A growing number of conservative Republicans are breaking with President Trump and his legal team over what they view as a dangerous effort to overturn the election results by promoting conspiracy theories.
GOP lawmakers, conservative lawyers and key figures in rightwing media say it is time for his legal team to either back up their claims about fraud or concede defeat to President-elect Joe Biden.
The voices range from Fox News’s Tucker Carlson to Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) to conservative lawyers and thought leaders such as Karl Rove.
For many, the tipping point was Thursday’s press conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters led by Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, in which they spun an elaborate tale about how a bloc of communist countries had hijacked the nation’s voting machines by installing an algorithm to flip a percentage of Trump votes over to Biden.
The lawyers have not taken that claim to court and have not provided any evidence to support it.
“This is delusional,” said Mark Braden, the former chief counsel at the RNC. “I’m a professional Republican so it’s not easy for me to have to deal with my friends on this. Look — voter fraud occurs. I’ve seen it. It happens. But you have to be realistic about the size and scope of it.”
Some Republican lawyers said Trump’s early legal challenges on voter fraud were defensible and reasonable, even if they had no chance of changing the outcome of the election. But they’re disturbed by the dark turn things have taken, and worried that Trump’s claims are undermining democracy and misleading millions of his own supporters.
“The Venezuelans didn’t screw around with the voting machines,” Braden said. “That’s 100 percent total nonsense. I don’t know what’s going on here. It’s very dangerous that we’re undermining the system. Democracy isn’t a God-given right. It’s a fragile process. The two most important things are that the person with the most lawful votes wins, and that the people who voted for the losing side also believe their candidate lost. This is undermining that idea and it’s a dangerous thing.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who has been largely supportive of the president, fumed at Powell’s unsubstantiated claim that candidates in both parties paid money to the company that makes voting machines to flip ballots.
“That is an offensive comment,” Ernst said. “To insinuate that Republicans and Democratic candidates paid to throw off this election I think is absolutely outrageous, and I do take offense to that.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a staunch Trump ally, said Friday on "Fox & Friends" that it’s past time for lawyers and politicians to be making their claims at press conferences or on cable news.
“This is not the time for politicians or press conferences," Cotton said. “That was during the election. This is a time for evidence in court.”
Two GOP senators who frequently criticize Trump, Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah) and Sasse, have been unequivocal in their disgust over the president’s efforts to court local GOP officials that tried to block the certification of the vote in Michigan, where Biden leads by more than 150,000 votes.
Trump on Friday met with two election board officials from Michigan who initially refused to certify the vote in Wayne County, a Democratic stronghold.
“It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American President,” Romney said.
Sasse mocked the president’s legal team for making an allegation of “grand fraud” but so far refusing to take the claim in front of a judge.
“When Trump campaign lawyers have stood before courts under oath, they have repeatedly refused to actually allege grand fraud because there are legal consequences for lying to judges,” Sasse said.
Despite the growing criticism, Trump remains hugely popular on the right and maintains enormous influence over how Republicans view the election.
A Reuters-Ipsos poll released Friday found that a majority of Republicans believe Trump won, despite Biden getting 6 million more votes and leading by a comfortable margin in the Electoral College.
There are pockets of rightwing media that have promoted the president’s claims, such as The Gateway Pundit, Newsmax and the One American News Network.
However, there is skepticism leaking into some of the programming that is popular among Trump’s supporters.
On Thursday’s "Tucker Carlson Tonight" on Fox News Channel, the host gave an extended address in which he revealed to viewers that Powell had refused to come on his show to defend her claims.
“She never sent us any evidence, despite a lot of polite requests,” Carlson said. “When we kept pressing, she got angry and told us to stop contacting her. When we checked with others around the Trump campaign, people in positions of authority, they also told us Powell had never given them any evidence to prove anything she claimed today at the press conference.”
The conservative Powerline blog on Friday uncovered how the Trump campaign’s legal challenge to votes in Michigan was based on data it mistakenly pulled from Minnesota.
The editorial board at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which endorsed Trump twice and is owned by billionaire GOP donor Sheldon Adelson, said the president is doing a “disservice to his more rabid supporters by insisting that he would have won the Nov. 3 election absent voter fraud.”
GOP strategist Karl Rove, who was close to the top brass at the Trump campaign, wrote at the Wall Street Journal that “this election won’t be overturned.”
The editorial board at the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post has called on Trump to “stop the stolen election rhetoric” and to “get Rudy Giuliani off TV.”
In the legal community, experts who had defended Trump through the Russia investigation are growing critical of his legal team’s claim about a sweeping conspiracy between Democratic officials and foreign countries.
“They’re claiming to have evidence but that evidence has not been filed,” said constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley. “They’ve filed a large number of affidavits stating voting irregularities, but they haven’t filed anything to support these sweeping claims about an international conspiracy. That’s what breathtaking.”
Powell this week also claimed that Trump won the election in a “landslide” and that she would prove it in court.
At the National Review, Andrew McCarthy has been cataloguing the Trump campaign’s legal setbacks and has determined that the effort is doomed.