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Trump’s election legal strategy is all but doomed, but still could damage American democracy, experts say

On Thursday, Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for President Trump, presented normal parts of the election process — like fixing mail ballots’ missing signatures — as fraudulent.
On Thursday, Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for President Trump, presented normal parts of the election process — like fixing mail ballots’ missing signatures — as fraudulent.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — First, President Trump lost the Nov. 3 election.

Then, his lawyers lost in court as they tried to allege fraud and irregularities — over and over and over again.

Now, Trump’s throw-it-all-at-the-wall strategy has apparently morphed into a brazen attempt to use his power as president to overturn Joe Biden’s victory. The effort seems to be aimed as much at fueling unwarranted doubts about election integrity among Trump’s supporters and soothing his ego as it does at actually preserving his presidency.

The audacious endeavor, which yielded a Friday White House meeting with Republican lawmakers from Michigan, appears all but doomed. Still, it is an unprecedented attempt to undermine the will of voters that could leave lasting scars on democracy, according to constitutional experts and former elected officials.

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“Trump is like the kid who’s been told he can’t join the basketball game, who grabs the basketball and sticks a knife in it to deflate it,” said Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey. “It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.”

Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 6 million votes and his 232 projected electoral votes are well behind Biden’s 306. But Trump and his allies have claimed that he would have won the election if not for massive voter fraud — although they have been unable to offer a shred of evidence proving that claim.

He has dispatched lawyers, including Rudy Giuliani, to fight losing battles in court. On Tuesday, he fired Christopher Krebs, an official with the Department of Homeland Security who oversaw election security and who publicly disputed Trump’s claims that the election was compromised.

In Michigan, which Trump lost by 155,000 votes, he personally called a Republican member of the board of canvassers in Wayne County, which contains Detroit, who on Tuesday initially refused to certify the results there, according to the Detroit Free Press.

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And on Thursday, Giuliani and other members of Trump’s legal team gave a surreal press conference about their claims. As dark liquid leaked from his hair, Giuliani presented normal parts of the election process — like fixing mail ballots’ missing signatures — as fraudulent and made odd references to the film “My Cousin Vinny.”

Another member of the team, Sidney Powell, claimed inaccurately that Trump had won by a “landslide.”

And that was before it became clear that legal filings in one of the Trump team’s cases had confused the states of Minnesota and Michigan.

“It’s beyond regrettable, it’s not presidential — it’s un-American,” said Tom Ridge, a Republican and the former governor of Pennsylvania. “He’s questioning and undermining the most basic and valued institution in our country, and that’s the legitimacy of our vote.”

If Trump’s only goal is to sow doubt, he is succeeding: A Monmouth University poll found 77 percent of Trump’s supporters believe Biden won because of fraud.

If he is trying to throw a wrench in the election machinery, success is less assured. States are working to certify their results, a process that each state has to complete by Dec. 8. Then, on Dec. 14, each state’s electors will meet to award their votes to the candidate who won their state.

It is possible that Trump and his allies see some hope for their efforts if they can persuade battleground state Republicans to send the results from competing slates of electors to Washington — something that happened in the chaos of the contested election of 1876.

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But the Michigan Republicans who met with Trump poured cold water on the idea they would take such a step.

“The candidates who win the most votes win elections and Michigan’s electoral votes,” said Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield in a joint statement released Friday.

Meanwhile, the gears of certification were grinding forward without Trump. On Friday afternoon, Georgia certified the results of its election, which saw Biden become the first Democrat since 1992 to win the state, with a lead of some 12,000 votes.

Trump’s antics have drawn increased condemnation from Biden and members of his transition team, who still are unable to access much of what they need to move the presidential transition forward.

“We have to be deeply disturbed about what he’s doing, while at the same time remaining mindful that he cannot succeed,” Bob Bauer, a campaign adviser to Biden, said Friday during a press call to refute the president’s claims.

It has also alarmed the people who spend their days monitoring elections in other countries, like Avery Davis-Roberts, the associate director of the Democracy Program at the Carter Center, who has been involved with election observation missions around the world.

“The erosion of trust in the honesty of our elections over the last several years, escalating in the last months and weeks, is very concerning,” Davis-Roberts wrote in an e-mail.

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Democracy experts believe that even Trump’s failing lawsuits carry long-term risk for the country.

“This is not really about winning in court. It’s about using America’s courtrooms to seed myths, to spread disinformation,” said Joshua A. Geltzer, the executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy at Georgetown University.

“The message that’s being sent this week and over the last couple of weeks is the loser doesn’t have to accept the result of the election and can try to delegitimize it,” said Lawrence Norden, of the Brennan Center for Justice. “That’s something we haven’t seen in modern history.”

Advocates of voting rights raise another concern about the impact of Trump’s rhetoric: His claims could add more fuel to the years-long Republican push to establish new voting restrictions, ostensibly under the guise of stopping fraud and shoring up trust in the system.

In Georgia, for example, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Friday proposed requiring proof of identification with voters’ absentee ballots, even though he also said there has been no evidence of widespread fraud.

“Georgia doesn’t need much of a pretext to try to make voting harder,” said Andrea Young, the executive director of the ACLU of Georgia. “We have to fight very hard in the Georgia Legislature, in every session, to prevent further restrictions on the right to vote.”

Those restrictions, she said, disproportionately affect Black voters and other voters of color.

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A key determinant of the long-term impact of the president’s rhetoric, experts said, is whether members of his own party step up to condemn it.

“They’re going to have to look America in the eye and explain how they let this rogue individual come into our house, the GOP, and utterly wreck it,” said Michael Steele, a former chair of the RNC who endorsed Biden this year.

Some Republicans, including Senators Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, have condemned Trump’s actions.

“It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting president,” Romney said in a tweet Thursday night.

A growing number of Republicans, like Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, are calling on Trump to at least allow Biden’s transition to begin, but party leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have stayed on the sidelines.

Despite all his efforts, Trump himself seemed to acknowledge Friday that someone else might be in charge of the future of new drug pricing regulations his administration just rolled out.

“I just hope they keep it,” he said.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.