U.S. President Donald Trump sought to leverage the power of the Oval Office on Friday in an extraordinary attempt to block president-elect Joe Biden’s victory as criticism mounted that his futile efforts to subvert the results of the 2020 election could do long-lasting damage to democratic traditions.
Trump summoned a delegation of Republican lawmakers from Michigan, including the state’s Senate majority leader and House speaker, in an apparent extension of his efforts to persuade judges and election officials in the state to set aside Biden’s 154,000-vote margin of victory and grant him the state’s electors.
Those lawmakers later confirmed they will still follow election laws in their state and award the electors to the winner of the popular vote.
Trump’s efforts to override the public’s will extended to other battleground states that Biden carried as well. It all added up to an unprecedented attempt by a sitting president to maintain his grasp on power, or in failure, to delegitimize his opponent’s victory in the eyes of his army of supporters.
Rick Hasen, an election law expert and professor who has been meticulously chronicling the 2020 race, wrote that there would be “rioting” in the streets if an effort was made to set aside the vote in Michigan, calling it tantamount to an attempted coup.
“We should worry because this is profoundly antidemocratic and is delegitimizing the victory of Joe Biden in a free and fair election,” Hasen wrote on his blog. “It is profoundly depressing we still have to discuss this. But it is extremely unlikely to lead to any different result for president.”
In a joint statement after the White House meeting, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield said allegations of fraud should be investigated, but indicated they were unmoved by Trump’s claims thus far. “We have not yet been made aware of any information that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan and as legislative leaders, we will follow the law and follow the normal process regarding Michigan’s electors, just as we have said throughout this election.”
“The candidates who win the most votes win elections and Michigan’s electoral votes,” they added, saying they used the meeting with Trump to press him for more pandemic aid money for their state.
The president on Friday again falsely claimed victory, declaring as an aside during a White House announcement on drug pricing, “I won, by the way, but you know, we’ll find that out.”
Trump’s roughly hourlong meeting Friday with the Michigan legislators came days after he personally called two local canvass board officials who had refused to certify the results in Wayne County, Michigan’s most populous county and one that overwhelmingly favoured Biden. The two GOP officials eventually agreed to certify the results. But following Trump’s call, they said they had second thoughts.
The Board of State Canvassers is to meet Monday to certify the statewide outcome and it was unclear whether Republican members of that panel would similarly balk.
Some Trump allies have expressed hope that state lawmakers could intervene in selecting Republican electors, as the president and his attorneys have pushed baseless allegations of fraud that have been repeatedly rejected in courtrooms across the country. It was with that in mind that Trump invited the Michigan legislators. He was also said to be considering extending a similar invitation to lawmakers from Pennsylvania.
“The president could be calling Republican legislators and others to the White House to try and squeeze them,” tweeted former Trump national security adviser John Bolton. “Republicans at all levels — state, county, election boards, legislatures — must resist this political pressure.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that the meeting with Michigan officials was “not an advocacy meeting” and insisted Trump “routinely meets with lawmakers from across the country.” But such meetings are in fact rare, particularly as Trump has maintained a low profile since the election.
As he departed Detroit for Washington on Friday morning, Shirkey was swarmed by activists bearing signs that read: “Respect the Vote” and “Protect Democracy.”
Chatfield tweeted before the meeting with Trump: “No matter the party, when you have an opportunity to meet with the President of the United States, of course you take it. I won’t apologize for that.”
Trump’s effort to set aside the Michigan vote was sure to fail. Experts on Michigan election law said the Michigan Board of State Canvassers’ authority was limited in scope.
“Their duties are to receive the canvass and certify the canvass, that’s it,” said John Pirich, a former assistant attorney general who teaches at Michigan State University Law School. “They have absolutely no power to investigate allegations, theories or any half-brained kind of arguments that are being thrown around.”
The Michigan Legislature would be called on to select electors if Trump succeeded in convincing the board not to certify the results.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could seek a court order forcing board members to certify the election and could remove those who refused, said Steve Liedel, another election attorney.
Trump’s play for Michigan was among a series of last-ditch tactics in battleground states that his team is using to challenge his defeat. They also have suggested in a legal challenge that Pennsylvania set aside the popular vote there and pressured county officials in Arizona to delay certifying vote tallies. There have been multiple lawsuits in battleground states that have failed so far to reverse any votes.
In two Democratic-leaning counties in Wisconsin that are recounting votes, Trump’s campaign sought to discard tens of thousands of absentee ballots that it alleged should not have been counted.
The objections were twice denied by the three-member Dane County Board of Canvassers on bipartisan votes. Trump was expected to make the same objections in Milwaukee County ahead of a court challenge once the recount concludes.
Former Bush administration official Christine Todd Whitman called Trump’s efforts “the actions of a third-world dictator. It is not who we are as Americans, and we do not want the public coming away from this thinking this is the norm. There is no basis for trying to overturn this.”
The increasingly desperate and erratic moves by Trump and his allies have no reasonable chance of changing the outcome of the 2020 election, in which Biden has now received more votes than any other presidential candidate in history and has clinched the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win.
Some Republicans have embraced Trump’s faulty narrative and are helping him spread it. In Georgia, where a hand audit found Biden had still won, Gov. Brian Kemp said a court order made it so he had to certify the results. But he suggested Trump demand a recount and wanted answers to the alleged “irregularities.”
In Minnesota, a state that Biden won handily, some GOP officials are now raising concerns over “data abnormalities.”
Biden legal adviser Bob Bauer said Trump’s efforts were harmful to democracy.
“It’s an abuse of office,” he said. “It’s an open attempt to intimidate election officials, it’s absolutely appalling. … It’s also pathetic.”
Eggert reported from Lansing. Associated Press writers John Flesher in Detroit, Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston, Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta, Alexandra Jaffe in Wilmington and Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix contributed to this report.