‘An Indelible Stain’: How the G.O.P. Tried to Topple a Pillar of Democracy

The Supreme Court repudiation of President Trump’s desperate bid for a second term not only shredded his effort to overturn the will of voters: It also was a blunt rebuke to Republican leaders in Congress and the states who were willing to damage American democracy by embracing a partisan power grab over a free and fair election.

The court’s decision on Friday night, an inflection point after weeks of legal flailing by Mr. Trump and ahead of the Electoral College vote for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Monday, leaves the president’s party in an extraordinary position. Through their explicit endorsements or complicity of silence, much of the G.O.P. leadership now shares responsibility for the quixotic attempt to ignore the nation’s founding principles and engineer a different verdict from the one voters cast on Election Day.

Many regular Republicans supported this effort, too — a sign that Mr. Trump has not just bent the party to his will, but pressed a mainstay of American politics for nearly two centuries into the service of overturning an election outcome and assaulting public faith in the electoral system. The G.O.P. sought to undo the vote by such spurious means that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court quickly rejected the argument.

Even some Republican leaders delivered a withering assessment of the 126 G.O.P. House members and 18 attorneys general who chose to side with Mr. Trump over the democratic process, by backing a lawsuit that asked the Supreme Court to throw out some 20 million votes in four key states that cemented the president’s loss.

“The act itself by the 126 members of the United States House of Representatives, is an affront to the country,” said Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “It’s an offense to the Constitution and it leaves an indelible stain that will be hard for these 126 members to wipe off their political skin for a long time to come.”

Speaking on CNN on Friday, Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, a Republican, said, “What happened with the Supreme Court, that’s kind of it, where they’ve kind of exhausted all the legal challenges; we’ve got to move on.” It was time, he said, for Congress to “actually do something for the American people, surrounding the vaccines, surrounding Covid.”

With direct buy-in from senior officials like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and the Republican leader in House, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the president’s effort required the party to promote false theory upon unsubstantiated claim upon outright lie about unproved, widespread fraud — in an election that Republican and Democratic election officials agreed was notably smooth given the challenges of the pandemic.

And it meant that Republican leaders now stand for a new notion: that the final decisions of voters can be challenged without a basis in fact if the results are not to the liking of the losing side, running counter to decades of work by the United States to convince developing nations that peaceful transfers of power are key to any freely elected government’s credibility.

“From a global perspective this certainly looks like many of the cases we’ve seen around the world where an incumbent tries to hold onto power,’’ said Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, a Washington-based group that promotes democracy abroad with support from both parties.

Though the decisions by the Supreme Court and other courts meant that in the end, American “institutions have held strong,’’ he added, “there’s no question that people around the world are now looking to America and it’s really important for Americans of all parties to stand up for the rule of law and for democracy.”

Republicans who have resisted Mr. Trump’s campaign agreed, predicting that the party was risking its own destruction.

“I keep comparing it somewhat to Jonestown,” said former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman of New Jersey, referring to the cult that ended in a tragic mass suicide. “They’ve all drunk the Kool Aid. It just hasn’t killed them yet.”

Following the court decision, one of the 126 House Republicans who backed the lawsuit, Representative Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, said that the court’s decision meant the end of Mr. Trump’s efforts and “closed the books on challenges to the 2020 election results.”

Democrats took heart in the court’s decision in the case filed by the Republican attorney general of Texas, one of several dozen that judges have soundly rejected on legal or factual bases, even if more suits are certain to come ahead of Mr. Biden’s inauguration on January 20.

“Our democracy has withstood Donald Trump for four years,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees election law. “It can withstand these baseless lawsuits for four more weeks.”

But civil rights attorneys saw the potential for long-lasting damage outside of the legal realm where the Republican efforts — and the lie that Mr. Biden’s win was the result of widespread fraud — have so definitively failed.

“There is an anti-democratic virus that has spread in mainstream Republicanism, among mainstream Republican elected officials,” said Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the A.C.L.U. “And that loss of faith in the machinery of democracy is a much bigger problem than any individual lawsuit.”

Indeed, after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Texas Republican Party effectively called for secession by red states whose attorneys general joined in the Texas suit.

“Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the Constitution,” the statement read. It followed an observation Rush Limbaugh made earlier in the week, when he said, “I actually think that we’re trending toward secession.”

The mention of secession came during a week in which election officials across the country, from both political parties, said they had become the subjects of menacing threats of violence, including to family members, for standing by Mr. Biden’s victory.

