-wing judges Trump had appointed, including three on the Supreme Court. Maybe they would repay him by ignoring law and precedent to overthrow American democracy. [1]

But when even Trump-appointed judges threw these cases out, often with sharp criticism, the whole thing began to seem comical. Trump’s lawyers were the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. The whole effort was summed up by Rudy Giuliani in the parking lot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping, hair dye running down his face. [2] I began to look forward to court rulings, wondering what insults the next judge would come up with.

The violent insurrection on January 6 wasn’t at all funny, but was just as misguided. The riot might have turned out a whole lot worse (and nearly did), but it was never going to keep Trump in the White House. After it failed to intimidate Congress out of fulfilling its constitutional duty to count the electoral votes, QAnon kept anticipating a move by the military. But the generals had always felt uneasy about someone as ignorant and unstable as Trump being commander in chief. They certainly weren’t going to violate their oaths to keep him in power.

By Inauguration Day, I was laughing at myself for having worried so much. For four years, we had watched the Trump administration fail to organize infrastructure week. How had I imagined that they might mastermind a successful coup?

This week, though, we discovered that there actually was a coherent plan. And with just a bit more corruption at the top of the Justice Department, it might have worked.

The corruption of Justice from Sessions to Barr. When Trump appointed Jeff Sessions as his first attorney general, alarm bells went off. Sessions had been state AG in Alabama, and seemed likely to bring Alabama’s racial practices to Washington. And sure enough: The effort to control racism in local police departments went out the window. DOJ’s Civil Rights Division got retasked to focus on discrimination against Christians.

But Sessions had one saving grace none of us appreciated at the time: He actually wanted to be attorney general, and not just operate as a Trump puppet. [3] In spite of endless abuse from his boss, for example, he followed the rules and recused himself from the Russia investigation. His views on the nature of justice may have been reprehensible, but he understood that the Department of Justice needed to keep its distance from the politics of the White House.

After Sessions’ independence got him forced out, the Senate believed that Bill Barr, who had been AG before under the first President Bush, would maintain that standard. But instead he became the most political AG since Nixon’s John Mitchell (who went to jail). He undermined the Mueller Report. He fed Trump’s conspiracy theories (and intimidated future investigations) by launching an investigation of the Russia investigation. He intervened to sabotage cases against Trump cronies. Trump had always said he wanted a Roy Cohn as attorney general, and now he seemed to have one.

In the end, though, even Barr’s corruption had its limits. Before the election, Barr had obediently (and falsely) cast doubt on the trustworthiness of mail-in ballots. Immediately after the election, he instructed US attorneys to investigate election fraud allegations, ignoring the usual standard of probable cause, and seemingly validating Trump’s claim that there was something substantial to investigate. But when Trump wanted Barr to falsely announce that those investigations were finding real violations, that was a bridge too far. On December 1, Barr was interviewed by an AP reporter, who then wrote:

Disputing Donald Trump’s persistent baseless claims, Attorney General William Barr declared Tuesday the U.S. Justice Department had uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could change the outcome of the 2020 election.

By Christmas, Barr was no longer attorney general. With no time for a Senate confirmation, Jeff Rosen became acting AG.

Endgame. By Christmas, it was clear that the courts were not going to keep Trump in power. Giuliani’s and Trump’s efforts to corrupt Republican election officials, or to convince state legislatures to appoint Trump electors directly, had also not succeeded: The elections had been certified, the electors appointed, and the Electoral College had voted. Sealed envelopes from each state were due to be opened in Congress on January 6.

But there was still one more card to play: badger the temporary Justice Department officials to make the kinds of claims that Barr wouldn’t, and then use the manufactured “uncertainty” of the election outcome to justify Republican state legislatures usurping the power of the voters.

The key player here was Jeffrey Clark, a minor DOJ lawyer who got elevated to head the Civil Division.

On December 27, Trump called to pressure Acting AG Rosen, and Acting Deputy AG Richard Donoghue took notes. [4]

“Understand that the DOJ can’t + won’t snap its fingers + change the outcome of the election, doesn’t work that way,” said Rosen, according to the notes.

“Don’t expect you to do that, just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen,” Trump replied, per the notes.

At another point in the call, the notes showed Rosen and Donoghue trying to convince Trump that his allegations of voter fraud were false.

