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Trump’s Phone Call Is What Coup Fever Looks Like

Timothy L. O'Brien
·5 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Like the little boy haunted by ghosts in the horror movie “The Sixth Sense,” President Donald Trump sees dead people everywhere. He thinks at least 5,000 of them voted in Georgia during the presidential election and were part of a broader conspiracy that deprived him of a victory in the state.

In an unhinged, extraordinary phone call Saturday with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, and Ryan Germany, Raffensperger’s general counsel, Trump tried to strong-arm them into conceding that President-elect Joe Biden hadn’t really secured 11,779 more votes than he did. And he encouraged them to find ways to invalidate those votes, according to a recording of the conversation obtained by the Washington Post (which broke the story) and Bloomberg News.

“So what are we going to do here folks?” Trump asked during the one-hour call. “I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes.” Trump, who oversees the Justice Department for 16 more days, also threatened both men, warning that they could be charged with a crime if they failed to support his voting fraud fairytales.

The phone call memorialized what corruption and a desire to orchestrate a political coup sound like and, happily, Raffensperger and Germany were unswayed. “The challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong,” Raffensperger told Trump, who continued trying to steamroll him anyway. “What we’re seeing is not at all what you’re describing,” said Germany.

Trump has been at this for decades, so there’s nothing surprising here. He spent years trying to bully, buy off or corrupt regulators, politicians, law enforcement officials and others he encountered as a developer, casino operator, media fixture and politician. He was impeached for trying to convince Ukraine’s president during a phone call to find dirt on Biden that would undermine his presidential candidacy.

But it is surprising how easily Trump continues to corrupt so many around him. Too few in his party are willing to tell the president, as Germany did, that reality doesn’t comport with his lies. Cowed by Trump’s political traction or eager to jump on his gravy train, too few are willing to abandon him publicly so voters’ faith in the electoral process, democracy and the rule of law isn’t permanently undercut.

Instead, we’re treated to some of Trump’s more cartoonish and dangerous enablers getting in on the act. His chief of staff, Mark Meadows, encouraged Georgia’s officials on the call to look at the election results “more fully” and, “in the spirit of cooperation,” to “find a path forward” outside of the court system (which has already roundly rejected Trump’s fraud claims). On Saturday night, Meadows took to Twitter to encourage members of Congress to object to certification of the presidential election Jan. 6. “It’s time to fight back,” he advised.

Last week, Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, said he planned to object to certification, citing Pennsylvania’s results specifically. Eleven other sitting and incoming Republican senators, including Ted Cruz, have since said they’ll join Hawley. This is performance art for an audience in the Oval Office and in the senators’ home states. It won’t stop Biden from becoming president, but further embeds Trumpism as an operating principle in the GOP and in the federal government.

Seven Republicans in the House of Representatives have broken with their party and said any effort to reject states’ electors is unconstitutional. A handful in the Senate, including Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski and Pat Toomey, have said much the same. I may be missing a few other like-minded souls, but only a small portion of the 249 Republicans in Congress have spoken up. Imagine how the GOP would have responded if Barack Obama tried to corrupt a secretary of state to overturn election results, and ponder the radio silence enveloping the party now.

Even if Trump managed to overturn Georgia’s results, it wouldn’t provide the electoral votes he needs to overcome Biden. He’s assuredly aware of this, but he’s so unspooled – and so unable to come to terms with losing – that he’s willing to try torching democracy to soothe himself. He’s also calling for rallies that may well turn into riots in Washington on Wednesday. How all of that unfolds will speak, in part, to the future of the institutions, processes and voters Trump has spent so much time poisoning.

An administration that began in the shadow of an “Access Hollywood” tape is winding down in the shadow of an Access Georgia tape. While it’s possible that Trump committed a crime by attempting to interfere with federal and state elections in the phone call, there may not be enough time or evidence to do anything about it.

“What a schmuck I was,” Trump said at one point, bemoaning the lack of support he felt he received from Georgia’s governor. “But that’s the way it is. That’s the way it is.”

Indeed.

(Corrects number of votes to 11,779 in 2nd paragraph. Updates photo caption.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

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