Saturday's wild cheers for President-elect Joe Biden quickly segued into nervous laughter from Democrats on Monday. By Tuesday morning, one week after the election, it was becoming clear that most leading Republicans were supporting President Donald Trump's refusal to concede. The question that everyone was left trying to answer was: Why?
Legally this may be going nowhere, but politically it looks like Republicans are going to milk the uncertainty for all it's worth.
Several theories are circulating, with some element of truth to all of them, making this the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell of terrible post-election outcomes.
Theory No. 1: This is all about assuaging Trump's ego and making a buck or two in the process.
Trump has continued to tweet his claims that the vote was somehow rigged in multiple states — but we expected that of him. Trump's tweets are just meaningless noise in this context, without someone to translate them into action.
Efforts to back him up are hilariously lacking substance. Unlike during the 2000 Bush-Gore election, according to CNN, the Republican National Committee is laying off staff members instead of funneling them into the supposed areas of contestation. The lawsuits the campaign has filed have become a comedy of errors in Arizona and Michigan.
Fundraising for the "legal effort" is full steam ahead, though — most of the money will go to retiring Trump campaign debts. So sure, some officials are arguing, why not get in on the action? South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has gone so far as to channel donations to "help us bring it home for the president" into her own re-election coffers.
That means that legally this may be going nowhere, but politically it looks like Republicans are going to milk the uncertainty for all it's worth, choosing to ignore the shortsightedness of their strategy.
That brings us to theory No. 2: Republicans are dancing this line to keep their base agitated ahead of one or possibly two runoff races in Georgia in January, securing their hold on the Senate.
"So long as the campaign is pursuing actual legal remedies, the voters will expect our politicians to hang in there," a GOP strategist told the Washington Examiner. "Trump's never-back-down approach is about 90% of his appeal for Republican voters."
Washington Post reporter Robert Costa similarly tweeted that based on his conversations with Republicans over the weekend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's focus was absolutely on the Jan. 5 Georgia race or races.
McConnell, the top GOP elected official who'll definitely be in office after January, said on the Senate floor Monday that Trump is "100 percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options. Suffice it to say, a few legal inquiries from the president do not exactly spell the end of the republic."
Despite his cavalier attitude, the constant agitation has Republicans taking aim at fellow Republicans who let facts get in the way of politics. Both GOP Senate candidates in Georgia — incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the former of whom is in a race still too close to call — signed on to a joint attack on Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The senators demanded that Raffensperger, also a Republican, resign over "mismanagement" of the election without any evidence for their broadside. (He politely declined.)
Their hit would be troubling enough without Trump's playing a direct role, as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Tuesday: "We're told the president and his top allies pressured the two Republican senators to take this step, lest he tweet a negative word about them and risk divorcing them from his base ahead of the consequential runoff."
And so we segue to option three: For all the buffoonery and disinformation, this is a serious endeavor from the Republican Party to invalidate the election and keep Trump in office.
Ezra Klein, the founder of Vox.com, has been making that argument for days now, summing up his fears in an article headlined "Trump is attempting a coup in plain sight."
The "this is a real coup" point of view gained traction Monday night when Attorney General William Barr issued a memo granting federal prosecutors the authority to "pursue substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities" before election results were certified. The instructions went against the Justice Department's previous guidelines discouraging opening criminal investigations before election results are certified, keeping law enforcement from potentially swaying the results.
Even though it was couched against "fanciful or far-fetched claims," the memo was enough of a shift to prompt Richard Pilger, who was heading the election crimes division of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, to leave his post. "Having familiarized myself with the new policy and its ramifications," he wrote, "I must regretfully resign from my role as director of the Election Crimes Branch."
Meanwhile, Emily Murphy, the once obscure head of the General Services Administration, is in the spotlight for refusing to sign off on documents releasing resources, including millions of dollars in funding and office space, for the president-elect's transition staff. The White House has made sure that orders not to cooperate yet with the Biden team went out throughout the rest of the government, from the Pentagon to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Biden has yet to begin receiving intelligence briefings for the same reason.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's (joking?) declaration that "there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration" didn't do anything to calm the waters.
