Politics

What Trump Is Really Trying to Achieve With His Election Legal Challenges

Giuliani stands at a podium in front of Trump 2020 signs and raises his hands, as two men stand in the background.
Rudy Giuliani speaks about legal challenges to the Pennsylvania vote counting process at a Saturday news conference in the parking lot of a landscaping company in Philadelphia. Bryan R. Smith/Getty Images

On a special Saturday episode of the Political Gabfest, the hosts discussed President Donald Trump’s ongoing legal challenges and the upcoming presidential transition. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Plotz: John, I’m interested in your sense about what President-elect Biden will do to try to unify the country or try to speak to the country? And more importantly, how you think this Trump administration will handle a transition?

John Dickerson: President Trump didn’t ensure the transition that led up to his own office. So you have to have a pretty dismal view of the way things might go, but they are obligated to basically train up the Biden team, and that work has already started before the voting took place. In Biden, you will have somebody who’s been in Washington for their entire career and knows how Washington operates in … obviously not how it’s operated over the last four years, but the theory of American government, and we’ll have people around him who have either worked for him or worked in politics since the Clinton administration.

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Now, that is not a guarantee of wonderful outcomes and constant rainbows and unicorns. But what it means is two things. One is a matter of history. It’s the most Washington-experienced presidency we’ve had, I guess, since Johnson in terms of the president and then the people around him. But then it also just means people who believe in the process of government and believe in reason and science and all of that. So that’s the biggest thing coming back into the government that we haven’t seen for four years.

Plotz: You mentioned, of course, that the Trump team has cooperated and is doing its obligatory transition. It started it before the voting, as you say. Have you heard anything about whether this is going OK?

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Dickerson: Yeah, I think it’s going OK. One of the things that everybody should be happy about is the person who is in the Trump administration is Chris Liddell, who worked on the Romney transition that never came to pass, but who has a specialty in this, is in the Trump administration and is working on this, as I understand it. He doesn’t talk to reporters as far as I know. He doesn’t talk to me, but as I understand it, he’s working very hard on the transition. Again, this is supposed to start before you even know who wins the election. And there’s also the Partnership for Public Service, which has been working hard over the years to try to make transitions better and has been working with the Trump administration and the Biden folks. There are a lot of people who care about the continuation of government who are involved in this. That should give people some hope. The fact that the chief of staff of the White House, Mark Meadows, is now diagnosed with COVID means that the really high-level meetings are going to have to be delayed a little bit and that’s not great.

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Plotz: Not by Mark Meadows. Mark Meadows seems perfectly happy to show up. He’ll show up unmasked at those meetings. Emily, we shouldn’t forget the fact that President Trump at the moment certainly does not accept that he has been defeated and has signaled, or his people have signaled, there will be legal challenges. Any legal challenges that anyone should keep an eye out on?

Emily Bazelon: I don’t think so. Not really. I mean, look, the thing about overturning the results of an election is that you have to have evidence of fraud, and there’re a lot of accusations of fraud being made, but they are just falling apart, vanishing in the air when they actually see the light of a courtroom. And so, the notion that there is going to be some way to overturn these results, which are going to be out of recount range in enough states to provide a majority in the Electoral College, I just don’t see it.

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My theory for what’s going on right now … I mean, first of all, President Trump is the kind of person, because he’s such a narcissist, that it would take him a while to get used to this idea and admit it.

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But I wonder if also what he’s doing is giving himself a way that for the rest of his life, people who want to kowtow to him can say, “Oh, they cheated you out of this. You had it.” And there can be a pretend coddling of him in his inner circle and maybe in his media future, a way of pretending that he didn’t really lose. And that that’s what this is. It’s show. It’s not real litigation. It’s not a real threat to not step down. It’s just show.

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Dickerson: It’s therapy.

Plotz: It’s sycophantic, but it’s also as, John, you say, therapeutic. But I remember there was some point where they ran a bunch of TV ads in Washington. They must have spent a million dollars of campaign funds just so Trump could see them, even though it’s a terrible place to run TV ads. There’s so much that was done for the emperor to feel better about himself. Emily, are you saying that they will put up the challenges, they’ll lose the challenges, or you’re saying they won’t put up the challenges and they’ll always be able to say “Well, we could have challenged it and we just chose not to”?

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Bazelon: I mean, I don’t know. Either way, there’ll be some lawyer who’s willing to take money to put up some challenge and they—

Plotz: Won’t get paid. Trump doesn’t pay his lawyers.

Bazelon: That could be a problem. Look, David Bossie is supposed to be in charge of the strategy. They’ll look at what they can and who knows how far they’ll go. But the notion that there’s some Hail Mary pass in the courts, it’s just not going to happen. It is one thing to challenge one very, very close result in one place. It’s another to start attacking the voting systems in two or three or four or five states. It’s just, it’s out of reach.

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Plotz: John, do you get a sense that Republicans outside of the Trump inner circle are detaching themselves or are cutting some frayed edges here and letting that lifeboat go out to sea?

Dickerson: No, really. I mean, you saw Jeb Bush congratulate Joe Biden, but he’s no fan of the president. … Mitt Romney congratulated the president-elect. But no, you don’t see it. Let’s allow for the news to sink in that Joe Biden is president-elect and then let’s allow for the idiosyncrasies of this individual president and the therapeutic exit-ramp building that we just discussed. But Republicans who were either elected or reelected using this democratic process have an obligation at some point real soon, probably maybe by the time people are listening to this, because when Donald Trump continues to say that Biden was elected by fraud, he’s burning democratic furniture.

He’s playing with something really sensitive here and he’s telling his supporters that, “This is illegitimate.” And Republican lawmakers have an obligation to say, “This is not so.”

To hear the entire episode, in which the hosts also discussed how the U.S. election systems performed in an extraordinary time, the celebrations happening in cities, the role of Stacey Abrams, and the brain space that will be freed up in a Biden-Harris administration, subscribe to the Political Gabfest on Apple Podcasts or listen below.

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