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This week, the team of Democratic senators working on a voting rights measure that could meet the demands of conservative Democratic West Virginia senator Joe Manchin released their bill. The 592-page document is described as a bill “to expand Americans’ access to the ballot box and reduce the influence of big money in politics, and for other purposes.” Led by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), the senators have called their effort the “Freedom to Vote Act.”
This new measure is a pared-down version of the For the People Act passed by the House earlier this year before being blocked by Republicans in the Senate. It makes it easier to vote, allowing for automatic voter registration and mail-in voting. It protects the voting rights of minorities and establishes what forms of identification can be required for voter IDs. It makes Election Day a federal holiday and protects election workers from partisan pressure. The bill also tries to slow the flood of “dark money” from undisclosed sources into campaigns and bans partisan gerrymandering.
Senate Democrats could not pass the measure without significant changes to make it acceptable to Manchin, and he has worked to craft this new measure that he has argued—without public evidence—will attract Republican votes. His hope is to pass the bill with the ten Republican votes necessary to override a filibuster. If those votes are not forthcoming, he and the rest of the Democrats will have to confront the reality that they must preserve either the right of Americans to vote—the centerpiece of our democracy—or the filibuster.
After the bill was released, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) promptly announced that Republicans would not support It. He says there’s no reason for the federal government to be “taking over how we conduct elections in this country.” This prompted Princeton historian Kevin Kruse to note that the Senate renewed the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2006 by a vote of 98–0, and to suggest that Republicans have significantly revised their definition of federal overreach in the last 15 years.
The protection of voting rights seems more vital than ever today, as excerpts from a new book by veteran journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa revealed just how precarious the last days of the Trump presidency were. The portrait they reveal is of a man so desperate to retain his hold on the presidency that those around him thought he was mentally unhinged, while they also tried to do what he wanted so they wouldn’t upset him.
Trump tried hard to convince then–Vice President Mike Pence not to certify the electoral college votes from the states. Pence tried to oblige him, eventually turning to former Vice President Dan Quayle, who had served in the George H. W. Bush administration, to see if there was any way he could do what Trump asked. According to Woodward and Costa, Pence repeatedly asked Quayle if there was anything he could do. Quayle answered: “Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away.”
But Trump didn’t want to take no for an answer. When Pence refused, Trump allegedly told him: “I don’t want to be your friend anymore if you don’t do this.” He later told the vice president: “You’ve betrayed us. I made you. You were nothing.”
The account casts Pence’s role in the January 6 insurrection in a new light.
The book also says that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, was so worried that Trump’s mental state around the time of the election would lead him to attack China that twice Milley called his Chinese counterpart Li Zuocheng secretly to assure him that the U.S. would not launch a surprise attack. Milley was not the only one worried about the president: when Trump refused to concede the election, CIA Director Gina Haspel allegedly told Milley, “We are on the way to a right-wing coup. The whole thing is insanity. He is acting out like a six-year-old with a tantrum.” Haspel worried Trump might attack Iran.
Milley also allegedly told top military commanders that they should involve him if then-president Trump ordered a nuclear strike. That conversation was in part a reaction to a phone call with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), two days after the assault on the Capitol, in which the Speaker demanded to know: “What precautions are available to prevent an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or from accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike?”
When Milley tried to reassure her, she continued: “What I’m saying to you is that if they couldn’t even stop him from an assault on the Capitol, who even knows what else he may do? And is there anybody in charge at the White House who was doing anything but kissing his fat butt all over this?”
“He’s crazy. You know he’s crazy,” Pelosi said, according to a transcript of the call Woodward and Costa saw. “He’s crazy and what he did yesterday is further evidence of his craziness.” Milley replied to the House Speaker: “I agree with you on everything.”
The picture the book excerpts paint of Trump is of an unhinged man screaming obscenities at his advisers, unwilling to accept limits to his power. The book also highlights the role of Steve Bannon, who urged Trump to fight the January 6 counting of the ballots.
We also learned today that Trump’s own senior advisers were warning as early as February 2020 that the nation was dangerously unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, even as Trump was publicly saying the administration’s response to the crisis had been “pretty amazing.” A House committee is discovering information about that response from messages retrieved from the personal email accounts the advisers used.
The revelations about the former president, along with the efforts of administration and military leaders to either support or thwart him, highlight just how close the nation came to a disaster, and that the danger continues. But preventing that danger was never Milley’s responsibility alone. The Constitution provides two safeguards against an unstable leader who might, for example, launch a war simply to keep himself in power. One is the 25th Amendment, which provides an emergency mechanism for removing a dangerous president, but while there was talk of using that amendment to remove Trump after January 6, the amendment’s reliance on presidential appointees to trigger it meant that this particular president would not be threatened with removal in that way.
The other safeguard is the power of impeachment and removal from office upon conviction. Democrats did try to impeach and remove Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in early 2020 over the Ukraine scandal, only to have Senate Republicans stand firmly behind their president and vote to acquit.
The party’s association with Trump and his ilk did not help it in today’s recall election in California. As of 11:00 pm California time, voters rejected the recall of Democratic governor Gavin Newsom by more than 66%. In thanking his supporters, Newsom claimed his victory showed that voters said yes to science, vaccines, “ending this pandemic,” “people’s right to vote without fear,” a woman’s “fundamental constitutional right to decide for herself what she does with her body”; yes to diversity, inclusion, pluralism, economic justice, social justice, racial justice, and environmental justice. Californians—and Americans, Newsom said—are making choices.
Newsom’s Republican challenger has already claimed his loss was due to voter fraud.
That claim highlights the crucial difference between voter fraud and election fraud. Republicans are using the claim of voter fraud—the idea of individual corrupt voters—to launch election fraud, the overturning of a free and fair election. While voter fraud is vanishingly rare, the voter suppression measures passed by Republican-dominated states mean that election fraud is looming and likely… unless Congress passes the Freedom to Vote Act.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.