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The real scandal: Trump's attempt to overturn an election he lost

Some seem reluctant to call Trump's effort to overturn the election results a "scandal," but a gambit can be inept and scandalous at the same time.
President Donald J. Trump
President Donald J. Trump walks to board Marine One and depart from the South Lawn at the White House on Feb 7, 2020.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Imagesfile

In a year filled with head-spinning oddities, Tuesday night offered an especially strange development. In Michigan, two Republicans on Wayne County's elections board initially refused to certify local election results because they didn't like the outcome. As the New York Times noted, this was, "in essence, an effort to disenfranchise large numbers of Americans."

The plan was never going to work, and cooler heads ultimately prevailed. But the story didn't quite end there.

We learned today that the Republicans on the Wayne County Board of Canvassers received a personal call from Donald Trump. They then announced they wanted to "rescind" their votes certifying the election results.

As best as I can tell, that's not really an option -- the certified vote totals have already been transmitted to the state -- but that doesn't change the extraordinary circumstances the nation is confronting right now.

The sitting president of the United States is rejecting his election defeat. He is pursuing a scheme that would overturn the results of a free and fair process, and allow him to remain in power, in defiance of the will of his own country's electorate. NBC News' First Read team framed this in a compelling way yesterday:

Forget Russia's interference in the 2016 election. Or Trump's impeachment for asking Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden. Arguably the biggest political scandal we've ever seen in this country is playing right before our eyes: President Trump and his allies are trying to reverse the election results of a contest he lost.

I think the political world tends to resist calling the presidential effort a "scandal" for a variety of reasons. For one thing, everyone involved in the process seems to understand that Trump's gambit will inevitably fail, which in turn makes the attack on our democracy less scary.

For another, the effort, which we all saw coming, is based on hapless and embarrassing tactics -- including lawsuits that are impossible to take seriously -- that more closely resemble a Three Stooges routine than a sophisticated coup attempt.

But as cringeworthy as Team Trump's ineptitude may be, the underlying scandal remains painfully real. We're supposed to be the world's preeminent superpower, and we're witnessing the kind of autocratic tactics that Americans have only seen elsewhere.

An outgoing president really did cheer on his partisan allies in Michigan when they balked at certifying legitimate vote tallies. In Nevada, Trump's lawyers really did file a lawsuit asking a judge to either declare the Republican president the winner -- Joe Biden won Nevada by 2.4% -- or to annul the election results Trump doesn't like. In Pennsylvania, a related effort is underway.

The president really did fire the head of the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency because he dared to tell the public the truth about the integrity of the election results. His lawyers really are targeting the vote-certification process in several areas. The Associated Press reported this morning:

There is no precedent for the Trump team's widespread effort to delay or undermine certification, according to University of Kentucky law professor Joshua Douglas. "It would be the end of democracy as we know it," Douglas said. "This is just not a thing that can happen."

Trump and his team likely know this, but they don't care that this is a thing that cannot happen. On the contrary, they believe it is an avenue worth pursuing, because the incumbent Republican cares far more about his interests than the health of his own country's democracy.

Trump and his team have convinced themselves that it's a legitimate use of presidential power to fight tooth and nail against the United States' electoral process, for the express purpose of overturning unsatisfying results. If that's not a proper "scandal," what is?

The New York Times' Jamelle Bouie added this morning, "[T]he fact that this is haphazard doesn't make it any less serious."

Update: Just when it seemed this couldn't get worse, the president has reportedly invited GOP lawmakers from Michigan's legislature to the White House.

The point is not to give them a tour: Trump obviously hopes to lobby Michigan Republicans directly to help him subvert their country's democracy. This is madness.