President Trump's extraordinary phone call with Georgia's secretary of state is roiling Washington and putting Republicans on the defensive as Democrats call for a criminal investigation of the president.
The political fallout of Trump’s hour-long call over the weekend, which was recorded and widely disseminated, is putting a damper on an insurgent Republican bid to challenge the results of electoral votes in several swing states.
The effort to muster Republican support for objecting to states’ electoral votes when Congress meets in a joint session Wednesday stalled after Trump’s tense communication with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger became public.
Arguments by Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) and other Trump-allied GOP senators that the tally of electoral votes should be suspended so that states’ election results can be further reviewed now risks getting lumped in with Trump’s recorded effort to pressure Georgia’s top election official “to find 11,780 votes” in his favor.
“The president doing what he did makes it almost impossible for Cruz to thread that needle,” said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist.
“Maybe he didn’t mean it in an illegitimate sense but it sure sounds like it,” Weber added of Trump’s exhortations that Raffensperger declare him the winner in Georgia instead of President-elect Joe Biden.
“I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is more than we have. Because we won the state,” Trump said on the call.
Especially damaging for the president and his supporters is that he suggested that Raffensperger and his general counsel, Ryan Germany, would face repercussions if they didn’t act to help him.
“That’s a criminal offense,” Trump said. “And you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer.”
Sen. Pat Toomey (R), whose home state of Pennsylvania faces a challenge to its electoral votes from Trump allies, criticized the president’s conversation with Georgia’s secretary of state as “a new low in this whole futile and sorry episode.”
He applauded Raffensperger, a Republican who says he voted for Trump, and other state election officials for standing up against pressure from the president and his supporters.
“I commend Republican election officials across the country who have discharged their duties with integrity over the past two months while weathering relentless pressure, disinformation, and attacks from the president and his campaign,” Toomey said.
Doug Heye, another Republican strategist and former congressional leadership aide, said the emergence of the taped call makes it more difficult for other Republicans to sign on to objections to Georgia’s or other states’ electoral votes
"The tape now makes it harder for other people to join on,” he said.
“They had a legal process argument that they could make even if it wasn't the most credible one,” he added. “The tape blows that out of the water."
Democrats have seized on Trump’s call to go on the political offensive.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), who will serve as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee this year, called for a criminal investigation of Trump on Monday.
“His disgraceful effort to intimidate an elected official into deliberately changing and misrepresenting the legally confirmed vote totals in his state strikes at the heart of our democracy and merits nothing less than a criminal investigation,” Durbin said in a statement.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Monday retweeted a Washington Post report detailing Trump’s conversation with Georgia’s secretary of state, adding: “Hey @SenTedCruz and his gang: You want to investigate election fraud? Start with this.”
Thirteen GOP senators so far have indicated they would object to the results.
Eleven have signed on to a letter spearheaded by Cruz, a potential White House candidate in 2024, calling for the appointment of a special commission to conduct an emergency audit of states’ election results.
Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.), another potential candidate for president in four years, was the first Republican senator to say he would endorse an objection to electoral votes for Biden. He did not sign on to the Cruz letter Saturday.
One Republican senator who spoke on condition of anonymity said that GOP leaders were trying to keep the number of senators backing House Republican objections to electoral slates at no more than a dozen.
“We’re hoping there will be just the 12 of them,” said the GOP lawmaker.
But Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who is locked in a tight race with the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, gave a statement to Fox News on Monday afternoon saying she also would contest the election results during the Jan. 6 joint session.
"I will vote to give President Trump and the American people the fair hearing they deserve and support the objection to the Electoral College certification process," she said in a statement to Fox.
The GOP senator who spoke on condition of anonymity said many GOP lawmakers are willing to oppose as a matter of principle Trump’s demand that they throw out the electoral votes he’s contesting in key states and questioned Cruz's political motivations.
“Ted Cruz is not wrestling with his conscience any more than he did on thinking Barack Obama would sign a bill to repeal ObamaCare,” the lawmaker said, alluding to Cruz’s role in teaming up with a group of House conservatives in 2013 to oppose a year-end funding bill that resulted in a 16-day government shutdown.
Steven S. Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, predicted that GOP senators will be less inclined to support Cruz and Hawley in challenging electoral votes for Biden now that the recording of Trump’s attempt to pressure Raffensperger is out.
“It makes President Trump look ridiculous,” he said of the call.
As a result, Smith said, lawmakers who raise objections to electoral votes on Wednesday are “going to be judged in the context of Trump’s phone call.”
“That makes it politically a little more risky for them,” he added.
Senate Republicans are concerned that further fanning doubts about the legitimacy of the election results in Georgia could dampen GOP turnout in two critical runoff elections Tuesday that will determine which party controls the Senate majority for the next two years.
Gabriel Sterling, the voting system implementation manager for the state of Georgia, held a press conference Monday afternoon at which he refuted a variety of allegations made by Trump’s legal team of voter fraud.
“This is all easily, provably false, yet the president persists,” Sterling said. “And by doing so, [he] undermines Georgians’ faith in the election system, especially Republican Georgians in this case, which is important because we have a big election coming up tomorrow.”
Several key Republican players have announced their opposition to contesting the electoral count since the details of Trump’s call became public.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a prominent conservative and potential presidential candidate in 2024, came out with a strong statement Sunday night stating he would not support an objection to any electoral slate and warning it would “exceed” Congress’s power and “establish unwise precedents.”
He warned that throwing out electoral votes would strike a serious blow against states’ rights and the Electoral College and take the nation closer to increasingly federalized elections.
“Congress would take away the power to choose the president from the people, which would essentially end presidential elections and place that power in the hands of whichever party controls Congress,” he said.