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I had hoped that the days when the news came like a firehose were over, but so far, no luck.
On Monday, the stock market jumped 1200 points in its first day of trading after the announcement of Joe Biden’s victory. Over the course of the day it was up as much as 1600 points, then ended for the day with the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 834.57 points, or 2.95%.
The strong market is at least in part because pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the German drug company BioNTech announced that they have a coronavirus vaccine which appears to be about 90% effective. The Trump administration immediately tried to take credit for the vaccine, only to have Pfizer note that it has not taken federal money under Trump’s Operation Warp Speed for rushing a coronavirus vaccine.
Don Jr. promptly suggested that the delay in announcing the potential vaccine until this week was designed to hurt Trump’s continuing bid for reelection, but it seems Pfizer is likely distancing itself from Trump to avoid any suggestion that the vaccine is about politics, rather than science. In the past, the administration has touted a number of treatments for Covid-19 that have turned out to be ineffective, and the pressure for a vaccine before the election threatened to weaken public faith in one.
The pandemic continues to worsen across the country. This week we also learned that Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has tested positive for the virus; so has David Bossie, the Trump adviser in charge of the campaign’s legal challenges to the election loss. Both men were at the election night watch party at the White House, along with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who was infected at the time and did not wear a mask. Aides told PBS NewsHour reporter Yamiche Alcindor that they were worried the event would be a superspreader, but felt pressured to attend.
President-elect Biden started his presidential transition today: he began by announcing the makeup of his coronavirus task force. It’s an impressive group of doctors and scientists, including Dr. Rick Bright, a whistleblower fired by Trump officials. “Please, I implore you, wear a mask,” Biden told Americans. “A mask is not a political statement…. The goal is to get back to normal as fast as possible.”
New leadership and the rising infection rates are shifting the conversation. Utah’s Republican Governor Gary Herbert announced a state of emergency. He has imposed an indefinite statewide mask mandate and a ban on social gatherings outside of households for the next two weeks. He has limited extracurricular activities at schools. Businesses that don’t follow the mask mandate can be fined; organizers who ignore the social gathering rule can be prosecuted and fined up to $10,000.
Not everyone likes the idea of new leadership, though. In an unprecedented move, Trump refused to acknowledge that he has lost the election last weekend. He has launched lawsuits challenging the ballot counting in a number of states, and his surrogates—including White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany—are accusing the Democrats of cheating. Attorney General William Barr legitimized the idea of voter fraud by permitting federal prosecutors to investigate such allegations. Barr’s move prompted the head of the Election Crimes Branch of the Department of Justice, Richard Pilger, to resign.
But what’s so weird about this is that they are losing all these lawsuits. Indeed, some of them they’re not even trying to win: for example, not bothering to fill out the correct paperwork. It seems clear that they are simply stoking the narrative of an unfair election, but it is not at all clear to me to what end.
It is certainly possible that Trump and his people are launching a coup, as observers warn. And yet, this would not be an easy task. Biden’s win is not a few votes here or there: it is commanding, and Trump’s aides are privately telling reporters they think the game is played out. The military has already said it wants no part of getting involved in the election, and the courts so far are siding against the administration entirely. Even key Republican leaders, such as Georgia’s Republican lieutenant governor, are denying there has been any problem with the vote.
Maybe what’s at stake is that last week’s election left control of the Senate hanging on two runoff elections in Georgia. Today the Republican candidates in those races tagged on to the cries of voter fraud to call for Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign. Raffensberger is the top elections official in the state. He is a Republican. There is no evidence of any irregularity in the 2020 Georgia election, and the two senators did not offer any. But if they can get Democratic votes thrown out, Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler might avoid the runoffs that look like they might well result in Democratic victories.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is determined to keep control of the Senate, and ginning up a conviction that the election was rigged could do that. McConnell defended Trump’s challenging of the election today, although he did not explicitly say he believed the election had been fraudulent. Trump’s attacks are working: new polling shows that 7 out of 10 Republican voters now think that the 2020 election was illegitimate. Barr met with McConnell before he signed onto the idea of voter fraud by announcing that federal prosecutors could go after it.
Still, while control of the Senate is likely driving McConnell, it seems highly unlikely that Trump cares about it. Perhaps the president is simply deep in a narcissistic rage, unable to face the idea of losing.
But there is something else niggling at me.
Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Biden’s win means that the current administration is denying him the right to see the President’s Daily Briefing (the PDB) which explains the biggest security threats facing the country and the latest intelligence information. Trump can keep Biden from seeing other classified information, too.
Monday, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper (by announcing the firing on Twitter), and replaced him with a loyalist, Christopher C. Miller, who will be “acting” only. Trump also selected a loyalist and Republican political operative, Michael Ellis, to become the general counsel at the National Security Agency, our top spy agency, over the wishes of intelligence officials. Ellis was the chief counsel to Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA), a staunch Trump loyalist. Trump is also reportedly considering firing FBI director Christopher Wray and CIA director Gina Haspel. Last week, he quietly fired the leaders of the agencies that oversee our nuclear weapons, international aid, and electricity and natural gas regulation, although the last of those officials was moved to a different spot in the administration.
In other words, Trump is cleaning out the few national security leaders who were not complete lackeys and replacing them with people who are. It’s funny timing for such a shake-up, especially one that will destabilize the country, making us more vulnerable.
Washington Post diplomacy and national security reporter John Hudson has noted that a source told him that the “Trump administration just gave Congress formal notification for a massive arms transfer to the United Arab Emirates: 50 F-35s, 18 MQ-9 Reapers with munitions; a $10 billion munitions package including thousands of Mk 82 dumb bombs, guided bombs, missiles & more….” This deal comes two months after the administration’s Abraham Accord normalizing relations between Israel and the UAE opened the way for arms sales.
The UAE has wanted the F-35 for years; it is the world’s most advanced fighter jet. They cost about $100 million apiece. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has secretly been pushing for the sale of the arms to the UAE in the face of fierce opposition by government agencies and lawmakers.
The administration had announced a much smaller version of this deal at the end of October, in a sale that would amount to about $10 billion, but Congress worried about the weaponry falling into the hands of China or Russia and seemed unlikely to let the sale happen. In 2019, it stopped such a deal. Trump declared a national emergency in order to go around Congress and sell more than $8 billion of weapons to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. He later fired Steven Linick, the State Department’s inspector general looking into those sales, but when the IG’s report came out nonetheless, it was scathing, suggesting that they put the U.S. at risk of being prosecuted for war crimes.
When you remember that Trump’s strong suit has always been distraction, and that he has always used the presidency as a money-making venture, I wonder if we need to factor those characteristics in when we think about his unprecedented and dangerous refusal to admit he has lost this election.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter: subscribe for free here.