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Today’s big story remains the loss of our neighbors to COVID-19. On Wednesday, the official United States death count for 24 hours passed the number of those killed in the 9/11 attacks. On that horrific day in 2001, we lost 2,977 people to four terrorist attacks. On Wednesday, December 9, 2020, official reports showed 3,140 deaths from COVID-19, the highest single-day toll so far.
Hospitals are overwhelmed, our health care workers exhausted.
As the country suffers, Trump has launched a new strategy in his attempt to steal the 2020 election. While he has previously insisted that he actually won, and that his “win” must be recognized, Wednesday morning he tweeted simply, “OVERTURN.” Meanwhile, Republican leaders have consistently ducked the question of Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Joe Biden’s win in the election by saying that the president has a right to challenge an election through legal means. Few of them commented on this new attack on our democracy.
Instead, the Republican attorneys general of seventeen states supported a lawsuit Texas has asked the Supreme Court’s permission to file against Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, a suit that alleges that they violated their own voting processes. A majority of voters in those four states voted for Biden, thus giving him their state’s electoral votes and the presidency. The states that want to sue are all Republican-majority states. They are hoping they can get the Supreme Court to allow them to sue, and that SCOTUS will then agree with their complaint and throw out the votes from those states. Then, the Republican legislatures in these states can choose their own electors and give the win to Trump.
Astonishingly, this argument comes from the party that claims to oppose “judicial activism.”
The states that have declared their support for the Texas lawsuit are Missouri, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and West Virginia. They are essentially asking the Supreme Court to disfranchise the majority in the United States and to let them put a president chosen by a substantial minority of voters in the White House. This assault on American principles is breathtaking.
Trump has also filed a motion to join Texas’s lawsuit in his personal capacity as a presidential candidate. His lawyer says that he “seeks to have the votes cast in the Defendant States unlawfully for his opponent to be deemed invalid.” Wednesday night, at a White House Hanukkah party, Trump told the crowd that with the help of “certain very important people, if they have wisdom and if they have courage, we are going to win this election.” The attendees chanted “four more years.”
Legal experts say this case is a non-starter. University of Texas Law Professor Steve Vladeck writes, “It is lacking in actual evidence; it is deeply cynical; it evinces stunning disrespect for both the role of the courts in our constitutional system and of the states in our elections; and it is doomed to fail.”
But the fact that Republican leaders have accepted, rather than condemned, this attempt to overturn a legitimate election says they are willing to destroy American democracy in order to stay in power. On CNN Wednesday night, former Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican himself, called the lawmakers supporting Trump’s attack on democracy “morally and ethically bankrupt.”
Republicans might be stoking attacks on our electoral system because they know the courts will shut them down. After all, Trump’s lawyers are currently 1-51 in court, and it is unlikely the Supreme Court will take up Texas’s lawsuit. So siding with Trump is a cheap way for leaders to avoid alienating his voters when they will want their loyalty in 2022.
But they are playing a deeply cynical and wildly dangerous game. On Tuesday, the official Twitter account of the Arizona Republican Party asked followers if they were willing to die to overturn the election, then posted a clip from the film Rambo in which the main character threatens someone’s life, saying, “This is what we do, who we are. Live for nothing, or die for something.”
On Wednesday, talk show host Rush Limbaugh told his listeners that they are, in fact, still a majority but they are plagued by “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only) who are selling them out. “I actually think that we’re trending toward secession,” Limbaugh said. “I see more and more people asking what in the world do we have in common with the people who live in, say, New York? What is there that makes us believe that there is enough of us there to even have a chance at winning New York? Especially if you’re talking about votes[.]” (New York City has more people than 40 of the 50 states.) Limbaugh went on: “There cannot be a peaceful coexistence of two completely different theories of life, theories of government, theories of how we manage our affairs. We can’t be in this dire a conflict without something giving somewhere along the way.”
The theme of civil war, and of America tearing itself apart, was one pushed hard by Russian operatives in 2018. On Twitter, “Civil War” trended this week. An actual civil war is highly unlikely, but the unwillingness of leaders to stop this language is already leading to death threats against election officials. The longer they permit it to go on, the worse things will get.
Republicans are working to undermine the incoming Democratic administration in other ways, too. Last week, Attorney General William Barr announced that he appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham as special counsel in October to investigate the FBI agents who worked on the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. While the law about special counsels says they must come from outside the government, Barr claims to have found a loophole in that rule. Durham can be fired only for specific reasons such as conflict of interest or misconduct. Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) applauded the appointment and the continuation of the investigation.
This week Biden’s son Hunter also told the media that he has just learned he is under investigation by the Department of Justice for tax issues, although CNN suggested it is a much wider financial investigation than that, and that it began in 2018. The Justice Department is also investigating a company related to Joe Biden’s brother James. While the DOJ is supposed to be independent of the president, these investigations echo Trump’s own calls for that the Bidens be scrutinized for alleged wrongdoing. Immediately, Representative Ken Buck (R-CO) called for a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden, and tonight, Trump tweeted that “10% of voters would have changed their vote if they knew about Hunter Biden…. But I won anyway!”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) told Fox News Channel personality Laura Ingraham on Wednesday that Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA) should be “removed from Congress” after an Axios report that a Chinese intelligence operative had worked to ingratiate herself with California lawmakers between 2011 and 2015. The operative targeted a number of politicians, including Swalwell, and she fundraised on his behalf, but there is no evidence she broke any laws. In 2015, FBI officers alerted Swalwell, who immediately cut all ties to her. He was never accused of any wrongdoing. The operative left the country unexpectedly during the FBI investigation.
Although the Axios story was about Chinese espionage, right-wing media is aflame with attacks on Swalwell in what seems an attempt to discredit a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Don Jr. tweeted that Swalwell “was literally sleeping with a Chinese spy,” an allegation that is nowhere in the story, although the story mentions that two unidentified Midwestern mayors had affairs with her.
The White House appears to be trying to sabotage the Biden administration not only by keeping the Biden team from the information it needs but also by tying its hands and slowing it down. The day after the election, the Trump administration proposed a new rule requiring the new Department of Health and Human Services appointees to review most of the department’s regulations by 2023. The rule would automatically kill any regulations that haven’t been reviewed by then. This would mean that, just as the new administration is trying to fight the coronavirus, it would be slammed with administrative paperwork. The department’s chief of staff denies that this unusual move is political, saying that a review is necessary because one hasn’t been done for 40 years.
Now that the transition process has finally started, Trump loyalists are blocking meetings or sitting in on them to monitor what is being said, especially at the Environmental Protection Agency. At Voice of America, Trump’s appointed head, Michael Pack, has refused to give make meetings or records available to Biden’s team. For their part, Biden’s transition folks are avoiding fights in order to get whatever information they can.
Republican senators are also signaling that they intend to delay confirmations on Biden’s nominees, although in the past, 95% of Cabinet nominees have had hearings before an inauguration, and 84% of those were approved within three days. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), for example, questioned the experience of Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra. Becerra is the Attorney General of California, and he sat on the House Committee on Ways and Means, which oversees health issues, during his 24 years in Congress. “I don’t know what his Health and Human Services credentials are,” Cornyn told The Hill. It’s not like [Trump’s HHS Secretary] Alex Azar, who worked for pharma and had a health care background.”
Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter: get your subscription here.