Top Trump administration officials and Republican legislators continue to humor the idea that, contra the vote count thus far, President Donald Trump might have won the presidential election and could soon be inaugurated for a second term.
“There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with a slight chuckle today in response to a question at a press briefing about whether the U.S. State Department was working with the Biden transition team, and if any delay in working with the transition team would hinder national security.
“We’re going to count all the votes. When the process is complete, there’ll be electors selected. There’s a process. The Constitution lays it out pretty clearly. The world should have every confidence that the transition necessary to make sure that the State Department is functional today, successful today, and successful with the president that’s in office on January 20th a minute after noon,” said Pompeo.
When asked if he believed that there was widespread voter fraud, as Trump is claiming, Pompeo said that “we must count every legal vote. We must make sure any vote that wasn’t lawful ought not be counted.”
Given his follow up comments, the most plausible reading of Pompeo’s remark about a “second Trump administration” is that it was tactless snark about the Trump campaign’s electoral lawsuits.
It was still an incredibly inappropriate remark given the tensions of the current moment, and the fact that Trump’s legal challenges are still ongoing. That the comment is being so widely interpreted as an endorsement of Trump’s stolen election claims is yet more reason why Pompeo shouldn’t have said it.
The secretary’s churlish comments put him in the ranks of other Republican officials who would rather assuage Trump’s feelings than dismiss his dubious claims of widespread voter fraud.
Attorney General Bill Barr, for instance, issued a letter to U.S prosecutors authorizing investigations into “substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities prior to the certification of elections.”
That letter prompted the resignation of the Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyer in charge of election crimes. As Reason‘s Elizabeth Nolan Brown noted this morning, however, Barr’s letter did not endorse claims of widespread fraud, nor did it give DOJ attorneys a blank check.
Similarly, the head of the General Services Administration (GSA), which manages federal government buildings, has thus far declined to declare Biden the winner of the election. That needs to happen before the president-elect’s transition staff can access government offices. The GSA has said in a statement it will certify the successful candidate “once a winner is clear based on the process laid out in the Constitution.”
The White House has also instructed federal agencies to proceed with work on Trump’s budget plans, which are normally released in February, weeks after Biden is expected to be sworn in.
None of these actions or statements fully endorse Trump’s repeated claims that the election has been stolen from him. They are all nevertheless predicated on the idea that the president’s legal challenges could end up undoing Biden’s victory.
A number of Republican elected officials have walked a similar line.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) said on the Senate floor yesterday that Trump was “100 percent within his right” to pursue all legal options open to him, without claiming the currently projected Biden victory would be overturned. Other GOP senators, from Mike Lee (R–Utah) to Susan Collins (R–Maine), have walked a similar line in their own statements on the president’s election lawsuits.
Less careful and more damaging to the perceived legitimacy of the election is the letter issued by Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R–Ga.) and David Perdue (R–Ga.) calling on Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to resign for failing to “deliver honest and transparent elections” in a state that Trump appears to have very narrowly lost. A recount there is all but assured.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel both leveled meritless accusations of widespread voter fraud and election irregularities at a press conference yesterday.
As Reason‘s Jacob Sullum wrote last week, Trump’s accusations that he’s the real winner of the election should be understood as an effort to save his own ego, even if it won’t save his presidency. The decisions of White House staffers to delay the transition process, or to look into accusations of voter fraud, until the president’s lawsuits and recount requests have run their course, should be viewed in the same light.
That falls short of wholesale acceptance of the fraud narrative, and doesn’t rise to the level of an attempted “coup.” It nevertheless represents a prioritization of Trump’s own hurt feelings over the smooth transition of power. That’s plenty bad, even if it doesn’t destroy democracy as we know it.