“All I want to do is this,” Donald Trump told Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger during a rambling, lie- and conspiracy-infested hourlong telephone call on Saturday. “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state.” At another point in the call, which was published in its entirety by The Washington Post a day later, he asked state officials, “So what are we going to do here, folks? I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break.”
Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election have not been particularly subtle. He has made wild allegations, all false, about widespread voter fraud. He has begged Republicans in states that he lost to overturn legitimate results. He has made it clear that any attack on the electoral process and the Constitution is fine, so long as it leads to a second term in office for him. But these efforts have never been more explicit than during his conversation with Raffensperger. Trump was asking him to use whatever means necessary to win Georgia’s 16 electoral votes.
Much has already been made about Trump’s conduct in the call, which was shameful even by the abysmally low standards to which he is held. The conversation bore similarities to the call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, during which Trump demanded that an investigation into Joe Biden be opened. That call led to his impeachment early last year, and some are now calling for a second impeachment. Former Attorney General Eric Holder and others have suggested that Trump may have committed a felony. The president’s enablers defended his earlier actions by suggesting he was contesting the election lawfully, but the call confirmed that Trump is encouraging illegal means of overturning the results.
The call also demolishes the flimsy stated rationale of the 12 Republican senators who have announced they will formally object to the certification of the 2020 election results on Wednesday. This group, led by Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, has been careful to portray itself, however perversely, as defenders of the democratic process. “We’ve seen in the last two months unprecedented allegations of voter fraud, and that’s produced a deep, deep distrust of our democratic process across the country,” Cruz told Fox News on Sunday. “I think we in Congress have an obligation to do something about that. We have an obligation to protect the integrity of the democratic system.” They are challenging the election to ensure its legitimacy, they say, even though in practice they are doing the opposite.
They are, moreover, careful not to make the kinds of batshit accusations that litter the president’s Twitter feed. In fact, they rarely make direct allegations of fraud at all. Instead, they present themselves as mere conduits for others’ worry. “Millions of voters concerned about election integrity deserve to be heard,” Hawley wrote in a statement announcing his intent to object to the certification of the election. “I will object on Jan. 6 on their behalf.”
It’s a profoundly cynical move, legitimizing baseless and destructive claims without fully backing them. It lets Hawley and Cruz, both possible presidential contenders, claim to be solving a problem—in this case one that the president, with their backing, conjured out of thin air. Cruz has gone so far as to depict his opponents as rabid extremists. “I think everyone needs to calm down,” Cruz said on Sunday. “I think we need to tone down the rhetoric. This is already a volatile situation. It’s like a tinderbox, and throwing lit matches into it, and so I think the kind of hyperbole we’re seeing, the kind of angry language.…”
One of the Republican senators contesting the election results, Marsha Blackburn, has gently critiqued the president’s behavior on the call—inadvertently revealing how Trump has complicated their efforts. “One of the things, I think, that everyone has said is that this call was not a helpful call,” she told Fox & Friends on Monday morning. This is another magnificent Republican understatement. The subtext is clear: The president is making it harder for Senate Republicans like her to advance his baseless conspiracy—indeed, he has shown that their stated rationale is bullshit.
Contesting the results of the election is not about getting to the bottom of what really happened in the 2020 election, or about protecting the integrity of the voting process, or about calming a “volatile situation.” Trump is focused on finding illegal means of overturning an election he lost, full stop. Cruz, Hawley, and the other Republican senators contesting the results are laundering those efforts. Before Sunday, they had a rhetorical fig leaf—they were merely asking questions that needed to be answered. But Trump’s call with Raffensperger tore it away.