The longer Donald Trump refuses to concede the US presidential election, the more he damages American democracy. The fact that Mr Trump lost last week’s vote is not in serious dispute. His opponent Joe Biden looks to have won 306 electoral college votes — 36 more than needed to take the White House. Yet Mr Trump is insisting on branding this as a “stolen election”. Many senior Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, are rashly indulging the US president’s bruised ego.
With each day that Mr Trump refuses to accept defeat, the cost to the US system’s legitimacy rises. Mr Biden is still being denied the resources to which he is entitled as America’s president-elect, including the ability to vet potential appointees and read US intelligence reports. This undercuts his ability to prepare the new administration. As a result of Mr Trump’s claims, more than two-thirds of Republican voters say the election was not free and fair, according to one poll. The basis of any stable democracy is the smooth transfer of power. By trampling on America’s more than 200-year tradition, Mr Trump is putting the system into jeopardy.
The question is why? It is conceivable that Mr Trump is simply trying to boost donations to pay off his campaign debts. More than half of the donations his campaign is collecting for ballot litigation can go towards retiring “general election debts” according to the small print. It is also possible that leading Republicans are playing along with Mr Trump’s charade in order to heighten the base’s enthusiasm for the January 5 election run-offs in Georgia that will determine which party controls the US Senate.
Some Republicans say privately that they are humouring Mr Trump to guide him towards eventual admission of defeat. The same might explain the actions of William Barr, the US attorney-general, who has broken all precedent by licensing Department of Justice litigation on voter fraud. Ditto for Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, who has publicly backed Mr Trump’s calls for only “legal ballots” to be counted. Their premise is manifestly false. The mail-in ballots that have been counted in the disputed swing states — Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Michigan — are in accordance with state law.
The darker explanation is that Mr Trump is seeking to flip the election by persuading Republican legislatures in two or more of the swing states to send in separate slates of electors to those chosen by their voters. There is statistically almost no way that a recount in any of these states could find enough spoiled ballots to bridge Mr Biden’s margin of victory. It is, however, permissible under some interpretations of the US constitution for state legislatures to choose their electors according to their own rules. Under this scenario, the 6-3 conservative majority Supreme Court would then defer to each state’s right to settle their electoral outcomes as they see fit.
Such a move would be highly unlikely to succeed. Yet in these “House of Cards” times, the attempt cannot be dismissed. The fact that Mr Trump this week fired his secretary of defence, Mark Esper, and several other national security officials, adds to the concern. Mr Esper incurred Mr Trump’s displeasure in June when he ruled out invoking the Insurrection Act to send the US military on to America’s streets. Even the most benign explanations for Mr Trump’s actions are deeply troubling. By branding this election as stolen, Mr Trump is poisoning the well for Mr Biden. For the sake of all Americans Mr Trump must concede as soon as possible.
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