Trump digs deeper into debunked conspiracy theories instead of embracing reality


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A week passed, but Trump offered no hint of embracing reality. So people close to the President said to give it a week longer as he worked through the trauma of losing and as states neared their deadlines for certification.

That week passed, too, as Trump retreated from public view while becoming ever-more-consumed with conspiracies and long-shot legal maneuvers.

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Some Republicans are growing restless over the delay in moving forward with the transition, aides said, even though few of them have spoken out publicly. Although Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska — two of the lone Republicans known to speak out against Trump — strongly criticized him Thursday night, questions about Trump’s behavior from other GOP members to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leaders are still answered with the same blunt message from a week ago: Speaking out is not worth running the risk of angering Trump, whose supporters hold the cards in upcoming twin runoff elections in Georgia.

“This does have a hard end date, with state certification and elector selection,” a senior Republican official said. “There’s no way out then.”

Yet that does little to answer the question of how much damage — to the country and to Biden’s new presidency — could be done before then as conspiracy theories fester and public confidence in the election is questioned.

Trump’s endgame

Trump’s aims seem scattershot. He has told some allies that he knows he lost. But he has also admitted to at least one interlocutor that he is delaying the transition process — and aggressively trying to sow doubt in the election — as retribution for Democrats who questioned the legitimacy of his own election in 2016.

Instead of searching for new votes, Trump now appears focused on convincing Republican legislators in closely-contested states to intervene during the Electoral College — an extraordinary gambit demonstrating Trump’s willingness to set fire to Democratic norms in the hopes of grasping to power. On Friday, Trump will meet with Republican state lawmakers from Michigan at the White House, though it’s unclear his overtures will be successful. Trump has also considered getting in touch with Republican legislators in other states as their certification deadlines near, hoping to delay or prevent Biden’s win, people familiar with the matter said.

Fact checking Giuliani and the Trump legal team's wild, fact-free press conference

In private conversations, Trump has dismissed concerns his efforts could undermine the very system of democracy he is claiming to be protecting through his efforts, suggesting he is concerned more for his own future prospects. The President, one source said, “doesn’t see” how damaging his efforts could be for the country and for democracy itself.

And despite growing horror among some on his team at the antics of his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani — whose sweaty news conference Thursday at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee drew a mix of mocking and exasperation from other Trump associates — Trump is enthusiastically encouraging the former New York City mayor to proceed in his false and outlandish attempts to discredit the election.
Trump, one person who spoke to him said, is “beyond obsessed” with the outlandish claims that voting machines may have contributed to his loss. He has been following developments in individual states so closely that on Tuesday, as the vote canvassing board met in Wayne County, Michigan, Trump dialed up the two Republican members to express support for their initial refusal to certify results.

Trump’s focus on contesting the election has consumed any remnants of actual governing. He did not appear at a briefing with his coronavirus task force on Thursday, and has not appeared interested in the raging pandemic. He’s scheduled to deliver remarks on lowering prescription drug prices on Friday afternoon at the White House and participate in an early morning session of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. But organizers of this weekend’s G20 summit have yet to hear from the White House whether Trump will participate, as every US president has since the annual summits began in 2008.

Aides who previously predicted Trump would reckon with his defeat within two weeks now say the timetable is more uncertain as he moves from lawsuits to more outlandish schemes, such as pressuring Republicans in battleground states not to certify the results of the election.

“No calendar or timetable,” one senior Trump campaign official said.

Disregarding warnings about his reputation

Some around Trump have warned his attempts to cling to the presidency will ultimately damage his reputation and businesses when he inevitably departs the White House in January. Friends and associates, one person familiar with the matter said, have been imploring the President to think more about the future. They have told Trump he is making it harder on himself when he eventually leaves office, and that his antics now could damage his ability to get guests to choose his hotels or banks to lend him money. He will hurt his brand, some friends have told him.

Trump has heard out those concerns, but has been frank that he thinks the predictions are wrong. In some instances he has abruptly ended conversations, recoiling from discussions about conceding.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican who has spoken with Trump since Election Day, said the President is still confident he will win.