A website of unknown provenance that caught the attention of law enforcement appeared to promote a hit list of mostly Republican officials who had resisted Mr. Trump’s demands to overturn an election he lost, listing their personal information and imposing red cross hairs over their pictures.

Mr. Trump made it clear that the Supreme Court decision would not slow a post-campaign campaign, the futility of which has dampened neither its ferocity nor its pertinacity. His spokeswoman, Kayleigh McEnany, said on Fox News that the justices “dodged” and “refused to use their authority to enforce the Constitution.”

Hours before the court made its decision public the Trump campaign released two ads repeating allegations that courts had rejected, indicating it would continue to pressure elected Republican officials to somehow reverse Mr. Trump’s political fate. “Demand an honest election and an honest count, contact your legislators today,” one ad exhorted. (The campaign claimed that the ads would begin airing on cable television on Saturday morning, but at least one ad tracking firm said they had not seen any reservations made as of Friday night.)

There is one inescapable reality that is driving many party leaders to embrace the president’s position, as antithetical as it is to democracy. “Donald Trump is still the 800 pound gorilla in the Republican room — he’s the biggest gravitational force that’s probably ever existed in the party,” said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of the conservative network Newsmax.

Mr. Trump’s popular vote tally of 74 million would have been the largest in American history had Mr. Biden not outdone him by seven million votes. And, Mr. Ruddy noted, “Republican voters are up in arms, they feel this election was not fairly accounted for.”

Mr. Ruddy’s network has something to do with that; it has gained on the behemoth of conservative television, Fox News, by heavily promoting Mr. Trump’s voter-fraud allegations. In doing so Newsmax has helped set off a competition with Fox News’s more strident hosts, as well as those of the smaller conservative channel One America News, to give Mr. Trump and his voters what they want: A counter to the reality that Mr. Trump soon will be leaving office.

Whatever their primary sources of information, Republicans overwhelmingly view the election as fatally flawed; a Quinnipiac University poll released on Thursday found that only 23 percent of registered Republican voters — and slightly less than half of all white men who are registered to vote — said they believed Mr. Biden’s victory was legitimate.

Those doubters do not represent a majority of Americans; 60 percent of registered voters overall said they accepted the results. But they form the core of the Republican base, and the party’s leaders have proven continually unwilling to go against them — especially with a critical runoff looming in Georgia that will determine partisan control of the Senate.

Even after Mr. Trump’s loss, catering to the wishes of Republican voters has meant aping the president’s own paranoid style of politics by clinging to supposed examples of fraud even after they have been debunked in court.

For instance, last month Mr. Graham said during an interview on “Fox & Friends” that a signature verification machine in Clark County, Nevada, which encompasses Las Vegas, was used improperly to accept “every signature whether it was fraudulent or not.” In the same interview, he shared an allegation that people in the county were spotted filling out fraudulent ballots on “a Biden/Harris truck.”

Those allegations were contained in a lawsuit Republicans filed in the state. Last week a judge found that the signature machine in question had, in fact, sent 70 percent of the signatures it scanned back to election workers for human verification. “The record does not support” allegations that the machine “accepted signatures that should have been rejected,” wrote the judge, James T. Russell. Similarly, he ruled, a witness account about false ballots filled out on a Biden/Harris vehicle was “not credible.”

On Friday, a spokesman for Mr. Graham declined to address those findings and said the senator “continues to have grave concerns about the expanded use of mail in ballots.”

In a hearing about the 2020 election in Wisconsin led by statehouse Republicans on Friday, witnesses suggested the state faced election interference from the dead dictators Hugo Chavez and Joseph Stalin, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Kanye West.

Some of the claims were similar to conspiracy theories contained in suits filed by a conservative lawyer, Sidney Powell, whose attempts to overturn the election results have been regularly rejected by judges. One wrote that a case she brought on behalf of Republican plaintiffs seemed to have been “more about the impact of their allegations on people’s faith in the democratic process” as well as “trust in our government.”

Tom Rath, a former Republican attorney general of New Hampshire, who endorsed Mr. Biden and opposed his party’s effort at the Supreme Court, lamented what seemed to be political incentives within his party to shake that trust. “It’s very unfortunate,’’ he said, “that some people tried to live off that chaos, perpetuate it and make it even more difficult for the average citizen to trust what government’s doing.”

Mr. Rath, who advised the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, added, “We’re in a very bad place as a party.’’

Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting from Washington and Giovanni Russonello from New York.

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