“Sir we have done dozens of investig., hundreds of interviews, major allegations are not supported by evid. developed,” Donoghue told Trump, per the notes. “We are doing our job. Much of the info you’re getting is false.”

Trump however would not be swayed.

“We have an obligation to tell people that this was an illegal, corrupt election,” he said, according to the notes.

How they were supposed to “say the election was corrupt” became clear the next day, when Clark drafted a letter for Rosen and Donoghue to sign. The letter we have was addressed to Georgia’s governor, speaker of the house, and president pro tem of the senate, but similar letters were prepared for all six states Trump lost but wanted to subvert: Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

The Department of Justice is investigating various irregularities in the 2020 election for President of the United States. The Department will update you as we are able on investigatory progress, but at this time we have identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple States, including the State of Georgia.

The letter contains no specific facts that the Georgia officials might evaluate or try to check. It just raises doubt about “significant concerns”. [5] It then goes on to tell the officials what to do about this uncertainty.

In light of these developments, the Department recommends that the Georgia General Assembly should convene in special session so that it’s legislators are in a position to take additional testimony, receive new evidence, and deliberate on the matter consistent with its duties under the U.S. Constitution. [6]

If the governor doesn’t see fit to call the legislature into session, the letter opines that the U.S. Constitution justifies the legislature calling itself into session for this particular purpose. It presents a speculative constitutional argument that state legislatures can do whatever they want with regard to electors.

The Georgia General Assembly accordingly must have inherent authority granted by the U.S. Constitution to come into session to appoint Electors, regardless of any time limit imposed by the state constitution or state statute requiring the governor’s approval. [7]

Rosen and Donoghue refused to sign. (“There is no chance that I would sign this letter or anything remotely like this,” Donoghue replied in email.) The New York Times reported that Clark met with Trump on January 3 to discuss a plan where Clark would replace Rosen as attorney general, and presumably provide the kind of DOJ support Trump wanted prior to Congress’ debate January 6 on accepting the electoral vote totals. Reportedly, this plan was only headed off by the threat of mass resignations at DOJ, which would have undermined the effectiveness of Clark’s claims.

https://theweek.com/political-satire/1003214/the-road-not-taken

Alternate history. No one can say what would have happened had Trump succeeded in bullying Rosen (or Barr) or replacing him with Clark. At numerous points in the process, Republican election officials did their jobs honorably rather than try to subvert the will of the voters. (Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is one example, Michigan Board of Canvassers member Aaron Van Langevelde another.) It would be pleasant to believe that patriotic, pro-democracy Republicans existed in sufficient numbers to keep state legislatures from responding to the Clark letter by holding hearings on the election-fraud conspiracy theories, and then attempting to replace their Biden electors (who had already voted by this point) with Trump electors. Or that even if one or two legislatures caved to Trump, he would not get the three states he needed to win in the Electoral College.

But who knows? And if states attempted that maneuver without their governors’ approval, in violation of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, but consistent with Trump’s self-serving interpretation of the Constitution, would Congress have accepted those ballots? Would the Supreme Court have to weigh in? What would they have said?

At the very least, the suspense would not have ended on January 6, or perhaps not even on January 20. Even if Biden had ultimately prevailed, significant damage would have been done. From then on, Americans would all know that our elections are just the first shot in a much longer drama whose ultimate outcome might have nothing to do with how we voted.

The next coup. Joe Biden won the popular vote by a margin of just over 7 million. With the exception of George W. Bush’ re-election in 2004, no Republican has won the popular vote since Bush’ father in 1988.

In the normal course of two-party politics, this persistent failure would send Republicans scrambling to reinvent themselves. Presidential hopefuls would be marketing themselves as “New Republicans”, and looking for new ways to reach out to a majority of Americans. That was Karl Rove’s “permanent majority” vision already in 2004: Jettison the racism that Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” had brought into the party, and court the rapidly-growing bloc of socially conservative Hispanics. (Bush got 44% of the Latino vote in 2004. Trump got 32% in 2020.)

Instead, the GOP’s post-election focus has been on how to take or keep power without the backing of a majority. They aren’t pushing bright new faces, or looking for candidates who can flip Democratic voters. [8] They have unveiled no new programs or policies or even messaging strategies. But they hope to get the House back in 2022 by gerrymandering better this time and making voting even harder for pro-Democratic groups. (When was the last time you saw reports of people waiting for hours to vote in majority-Republican precincts?)

