Can He Pull This Off?

The President Has Only Nuclear Options Left

On December 14th, state officials will gather to approve either a Democratic or Republican slate of electors for their state. Historically, the states simply adopt the slate of electors offered by the party that won their state.

If all goes according to law and custom, slates representing 306 Electoral College votes will be awarded to Joe Biden, 232 to Donald Trump. A candidate, of course, needs 270 to win.

There was a joke going around that the only way Donald Trump would get to 270 is if he lost 50 pounds.

But theres yet another way. It is, experts say, a long shot, something like drawing an inside straight. Then again, who thought the long shot Donald Trump could win in the first place or that the moral foundations under our judicial, legislative, executive and even behavioral norms could get this squishy this fast?

First, a note about process. Each party in each state selects electors pledged to a party’s presidential nominee. If the party’s nominee wins the state’s vote, the winning party’s slate goes to the capital-letter State to be capital-letter “Certified” and ready to be counted.

A Pennsylvania elector holds her ballot for President-elect Donald Trump before casting it in December 2016. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Left unsaid is who certifies the slate of Electors. It’s typically governors, 26 of whom are Republicans at the moment. Governors sometimes have passed certifications on to their state legislatures, where Republicans have majorities in 33 of the country’s 50 states. They enjoy a “trifecta” in 21 states, meaning they control both legislative chambers and the governorship.

On November 12th, the New York Times reported that Trump had asked advisors “whether Republican legislatures could pick pro-Trump electors in a handful of key states and deliver him the electoral votes he needs to change the math and give him a second term.”

That notion originated with Fox talk show host Sean Hannity, who is good at planting dark ideas in Republican hearts. Other conservatives followed, as did Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. In Pennsylvania, Republicans asked Governor Tom Wolf (a Democrat) to delay certifying results.

Their motives may be as social as political. Being some sort of loose-lipped rebel against an oppressive “deep state” is high fashion in Republican circles these days. Being “politically incorrect” essentially establishes one’s populist credentials and puts them in the company of conservative stars. Grabbing victory from November’s defeat would etch the rebels’ names in party history.

Should all Republican state legislatures in Biden states certify their own slates of electors, Donald Trump would end up with 313 votes, and get to unpack his bags.

People who know these things believe the chances of that happening are nil, perhaps just as unlikely as Republicans refusing to interview a Supreme Court nominee in 2016 or consider an indictment in 2019 or look the other way when subpoenas are ignored, domestic terrorism is unheeded, sycophants are pardoned, Muslims are banned, Executive departments are gutted, Postal Services are gamed, environments are compromised and, say, a plague runs loose across the country. Inconceivable, of course.

Many of the imagined routes to the Republic’s end are more creative than this one. I offer it mostly in the name of seeing if I can give myself a heart attack. But it has cropped up in reputedly sober offices, including the Oval one.

A long line of generally nefarious people has recommended that repeating a lie turns it into a fact. Among them, Adolf Hitler advised that “only after the simplest ideas are repeated thousands of times will the masses finally remember them.”

Disinformation moves considerably faster these days. So it is that, after daily tweets and rallies alleging fraud, 70% of Republicans now believe the 2020 election was not “free and fair.” Seventy-eight percent blame mail-in voting, a convenience never distrusted before last February. A November 9th Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 72% of Republicans thought there’d been ballot tampering. Majorities of Republicans in swing states thought the results were unreliable. In the annals of public suasion, this amounts to pop-up mass delusion.

Repeat it, and they will come. [Jim Urquhart/ Reuters]

Reassuringly, few believe that whole legislatures would or could turn away from the will of the people. GOP legislators and election officials in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia told the New York Times they’d seen no signs that their colleagues would intervene in Electoral College votes.

Even the advisors Trump asked about substituting pro-Trump electors for the electors Biden won reportedly doubted the president was serious.

In an interview on the Political Gabfest podcast on November 13th Nathan Persily, the James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford, was similarly dubious but he did think the Administration’s blizzard of lawsuits challenging vote counts was part of a strategy. “The long game here or even the medium-term game seems to be to delay the certifications in several of these states so that it may create an environment in which the state legislatures may act.” He figured it would take three of the swing states to even start a negotiation about overturning the election.

On the other hand, if the six states that have Democratic-controlled legislatures held to the will of their voters, the president’s Electoral College count would shrink by 71, leaving him with 242 votes. He’d still be short of the winner’s circle, perhaps a reason to put one imagined coup behind us.

Even if he does leave, the president is said to be deciding when to announce he’ll run again in 2024.

So take heart, fellow skeptics: The president’s purge at the Pentagon and Intelligence services and moving loyalists into key positions must mean something. Civil unrest, real or imagined or provoked, could “force” the president to declare martial law and delay the inauguration. So could COVID-19. Controlling it requires a strong hand, even a temporary suspension of habeas corpus. And then the Republic ends.

Author, Paradigms Lost: the life & deaths of the printed word; A Small Treason (out summer, 2021)

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