Democracy or Trump? Republicans Face a Career-Defining Vote

Republicans in Congress must choose: upholding constitutional democracy or declaring the American electoral system a sham.

democracy trump republicans congress certification of electoral votes
Trump disembarks Air Force One on Aug. 7, 2019, at El Paso International Airport greeted by Ted Cruz. (White House Photo / Shealah Craighead)

This post originally appeared on The Fulcrum. It has been republished with permission.

Republicans in Congress, the preferred voices of almost exactly half of a riven nation, have only 48 hours until they must make one of the most consequential choices of a fractious time—between upholding constitutional democracy or declaring the American electoral system a sham.

The Constitution will almost certainly survive, no matter how many vote Wednesday to overturn the presidential election. But the already fragile faith of the people in their republic will remain under unprecedented assault, commanded by a sitting president and fueled by the dozens of senators and House members who decide to prioritize the potential political risk from crossing him over their sworn fealty to the rule of law.

Long after the special session of Congress to count the electoral votes is over, with the lawful and decisive election of Joe Biden finalized once GOP senators and House members cast their lots for history, no other aspect of American democracy’s dysfunction will matter nearly as much.

The stakes got even bigger Sunday, with the release of recordings of President Trump pressuring Georgia’s top elections official “to find 11,780 votes,” enough to overturn Biden’s win in the state—repeatedly citing claims of fraud that have been disproved and suggesting it would be “a criminal offense” to refuse to do his bidding.

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On the extraordinary Saturday phone call, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said he would not comply because “we don’t agree that you have won” and that the president’s allegations about dead voters, manipulated voting equipment and shredded ballots in Atlanta are without foundation.

Trump responded to the revelations Monday by promising in a tweet to make revelations about “the real numbers” the heart of his speech at a gathering in Georgia Monday night, which is supposed to be about rallying GOP voters to the polls for Tuesday’s twin runoffs that will decide partisan control of the Senate.

Trump also took to Twitter to castigate any lawmakers in his party who decide not to support efforts to discount the electoral votes from five states Biden won, giving him 306 Electoral College votes to 232 for Trump:

“The ‘Surrender Caucus within the Republican Party will go down in infamy as weak and ineffective ‘guardians’ of our Nation, who were willing to accept the certification of fraudulent presidential numbers!”

So far, Trump has enlisted public pledges of support from a dozen senators and about 100 House members comfortable with the notion that their votes will define their careers.

How much bigger the roster will grow has been cast in doubt, not only by the Georgia telephone call, which may make wavering Republicans squeamish, but also by the host of senior Republicans who have decided to publicly discourage the effort in recent days.

“To every member of Congress considering objecting to the election results, you cannot—in light of this—do so with a clean conscience,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of the few outspoken GOP critics of Trump in Congress, said after the Raffensberger recording was first published by the Washington Post.

All 10 living former secretaries of defense—including former Vice President Dick Cheney and James Mattis, Trump’s first Pentagon chief—wrote in a Post op-ed Sunday that the election results were definitive and cautioned the military not to get involved in Trump’s effort to overturn the election.

Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican, warned in a memo to colleagues that objections to the Electoral College results “set an exceptionally dangerous precedent.”

Paul Ryan, who left Congress four years ago as the most recent GOP speaker of the House, said in a statement that “Biden’s victory is entirely legitimate” and that efforts to sow doubt about the election “strike at the foundation of our republic.”

One of the Senate’s most outspoken conservatives, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, said he would vote against electoral vote challenges because they will surely prove futile but “will only embolden those Democrats who want to erode further our system of constitutional government.”

Another conservative hardliner, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, emerged Sunday as an impassioned critic of the anti-certification effort, which is being led in part by the senator Roy once served as chief of staff, fellow Texan Ted Cruz. Roy forced his GOP colleagues to take a recorded vote that challenged the seating of the entire House delegations from Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada—the same decisive Biden states that Trump says should have their electoral votes tossed out because of widespread election fraud. In essence, Roy was making the point that, if the presidential result was rigged, the congressional outcome must have been as well. And only two House conservatives took the bait and voted to keep their colleagues off the floor.

Cruz and 11 other GOP senators say they will vote against Electoral College tallies unless Congress launches a commission that can audit contested results between now and the inauguration, which is not going to happen. Three others in the group face potential GOP primaries for re-election in 2022: Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, James Lankford of Oklahoma and John Kennedy of Louisiana. The others are Steve Daines of Montana, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Mike Braun of Indiana and all four Republicans sworn in for the first time Sunday: Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.

Josh Hawley of Missouri has his own effort, which is to object to the 20 pro-Biden electors from Pennsylvania. (He and Cruz are both planning presidential runs in 2024 that will hinge on how well they do with Trump loyalists.)

Such a sustained challenge to a presidential election has not been seen since the Reconstruction-ending contest of 1876. But then, the results in three states remained up in the air for months. This time, officials in all 50 states and D.C. insist their elections were free of fraud or any other problems that might conceivable change the outcomes—and all have certified their results.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a letter to colleagues that while there is “no doubt” of Biden’s victory, their job now “is to convince more of the American people to trust in our democratic system.”

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David Hawkings, editor in chief at The Fulcrum, was most recently the senior editor of CQ Roll Call, writing columns for each publication and hosting the "Roll Call Decoder" series of videos and podcasts. He spent six years as managing editor of CQ Weekly, when the magazine won two Dirksen Awards for coverage of Congress, and before that supervised all legislative coverage and was managing editor for daily news.