The most worrisome thing about the Republican response to their 2020 defeat is their focus on controlling how elections are run, how votes are counted, and whether the voters’ choice will matter at all. [9] The Georgia voter-suppression law that got baseball’s All-Star Game moved out of Atlanta contained one particularly ominous provision: The Republican-controlled legislature can take over the management of elections in Democratic counties. Wasting no time, the legislature has already started the process that would let it take over Fulton County, where Atlanta is.

Not only has the Arizona Senate sponsored the partisan circus of the Cyber Ninjas election “audit”, but a law proposed by a Arizona state Rep. Shawnna Bolick of Phoenix would allow the legislature to ignore the voters entirely next time, and award Arizona’s electoral votes to whomever it wants. The law did not pass, but now Bolick is running for secretary of state, with “securing our elections” as her top priority. In 2024, Arizonans’ votes may be counted by someone who doesn’t believe their votes should count at all.

All the Republican officials who stayed loyal to American democracy rather than Trump have been punished. Aaron Van Langevelde was not renominated to the Board of Canvassers. Brad Raffensperger has been put on Trump’s revenge list, and is unlikely to win his primary next year. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger are facing primary challenges for daring to investigate the January 6 insurrection.

So if 2024 is a close election, we can’t count on honest Republicans to once again do their jobs with integrity. Anyone who finds himself in that situation will know that integrity is a career-killer in the GOP. And the legislatures-can-do-whatever theory of the Electoral College won’t be sprung on the states at the last minute, after a loss, as it was in 2020. Republicans in swing states will see that coming, and will have a plan for winning even if the voters have other ideas.

And finally, what happens in Congress on January 6, 2024? If Republicans do win back the House, if Kevin McCarthy is Speaker and election-respecting Republicans like Cheney and Kinzinger have been purged from the caucus, can a Democratic victory be recognized at all?


[1] There’s an old joke about a baseball game between Heaven and Hell. “You can’t possibly win,” Saint Peter boasts. “We’ve got the greatest players of all time.”

“Maybe so,” Satan replies, “but I’ve got all the umpires.”

[2] Those were actually two different fiascos, but they have merged in my memory, and, I suspect, in most other people’s memories as well.

[3] Sessions came into office with a rather quaint view of his relationship to Trump. Trump considered every appointment a favor that the appointee had to repay with unquestioning loyalty. But Sessions had been the first senator to endorse Trump, giving his candidacy legitimacy that it very much needed at the time. So Sessions thought he was becoming attorney general because Trump owed him. He did not understand that Trump collects debts, but does not pay them.

[4] Not only was the whole conversation inappropriate — presidents are not supposed to tell the Justice Department what to investigate — but notice how backwards this conversation is. Ordinarily, the lower-level people who have actually investigated something would be telling their boss what they discovered, and the boss would make decisions based on those facts. (Rosen and Donoghue try to play that role.) But Trump isn’t interested in what facts DOJ’s investigations have uncovered, or what theories they have debunked. He is going to define the truth for them, based on his own needs.

[5] The letter couldn’t allude to any specific “concerns”, because by this point all Trump’s fraud theories were absurd and easily debunked. A few days later he would parade them during his infamous phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who batted them aside as quickly as Trump offered them up.

[6] Even if it really had uncovered evidence that cast doubt on Georgia’s election, DOJ has no business making such specific recommendations to a state. As Donoghue wrote: “I do not think the Department’s role should include making recommendations to a State legislature about how they should meet their Constitutional obligation to appoint Electors.”

[7] The governors of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are Democrats, and Georgia’s Governor Kemp had already expressed skepticism about Trump’s Big Lie, so the governors have to be taken out of the picture. Also, this is the only legal argument I can recall that claims a legislature needn’t be bound by the constitution that created it.

[8] Monday, Chris Hayes noted the remarkable extent to which this is not happening. Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis is considered the Republican 2024 front-runner if Trump doesn’t run. He has botched his Covid response pretty badly, with numbers that are getting worse all the time. Meanwhile, Republican Governor Phil Scott of Vermont has one of the best Covid record in the nation, and in November won a third term with 68% of the vote in a blue state.

