• Mon. Nov 30th, 2020

Republicans in Congress Stay Largely in Line Behind Trump

Nearly two weeks after President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. was declared the winner of the election, leading congressional Republicans remain unwilling to recognize his victory, keeping silent on Friday even in the face of President Trump’s increasingly brazen attempts to subvert the results.

As Mr. Trump met at the White House with Michigan lawmakers in hopes of overturning that state’s popular vote, a few additional fissures emerged in the otherwise solid wall of Republican support for his tactics. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the retiring chairman of the Senate’s health committee, became the most senior Republican to call for Mr. Trump to begin the transition process. And the party’s top House appropriator, Representative Kay Granger of Texas, said it was time for the president and Republicans to “move on.”

“If there is any chance whatsoever that Joe Biden will be the next president, and it looks like he has a very good chance, the Trump administration should provide the Biden team with all transition materials, resources and meetings necessary to ensure a smooth transition so that both sides are ready on Day 1,” said Mr. Alexander, a three-term senator, former governor and former education secretary. “That especially should be true, for example, on vaccine distribution.”

But by and large, those notes of dissent and others came from Republicans who are already retiring at year’s end or have no immediate plans to face voters, like Senators Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

As Mr. Trump mounts perhaps the most audacious challenge to the democratic process in recent memory, the critical mass of the Republican Party has raised nary a concern about his behavior, appearing to have bowed to fears of angering him and the conservative base on which he holds a firm grip. While publicly silent, they privately worry that speaking out could invite a primary challenge, squander party enthusiasm before a pair of crucial Georgia Senate runoffs and undermine their message as they embark on a wholesale effort to undercut Mr. Biden’s presidency from the start.

And having defied the predictions of a down-ballot blood bath at the hands of voters fed up with Mr. Trump, congressional Republicans have seen there is little political cost for their quiet support.

“The House Republican Conference is really the party of Trump,” said Representative Jim Banks of Indiana, a newly elected member of party leadership, even as he implicitly acknowledged Mr. Biden’s victory. “I’m skeptical that Joe Biden will be anything but a lame duck from Day 1.”

For his part, Mr. Biden has largely tried to position himself above the political fray and his 306-vote Electoral College victory as beyond dispute. He plunged forward on Friday, meeting in Wilmington, Del., with Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the top Democrats in Congress, for the first time since his victory to discuss an approach to a year-end government spending package and how to provide additional coronavirus relief.

The statements by Mr. Alexander stood out not just because other congressional leaders have held their tongues but because Mr. Alexander is extremely close to Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, and often consults with him on delicate issues.

Aides for Mr. McConnell and Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the top House Republican, did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Mr. McConnell, seeking to avoid a messy dispute with a president more popular with their party’s base than he is, has repeatedly sought to divert questions about Mr. Trump’s refusal to concede by pointing to the procedural details of the country’s election system. It is a way of avoiding an overt challenge to the president and buying time until state election authorities essentially render his claims moot by officially certifying the results.

“We’re going to have an orderly transfer from this administration to the next one,” Mr. McConnell said this week. “What we all say about it is, frankly, irrelevant.”

Many of his colleagues have adopted the same approach, playing down the significance of Mr. Trump’s language by focusing on the courts.

Image“We’re going to have an orderly transfer from this administration to the next one,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said this week. “What we all say about it is, frankly, irrelevant.”
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

“It’s working its way through the court system, and I don’t have any independent way to assess it,” said Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri. Pressed by a reporter in the Capitol on whether he thought Mr. Trump could prevail, Mr. Hawley, a former state attorney general, said, “Anything’s possible.”

Julian E. Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton who has studied the modern Republican Party, argued that history would not look at the finale of Mr. Trump’s presidency — which he called a “radical act” — as narrowly as Mr. McConnell might like.

“It will not just be about messy and contested elections,” he said. “It will be about presidential power and the nature of the Republican Party in modern times, and what happens when there is no one to say ‘stop’ anymore.”

Some who have challenged Mr. Trump from within his party have also scolded their colleagues in recent days, urging them to set political expediency aside for the good of the country.

“While the president has the right to legitimate legal challenges, responsible citizens cannot let the reckless actions by him and his legal team stand,” Bob Corker, a former Republican senator from Tennessee who retired in 2018, wrote on Twitter on Friday. “Republicans have an obligation when the subject is of such importance to challenge demagoguery and patently false statements.”

Representative Francis Rooney of Florida, a Republican who is retiring this year, lamented in an interview how many of his colleagues were “just hiding out” rather than speaking out against Mr. Trump.

“What about self-esteem or respect?” Mr. Rooney said. “What are these people going to do in the long run when they look back at how they just sort of slavishly devoted themselves to this guy?”

A handful of Republicans appeared to heed those calls by Friday, or at least to lose patience with some of the more outlandish claims by Mr. Trump’s team.

Mr. Sasse said it was telling that the legal team had declined to “actually allege grand fraud” in court, where, unlike in the news media, there is a consequence for lying. Mr. Romney said late Thursday that it was “difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president” than Mr. Trump’s apparent attempt to pressure officials from Michigan and elsewhere.

And Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who was among the first Republicans to recognize Mr. Biden’s victory, said in a statement on Friday that there was “a right way and a wrong way for the incumbent president to pursue his rights to contest what he perceives as election irregularities.”

“The wrong way is to attempt to pressure state election officials,” she said. “That undermines the public’s faith in our election results without evidence and court rulings to support the allegations.”

The criticism also came from other Republicans not known for challenging Mr. Trump. Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, a member of Mr. McConnell’s leadership team, on Thursday called some of the election fraud claims “absolutely outrageous,” though she did not fault the president.

Ms. Granger, who was re-elected to represent a conservative district based in Fort Worth, was more direct: She told CNN that she had “great concerns” about what Mr. Trump was doing.

“I think that it’s time to move on,” she said.

But the most scathing criticism came from lawmakers who had no voter backlash to fear. Representative Paul Mitchell of Michigan, who is retiring, wrote in an op-ed in The Detroit News that Mr. Trump’s “continued refusal to acknowledge the election results risks corroding our democracy by literally hollowing it out.”

“If we no longer believe in our own system — with our local elected clerks following the laws — then our ability to choose our leaders is at fundamental risk, as is our system of governing,” he wrote in the piece, which was co-signed by Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan.

Representative Tom Reed, Republican of New York, suggested that many in his party were torn between the facts and the views of their constituents who believe Mr. Trump’s assertions that he was defrauded of victory.

“There are millions of Americans that are represented by those folks that are very frustrated,” said Mr. Reed, who has congratulated Mr. Biden. “Maybe there’s a response to them that they feel an obligation to represent as they go forward.”

Emily Cochrane, Carl Hulse and Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.