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The Capitol has a bunch of mahogany boxes that contain “certificates of ascertainment” from the states and the official Electoral College count that will make Joe Biden the 46th president of the United States. On Wednesday, these boxes are part of a joint session of Congress, where their contents will be tallied in order to make Biden’s win official. But this year, there are objections from Republican representatives and senators who, in a last-ditch effort to please the president, have decided to do what they can to delay the inevitable. Members have been raising objections to presidential elections for the past two decades, but the difference this year is the sheer scale of them. As Jim Newell, Slate’s senior politics writer, told me, “there could be so many objections that could just keep the process going, so no one really knows when this is going to end.” It could be days before this final, ceremonial step in the process could end, having become a political battleground like everything else. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Newell about GOP members’ bizarre, flailing coup attempt and what all this means for Biden’s presidency. An excerpt of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, has been printed below.
Mary Harris: Do you think it could be multiple days?
Jim Newell: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, said this could go into Thursday, hopefully not Friday. The people who are going to be raising these objections, we’ll just see how quickly they get bored with it.
Is there any argument that what’s about to take place on Capitol Hill is a good thing? Like, everyone has to get on the record and air it out?
I don’t think it’s a good thing at all. I think I’ve seen some Democrats say, fine, let them make fools of themselves, let them show how Trump has split congressional Republicans, get all these divisions out in the air. But there’s still going to be perhaps a majority of House Republicans and then a good number of Senate Republicans who are going along with this idea that there were irregularities that tainted the election, and using their official jobs to protest when that’s, you know, completely made-up.
Back in 2017, when Congress gathered to certify the results of the election of Donald Trump, you were there, and you watched Democrats push back against Trump’s electoral victory. At the time, Joe Biden was presiding over everything as vice president.
What you saw was a lot of House members raising objections when states were mentioned and giving these political speeches, and then Joe Biden would gavel them out. I don’t think many people actually paid attention to this back then because it was a kind of boring affair. It wasn’t this live issue we’re seeing this time.
How is this year going to look different?
In 2017, you’d see House members raise objections, but then they couldn’t get a senator to join them, and that meant the objections weren’t in order. It was kind of theatrical—it wasn’t actually going to slow down the process.
So you need a kind of buddy system to do this.
You need, first of all, a written objection from a House member objecting to a slate of electors from a particular state, and then a matching one from a senator. And if there are matching objections to a particular state, then each house breaks off into debate for a maximum of two hours and has a vote on whether to accept or reject those electors. What it looks like this year is you have a bunch of House members who are ready to raise objections and then you have at least one senator, Josh Hawley from Missouri, who says he would object to at least one state. So that means we’re going to have at least one roll call vote in both the House and the Senate on whether to accept or reject electors. But it could be up to six states.
And we should say there’s no legal basis for any of these politicians to be questioning the Electoral College results.
In every level of the federal courts, none of these challenges went anywhere. A lot of these objections are based on the word irregularities or social media videos of things people don’t understand, like, oh, I saw a video where a machine counted a ballot three times. And those have all been debunked a million times. But they’ve convinced people that the election wasn’t fair. So that’s sort of the pressure you see on Republicans, to raise these objections about “irregularities.”
So after the two hours of debate you mentioned, there’s a vote. The chamber decides whether to accept or reject the challenge to the results. Is there any chance the chamber would accept the challenge and try to reject these votes?
No. First of all, for a slate of electors to be actually thrown out, you would need both the House and the Senate to vote to reject them. So there’s not a single state that the House, which is controlled by Democrats, is going to reject. And in the Senate, you have about 20 Republicans so far. There are more who are not going along with any of this. So each Senate vote to each challenge should be pretty swiftly rejected on a bipartisan basis.
So no chance, purely theater, but it’s happening anyway
No chance. It’s pure performance for the president.
Republican sentiment is very publicly divided when it comes to what will go down. Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz are leading the charge on behalf of Trump, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and erstwhile Trump ally Tom Cotton are doing the opposite. For Cotton, justifying his stance has revealed cracks in Republican ideology and led him to be surprisingly honest about what it takes for Republicans to win office.
He gave three reasons, which I think you’re seeing shared in statements from some of those other Republicans who are opposing this effort. They’re saying, first, it would pretty much put the power to elect presidents in Congress, and that’s a really bad precedent that would imperil the Electoral College. He also said this is another step toward federalizing election law, which is a big no-no for Republican ideology. It’s that “imperil the Electoral College” thing that really stands out to me, because if you do show that all the ceremonial mechanics in this Electoral College process can be wielded and taken up to overturn what the actual will of the voters is, well, that’s not very good for the future of the Electoral College as a legitimate mechanism for electing presidents. And the Electoral College is, you know, the only way Republicans can win the presidency right now.
There was one letter from House Republicans that said basically: Republicans have lost the popular vote for a long time. We need the Electoral College to get into office. It was weird, to be extremely honest.
I’ll read a bit of it here: “From a purely partisan perspective, Republican presidential candidates have won the national popular vote only once in the last 32 years. They have therefore depended on the Electoral College for nearly all presidential victories in the last generation.” And then it pretty much says that’s the only reason Trump won in 2016 and the only way we can win back the presidency in 2024. So they do not want to delegitimize the Electoral College. And using one of these parliamentary procedures for overturning an election is not a path that a lot of them want to go down.
So if the goal here is not to get Trump to stay in office, can we talk about the real goal? Like you said, is this a way for some Republicans to brush up their bona fides with voters for 2024?
If you go against Trump, you run the risk of Trump tweeting about you, campaigning against you, inviting a primary challenge. So that’s something that gets a lot of members who are going along with Trump’s scheme. But then you also have some people like Hawley and Cruz who are well understood to be looking at presidential runs, who are taking the lead in this objecting because they think that might give them a leg up or at least get them in the news ahead of a potential 2024 primary.
You had this great line where you said that earning the enmity of establishment colleagues is the first step toward establishing yourself as a national political figure. It’s not about teamwork. It’s about differentiating yourself and making it clear that you’re mad at those people in Washington and what they’re doing.
I think Ted Cruz is an interesting case to look at here because he’s run this playbook. He kicked a lot of fights. He went against party leaders to cause a government shutdown in 2013. He went against some party leaders to kill an immigration bill. And it worked for him. It raised his profile and helped him in a Republican primary to say he made all the right people in Washington mad. And then that election, he came in second, which is not bad. When he came back he tried to mend some of his relationships in Washington, but now I think we’re starting to see Cruz go back to his preparing-to-run-for-president version. So he’s leading this charge saying we will vote to reject these electors unless our ludicrous conditions are met. And I think this is what the next few years are going to look like. You’re going to have people who are looking toward the presidency going against their party, pissing off some of their colleagues as a goal to set themselves apart.
What happens after today? Is McConnell going to be picking up the pieces?
After this situation, it’s a question of how long this vote is going to be remembered. I mean, McConnell did not want this vote because he did not want members who are up in 2022 to have to take on something like this, which is difficult for them. And you could see if this is something Trump keeps bringing up even when he’s ex-president, because I believe he will continue talking publicly. Maybe he’ll go after all these people who went against him. Whether you’ll have a bunch of primary challenges for 2022—I don’t know how successful all those primary challenges are going to be, but that’s the potential ruinous legacy of this for Republicans. But In a couple of weeks, we’ll have the Biden presidency and things will take on a new configuration here. I’m sure Republicans will unite a little bit more around blocking Biden’s agenda.
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