Literally no one considers Scott to be a likely Republican presidential nominee, because what Republican wants to attract Democratic votes? Instead, DeSantis is looking over his shoulder at an even Trumpier governor with an even worse record on Covid, Kristy Noem of South Dakota. In spite of being far enough off the beaten track to miss the first Covid wave entirely, South Dakota has been hit harder than just about any other state: It’s third-worst in cases per capita and tenth in deaths per capita. (Vermont is the second-best state behind Hawaii in both measures, without the benefit of being an island.)

Hayes: “In any sane political culture, Phil Scott would obviously be a top-tier candidate for higher office. … But not only is that not the case, it’s literally the opposite of the case. The fact that Phil Scott managed the pandemic so well is disqualifying.”

[9] Returning to the joke in [1], Republicans have doubled down on the strategy of recruiting more umpires rather than better players.

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Comments

  • Barry Mauer  On August 9, 2021 at 9:32 am

    Good essay, as usual!
    One point I would like to contest, however, is the claim that “The riot might have turned out a whole lot worse (and nearly did), but it was never going to keep Trump in the White House.” This conclusion fails to account for how coups often work. The second, third, and fourth successors to the president were in the building during the attack. Had they been captured or killed, and the vote to certify stopped, Trump could have declared himself ruler. Imagine show trials for these non-compliant politicians, as well as for Biden, Harris, and hundreds of others. While the military leaders were not entirely on his side, he might have mustered enough of the lower ranks, as well as police and militia, to pull off a coup.

  • jwfmcclain  On August 9, 2021 at 10:35 am

    “With the exception of George W. Bush’ re-election in 2004, no Republican has won the popular vote since Bush’ father in 1988.”, and of course 04′ being the first election after 9/11 and in the begging stages of the not obviously yet off the rails Iraq War provided (hopefully) unique advantage to a Republican / incumbent. Quite reasonable to discard it as an outlier.

  • susanmbrewer  On August 9, 2021 at 8:23 pm

    And then there is the California variation on Republicans taking office without an electoral majority. Per California’s recall procedure, should Governor Newsom be successfully recalled, the second part of the ballot would determine his successor. There are sixty-some names on that list, none of them Democratic, though some are Independent or “other” or utterly unaffiliated rather than Republican. A majority is not needed, just the plurality among those sixty-some. While many of the people running will clearly not do well, it’s entirely possible that a new governor will be elected by 10 or 15% of the votes cast. Voila! A new technique to gain office without anything approaching a majority. Elected a Democrat? No problem, immediately file a recall petition.

    (Following a Republican resignation, a Democrat was appointed to the City Council of Huntington Beach, CA last week; less than 30 minutes after she took office, a recall petition reportedly was filed. As it happens, voters in Huntington Beach have to wait 90 days before starting a recall. Want to bet that little snag disappears soon?)

    • Anonymous  On August 12, 2021 at 5:51 am

      If someone is elected Governor with 15% of the votes, couldn’t someone file a recall?

    • Anonymous  On August 15, 2021 at 5:36 am

      For anyone concerned about the recall, Postcards to Voters (www.PostcardsToVoters.org) is sending postcards to registered Democrats to help ensure that enough people vote to keep Newsom that the recall fails. Follow the link if you would like to help by sending some postcards. It can be done from home, and you do not need to live in California.

  • Abby  On August 9, 2021 at 8:24 pm

    “…use the manufactured “uncertainty” ”
    Where have I heard this strategy before? Why in every science-denying movement in existence. Tobacco/cancer denial, evolution denial, climate denial, etc. What they always do is manufacture “uncertainty”, and then claim that therefore, the results are not clear. Please keep in mind that the results will NEVER be clear unless they get the outcome they want.

    Known sometimes as “manufactureversies”, scientists have been battling these for a long time. Now others are having to deal with the same nonsense.

  • James C  On August 10, 2021 at 2:00 pm

    In Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article, she points out the concurring decision in Bush v Gore invoked the Independent Legislature Doctrine, which gives state legislatures the authority to appoint electors when there is suspicion of “election had been compromised by irregularities or fraud, forcing them to intervene.”
    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/08/09/the-big-money-behind-the-big-lie

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