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Trump's push to overturn election result tears through GOP

Posted January 3, 2021 4:12 p.m. EST

— President Donald Trump is tearing the Republican Party apart on his way out the door, forcing Republicans to choose sides as they wrestle with the future of the party in the wake of Trump's overt attempts to subvert the results of the election.

The President's fixation with overturning the results of a fair and free election is the latest crusade throwing the GOP into a full-blown crisis mode as members attack one another's motives and grapple with what a vote to reject the results of the election that could do harm not just to their party but to democracy itself.

There's no evidence of widespread election fraud that would affect the results of the November election that President-elect Joe Biden won, and the courts have rejected dozens of legal challenges brought by the Trump campaign and congressional Republicans seeking to overturn the result.

But that hasn't stopped a dozen Republican senators -- including Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri -- and more than 100 House Republicans from planning to join with Trump to reject the Electoral College votes in states that Biden won when Congress convenes a joint session on Wednesday. That group of lawmakers has been openly clashing with other prominent Republicans -- including Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, as well as the House's No. 3 Republican Liz Cheney -- who say the fight is dangerous to democracy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told his conference this past week that congressional certification of the election was "the most consequential vote" of his career.

The effort will only delay the inevitable, as the objections are sure to fail in both the House and the Senate, and even some Republicans are warning their colleagues about the dangerous precedent Republicans would be setting by seeking to overturn the election result through Congress.

For weeks, McConnell privately warned his party against making an unforced error by forcing votes on the Electoral College objections, fully aware that questioning the results of the election when Congress meets Wednesday would expose rifts in his ranks and force members up for reelection in 2022 into an unenviable political position. But, Hawley, a Republican with presidential ambitions, went ahead announcing last week he will object to certifying the election results of at least one state Wednesday, forcing both chambers to vote on whether to side with Trump's baseless claims the election was stolen from him or the will of the voters that selected Biden.

What has followed is a nasty internal debate that has spilled into public view, with members publicly ridiculing their colleagues and choosing whether they will follow Hawley down the rabbit hole or stand against what even supporters have acknowledged is a futile effort.

"I'm concerned about the division in America, that's the biggest issue, but obviously this is not healthy for the Republican Party either," said Sasse, who has been critical of Trump's false election claims. "What's good for America is the main question here, but this is bad for the country and bad for the party."

A group of nearly a dozen Republican senators announced Saturday that they would vote for Hawley's objection when it was brought forward, unless a commission was created to study voter fraud, something that is unlikely. The group, led by GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, speaks to the balancing act many Republicans feel like they have to maintain. Cruz's group has not said if any members would separately file their own objections or just vote in support of challenges that Hawley brings up, but the practical effect is the same: a dozen Republicans rejecting the results of at least one state's election.

Trump's close ally, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, tweeted on Sunday that proposing an election commission was "not effectively fighting for President Trump" and added "It appears to be more of a political dodge than an effective remedy."

Republicans opposed to Hawley's move have said they believe the conference will be able to overcome the drama, even if the next several days threaten to upend party unity. But the long-term effects could stretch for years -- and into the 2022 Senate races, with Trump and his allies threatening primary challenges to those Republicans who cross him and vote against the objections. Aides to GOP members still trying to decide what to do next describe an anxious time for the party as members grapple with what choice to make.

"I think we will put it past us. We have done it before," Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, said. "I am going to certify the electorate. ... I think that overwhelming weight of the evidence is Joe Biden defeated my candidate Donald Trump. I have to live with it."

Throughout Trump's four years in office, Republicans have often expressed frustration or looked the other way at some of Trump's efforts and rhetoric, though they rarely crossed him. But in the past month, many Republicans voted to override Trump's veto of a popular defense policy bill, the first override of Trump's presidency, and McConnell blocked his attempts to give people $2,000 stimulus checks instead of the $600 in the spending and Covid-19 bill that Trump reluctantly signed.

The tensions over the Electoral College vote have spilled into the House too, where Republicans have predicted a majority of the GOP conference -- at least 140 House members -- will vote to reject Biden's victory. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has quietly blessed the effort from conservative lawmakers, while Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, has tried to push back.

Cheney sent a 21-page memo to Republicans Sunday outlining why she believes objecting to the Electoral College count is unconstitutional and an "exceptionally dangerous precedent."

"There is substantial reason for concern about the precedent Congressional objections will set here. By objecting to electoral slates, members are unavoidably asserting that Congress has the authority to overturn elections and overrule state and federal courts," Cheney wrote. "Such objections set an exceptionally dangerous precedent, threatening to steal states' explicit constitutional responsibility for choosing the President and bestowing it instead on Congress. This is directly at odds with the Constitution's clear text and our core beliefs as Republicans," she added.

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan discouraged his former colleagues from objecting to the election results in a statement Sunday, saying it was "difficult to conceive of a more anti-democratic and anti-conservative act than a federal intervention to overturn the results of state-certified elections and disenfranchise millions of Americans."

While a group of House members had been vowing to object to the 2020 election results for weeks, their protest would have died had no senator joined them, which is what happened when a handful of House Democrats objected to Trump's victory in several states when the Electoral College votes were counted in 2017.

Hawley's detractors have expressed frustration that he's pushed his colleagues into a difficult vote for an effort that's doomed to fail.

"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, a Republican from Missouri, who added: "I don't believe it has much long-term impact on our conference."

But the last several days have led to a testy back and forth between those who support Hawley and those who do not. On Thursday morning, McConnell repeatedly called on Hawley to make his case to members on why he was objecting to the results from at least one state. Hawley wasn't on the call, however, and later responded by email to the conference on his rationale. Then over the weekend, multiple senators including Romney, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania skewered any questions that the election had been compromised.

Romney specifically said the effort to overturn the election was an "egregious ploy" that "may enhance the political ambition of some, but dangerously threatens our Democratic Republic." The statement was shot at Hawley and others eyeing the presidential campaign in 2024 and Trump's powerful sway over the GOP base, should he not try to run again.

Toomey, who is retiring, accused Hawley and others of undermining the rights of Americans to pick their own leaders.

Hawley fired back in an email to colleagues.

"I read Sen. Toomey's statement," Hawley said. "I recognize that our caucus will have varied opinions about this subject. That's not surprising. But I also believe we should avoid putting words into each other's mouths," Hawley wrote.

Four Senate Republicans -- Murkowski, Romney, Susan Collins of Maine and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana -- joined with six Democrats in a statement Sunday blasting efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 election. It was many of the same senators who came together last month to push for a bipartisan Covid-19 relief deal that eventually was signed into law.

"The 2020 election is over. All challenges through recounts and appeals have been exhausted. At this point, further attempts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 Presidential election are contrary to the clearly expressed will of the American people and only serve to undermine Americans' confidence in the already determined election results," the senators said.

Newly elected GOP Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas, who joined Cruz's effort Saturday, predicted Senate Republicans would "overcome the challenge" of Wednesday's vote.

"I think this will make us stronger," Marshall said. "I think this will prove we can listen to each other."

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