“I think the President understands the important role he has to maintain his fight for election integrity,” Gaetz said on Thursday.

Some fellow Republicans, however, are losing patience.

Don't ignore Trump's election mischief. Take it seriously

“It sorta sucks,” Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said of Trump’s legal strategy. While Chabot said Trump has a “right to pursue his case” and contended that some voter activity is “very, very suspicious,” he said “to prove it, I think it’s going to be very, very challenging. So think we probably end up with a Biden administration.”

Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, a senior Republican who was targeted by Democrats but who won his reelection bid by 16 points, went further. Asked Thursday if Trump should concede, Upton said: “Yeah. I think it’s all said and done.”

“No one has seen any real identification of any real fraud,” Upton told CNN when asked about the Trump allegations of widespread fraud in Detroit.

Still, fearful of crossing their party’s animating figure, few in the GOP are speaking out against Trump’s attempt to steal the election.

A wide swath of House Republicans say that they believe Trump should take the battle as far as he can, with some embracing a long-shot strategy for states to delay certifying their results to help Trump win the Electoral College — and essentially ignore the will of voters in key battleground states and subvert the democratic process.

Trump undercuts American democracy as he clings to power

Asked if his state should delay certifying the election, Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar said: “I believe it should.” Gosar also said the “state has the ability” to name its own electors to the Electoral College if the results aren’t certified as part of the “system set up by our founders.” And when asked if he would support the state legislature naming its own electors, Gosar said: “I do.”

Arizona, which Biden is projected to win and where he’s maintained a lead of more than 10,000 votes, is one of several states where the Trump campaign is contesting the election results with unsubstantiated charges of mass fraud. Arizona is required by state law to certify its results by November 30.

Federal law encourages states to resolve disputes over vote-counting by December 8, six days before electors meet in their state capitals to cast their ballots. If Biden’s win is certified by December 8, Congress must recognize the pro-Biden electors.

Under the long-shot theory, Republican-led legislatures could appoint pro-Trump slates of presidential electors, even if Biden carried the popular vote in their state, assuming a state has not certified the vote in time.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Thursday wouldn’t embrace that strategy. But other Republicans argued that states should wait to certify the results until all of Trump’s claims are resolved. The argument: That voters, especially ones who voted for Trump, will have more faith in the outcome if courts resolve all disputes before states certify the results.

The Biden transition team has had private conversations with some key Republicans, people familiar with the matter said, though not with McConnell. Advisers to Biden are working on plans to intensify their campaign to have senior leaders — from both business and politics — step up and make the case that an orderly transition is overdue and anything less would be dangerous for the country.

Romney, a frequent Trump critic, called out Trump’s efforts to “overturn the election” in Michigan by pressuring local officials, writing on Twitter Thursday night, “it is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American President.”

‘Look at that bigger picture’

The prevailing attitude among Republicans is to give Trump some more time to fight — but only a few weeks, especially when electors meet to cast their ballots in the middle of next month.

“I think we give him until December 14,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican. “And I think it’d be good if we can vet everything and it could be done by then.”

Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican from New York, said that it is fine if Trump wants to have his day in court, but “at some point that review process does have to come to an end.”

Reed said he has had private conversations with colleagues about what could be at stake if the party entertains too much doubt about the security and integrity of the elections.

“We are members of Congress and we are members of the institution. At times I encourage members to take a step back,” Reed said. “I have encouraged folks to take a deep breath. Look at that bigger picture.”

Even Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, seemed to be conveying a farewell message when he attended a lunch with Republican senators on Capitol Hill this week. Emerging afterward, Sen. John Cornyn told reporters that Meadows discussed getting their priorities completed in the last days of the year.

“There are about 45 days left of the President’s term, he said he wanted to make sure we had ideas of things that the White House could and should do during that period of time,” the Texas Republican said. “It really wasn’t a very substantive message.”

CNN’s Dana Bash and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.

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