Politics

Reality Forecloses on the Trump Presidency

A fading campaign collapses under the weight of finally having to back up big talk with actual substance.

Sidney Powell, a 65-year-old woman with brown hair who is wearing a leopard print cardigan, stands behind Rudy Giuliani, who is pointing at a map of the U.S. labeled MULTIPLE PATHWAYS TO VICTORY. A red arrow has been drawn in to point to Powell.
Hey, who let HER in? Oh, right, it was all of us. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Thursday, the Trump campaign held a press conference at the building in Washington where the Republican National Committee has its headquarters. The subject of the press conference was the campaign’s claim that millions of the votes that have been tallied for Joe Biden are fraudulent.

Three people spoke at the event: Rudy Giuliani, right-wing lawyer Jenna Ellis, and right-wing lawyer Sidney Powell. The very first thing that happened was that Giuliani said he, Powell, and Ellis were “representative of our legal team.” Said the former New York City mayor: “We’re representing President Trump and we’re representing the Trump campaign. When I finish, Sidney Powell and then Jenna Ellis will follow me. And we will present in brief the evidence that we’ve collected over the last, I guess it is two weeks.”

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Giuliani’s and Ellis’ presentations were not characterized by factual accuracy; the two of them are, after all, reportedly the ones who were responsible for the campaign’s decision to continue challenging election procedures and results even as it lost something like 34 of the 36 lawsuits it filed. (Nominal campaign manager Bill Stepien, like nominal White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, appears to have fallen off the face of the earth, and the campaign began laying off staff less than a week after the election.)

Giuliani alleged that “there was a plan from a centralized place” to carry out “various acts of voter fraud, specifically focused on big cities.” He argued that because Joe Biden did well in urban areas and because there are in theory ways to commit voter fraud, Joe Biden must have won the election because of voter fraud in urban areas. He buttressed this syllogistic conclusion by repeating facially insane rumors about vans full of fake ballots being delivered to counting centers that were teeming with observers and asserting that, for example, “two-thirds of the precincts in the city of Detroit” recorded more votes in 2020 than there are registered voters in those precincts. (As best I can tell, this is the conspiracy version of the actual fact that 28 percent of Detroit precincts had discrepancies between the numbers of accepted ballots and recorded votes in their final tallies. The sum total of discrepancies citywide is something like 450 votes; Biden won Michigan by 155,000.)

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Giuliani then introduced Powell by stating that “we use largely a Venezuelan voting machine in essence to count our vote” (?) and that she would discuss how “our ballots get calculated, many of them, outside the United States and are completely open to hacking, completely open to change, and it’s being done by a company that specializes in voter fraud.” Powell drove this derailed train even further off its track, opening her remarks like so:

What we are really dealing with here and uncovering more by the day is the massive influence of communist money through Venezuela, Cuba, and likely China in the interference with our elections here in the United States. The Dominion voting systems, the Smartmatic technology software, and the software that goes in other computerized voting systems here in as well, not just Dominion, were created in Venezuela at the direction of Hugo Chavez to make sure he never lost an election after one constitutional referendum came out the way he did not want it to come out.

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If you’d like, you can read debunkings of Powell’s conspiratorial, almost entirely fictional claims about Dominion, Smartmatic, and Venezuela here and here. She concluded with a rousing call to action that was picked up by the Republican Party’s official Twitter account:

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Powell and Giuliani’s press conference put Republicans in a tough position. On one hand, most of them want to show support for Donald Trump’s push to overturn election results because they believe it will be important for their political brands going forward, especially in GOP primaries, to be seen as having been loyal to the president. On the other hand, the president’s attempts at a clown coup have been repeatedly rejected in court, even by Republican-appointed judges, and disavowed by an increasing number of non-MAGA senators like Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, Pat Toomey, and Lisa Murkowski. “Success” for the Trump campaign at this point would mean convincing state legislatures to attempt to disenfranchise entire cities’ worth of Black voters on the basis of ludicrous claims about Communists and ballot vans. This would be unprecedented, enormously disruptive, and very unpopular outside the Republican base—and it almost certainly wouldn’t work anyway, even in a limited and temporary way, because of the courts and Congress.

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The way that figures like Tucker Carlson and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst subsequently tried to walk this line was to suggest that Trump’s lawyers, particularly Powell, are the problem, because they have not backed up their allegations of fraud with evidence. This is in one sense ridiculous; the reason Powell hasn’t presented evidence of fraud is that the fraud didn’t happen. But it’s also, in a very limited sense, sort of honest. Giuliani and Powell’s lunatic presentation, given while what appeared to be hair dye was dripping down Giuliani’s face, undermined the case that purportedly Serious but still MAGA-conscious Republicans like Ted Cruz and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley are trying to make. They argue that Trump should be given an essentially indefinite amount of time to explore his legal rights to ask for audits and investigations and so forth. The goal of this “play” would be for vote counting and auditing to get dragged out so long, and get so bogged down in “politics as usual” cross-allegations of malfeasance, that the median voter ultimately shrugs their shoulders and checks out, at which point Republicans have no choice but to reluctantly ask the Supreme Court to step in and settle things (in Trump’s favor). Such an approach is not compatible with the Crazy Pants Facebook Lawyer Television Hour at which Powell presented her theory of dead Venezuelan algorithm rigging on Thursday.

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The campaign’s response—and you have to admit, this is creative stuff—was to announce Sunday that Powell, who was introduced as a member of the campaign’s legal team at the Thursday event and whose remarks about legal strategy were promoted by the president’s political party, is not affiliated with the campaign or its legal team. “Sidney Powell is practicing law on her own,” the statement said. “She is not a member of the Trump Legal Team. She is also not a lawyer for the President in his personal capacity.” Problem solved?

Comically, it is in fact plausible to believe that Powell really doesn’t have any traditional, formal role in the campaign’s legal efforts. She doesn’t appear to have worked on any of its actual lawsuits, which it is filing with dwindling frequency anyway as it shifts to a strategy of using Fox News and its even more right-wing deep-cable peers to convince individual Republican officials to kamikaze themselves into the Constitution for the sake of a leader who is, at any given moment, probably golfing. It’s an appropriate way for a presidency largely conducted on TV, for pretend, to end: with a dwindling number of loyalists doing TV appearances from an otherwise empty campaign office, cornered into disavowing their own positions and each other until, God willing, the screen blinks off and, for the last time, they disappear.

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