Public officials know the type: the angry wackadoodle who develops an obsession with a pet cause — restoring the gold standard, eliminating fluoridated water, getting to the truth about crop circles — and pesters them and their staff with progressively more threatening demands for a meeting.
The twist for Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, is that the conspiracy theorist on his case is the president of the United States, Donald Trump, who is convinced he can finagle Georgia’s electoral votes despite three counts, including one by hand, showing that he lost the state to Joe Biden in the November election.
Trump tried a reported 18 times to speak with Raffensperger, who resisted until finally taking the president’s call on Saturday. The call, which Raffensperger taped, is both outrageous and clarifying: It showed Trump all but asking Raffensperger to fabricate enough votes to tip the state’s election in his favor, and included a vague (and toothless) threat of legal action against Raffensperger if he declined.
Trump, clearly, remains as lawless as ever; when senators failed to remove him after his impeachment last year, they gave the green light to further abuses of power and attacks on the integrity of US democracy. That the president of the United States would cajole a state official to “find” votes, even the specific number he wanted, is probably illegal and certainly despicable.
But the call also made clear just what the president’s remaining defenders in Congress are defending. The president is making Hail Mary efforts to overturn a legitimate election, not protect its integrity.
As for Raffensperger, he had no legal choice but to refuse Trump’s entreaties. But, to his credit, he went a step further, explicitly telling Trump he had no case and that his conspiracy theories about the election were fictions, a truth that too many of the president’s supporters in Congress refuse to deliver. He also turned the tape over to reporters, allowing the public to hear for themselves how the president tried to subvert democracy. (Unlike in Massachusetts, Georgia law does not require both parties on a phone call to consent to taping.) On Monday, Georgia elections official Gabriel Sterling debunked each of the president’s claims from the call in a televised news conference.
Some Democrats have talked about impeaching Trump again — and surely, pressuring a local official to falsify election results is an impeachable crime. With only a few weeks left in his term, though, it would be a largely symbolic act, and there seems to be no chance the Senate would actually remove Trump. Democrats are preparing a censure resolution, which might be a more realistic option.
The best response, though, would be for Trumpist Republicans to back off their planned assault on the election’s outcome in Congress on Wednesday, when the electoral votes are formally counted. They have no chance of succeeding, but they would contribute to the erosion of trust in the integrity of the nation’s elections by lending credence to the president’s conspiracy theories.
This is not the time to cast cynical votes to mollify the president’s supporters. Trump’s campaign to overturn the 2020 election results has shaped up to be the gravest assault on the constitutional system in decades. This outrageous episode doesn’t have to leave lasting damage, but the only way to avoid that outcome is for leaders of all parties, at all levels of government, to reject it. The president’s always-flimsy pretext — that he’s just been concerned about fraud — is no longer tenable when he’s caught on tape asking for officials to find votes. It’s no longer deniable that the president’s actions are, and always have been, about stealing an election. That’s what senators and representatives who vote against accepting the election results would be abetting.
After years of looking the other way at Trump’s actions, a number of current and former Republican officeholders have warned against disputing the election results. Mitt Romney, the only GOP senator who voted to remove Trump from office, has led the way, but even a few Trump zealots, like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have recently distanced themselves from the challenge to Biden’s victory.
There will be a time for accountability for those who have gone along with the president’s schemes. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and lawyers Cleta Mitchell and Kurt Hilbert also participated in Saturday’s call. Dozens of other lawyers and officials will have to answer for the roles they’ve played in this two-month travesty.
For now, the release of the tape of Trump’s call with Raffensperger strips away any illusions about the monstrosity that senators and representatives would be voting for if they vote against accepting the election results.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.