Neither did a new surge of "acting" appointments at the Defense Department, after Secretary Mark Esper was fired Monday. Key positions, including Esper's chief of staff and the top defense official for intelligence, have been filled with Trump loyalists — several of whom have previously twisted intelligence to benefit the president.
Now, the first two theories fit together hand in glove, but the third is something of an outlier, more sinister than self-serving. Philadelphia Inquirer opinion columnist Will Bunch did his best to synthesize them into one Grand Unified Theory in this tweet Monday evening:
But here's where I remain unconvinced: Do we know for sure that all of the players are on the same page? Is there an agreed-upon off-ramp if it's just posturing? Ten Republican state attorneys general have filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in the voting rights case sitting before the court. Are all of them also just playing at the politics of this?
National Republicans have been great at presenting bad faith arguments they know aren't true, as have Trump administration officials — state lawmakers, however, are more in the habit of getting high on their own supply, so to speak. And given how central they are to the whole process, the way they move forward will have lasting effects.
Which leads me to theory No. 4, which is my belief: Republicans think they're taking advantage of the president's claims while waiting for this all to blow over and Biden to become president.
Wisconsin's and Michigan's legislatures — both of which are controlled by Republicans — have ordered committees with subpoena power to investigate the election results. And Pennsylvania's Republican House speaker has called for an audit of all ballots, which are still being counted, before the race is certified and the state's 20 electors are chosen.
Republicans have been great at presenting bad faith arguments they know aren't true.
Here's where things get weird: Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., agreed Friday when Fox News host Sean Hannity suggested, like right-wing commentator Mark Levin, that Pennsylvania's Legislature consider seating its own set of electors. State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman was quoted in The Atlantic as considering doing just that if the election isn't decided by the Dec. 8 deadline to name electors. He backtracked in September, and the party now denies that it would ever consider such a thing.
But I can see a world where enough momentum gets built up that it becomes hard to stop the train. So say Pennsylvania's Legislature does pass a resolution naming a new slate of electors, prompting a similar move from Wisconsin's and Georgia's legislators — those slates are challenged, and so the election reaches the Supreme Court after all. As far as I can find, the Supreme Court has ruled on so-called faithless electors but never on the question of whether state legislatures can decide electors when elections can't be credibly decided. And there's a small, but nonzero, chance that a majority of the justices opt to say, "Sure, that's what the Constitution originally said." Mass chaos ensues.
Even without that scenario, there's the little problem of what to do about the very agitated base once Jan. 5 is past and the Senate races are over. What happens if these voters still refuse to believe that Biden should be sworn in as president? Is that when the GOP leadership decides it's a good time to alienate the base?
The question then remains: How much of this is shadowboxing for the benefit of a single man's bruised ego? How much of it is an actual attempt to keep that man in office — versus a way to selfishly harness his supporters' rage? And how much is this just another Trumpworld scam? Is there even a real difference between these points anymore? And are they prepared for what will happen when they finally have to admit that Biden is going to be president?
The Washington Post quoted an unnamed senior Republican official who showed just how the lines have blurred in their heads:
"What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change. He went golfing this weekend. It's not like he's plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He's tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he'll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he'll leave."
And you know what? Sure. If that's your honest analysis of the situation, that's your prerogative. But it's also honest to say that this is the GOP treating the results of the election as just another hustle. For years we've been trying to suss out why the GOP establishment would debase itself to go along with a proven con man like Trump. But it's pretending now like this is all still a game, a grift against its base that I'm not sure it can control. So I really need Republicans to step up, quit playing dumb for once and act like what they're doing actually has consequences. I don't think any of us will like the results if they don't.
CORRECTION (Nov. 12, 2020, 7:00 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the former defense secretary's given name. He is Mark Esper, not Mike.