After more than four years of nearly unbroken fealty to the President, a heavy majority of Senate Republicans broke with Trump in a Friday vote overriding his veto of a bipartisan defense policy bill. With that loyalty test failed, Trump is also lashing out at Republicans who are refusing to get on board with a dead-end attempt to throw out the election results and erase his loss to President-elect Joe Biden when Congress counts the electoral votes next week.
Over the last 24 hours, Trump has called for a primary challenge to the second-ranking Senate Republican, South Dakota’s John Thune, praised GOP Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley for his plan to join House Republican members in objecting to the Electoral College count — a symbolic gesture that will not stop Biden from being sworn in on January 20 — and touted a protest in Washington scheduled for the day his defeat will be ceremonially rubber-stamped by Congress.
Trump White House
Trump’s last-gasp swirl of petulant threats against lawmakers from his own party are playing out against the backdrop of a pair of tight Senate contests in Georgia, where Republicans could lose their Senate majority if Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are swept by Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, respectively, on Tuesday. The Republican incumbents, who both voted for the defense bill initially, were absent from Friday’s vote — Perdue in quarantine after being exposed to Covid-19 and Loeffler sticking to the campaign trail.
The Georgia races will be the first meaningful temperature check of the Republican base since Election Day and it comes in a traditionally red state that, through a combination of GOP discomfort with the President and supercharged Democratic enthusiasm, flipped to Biden as he clinched a comprehensive national victory. Whether the GOP can bring together angry Trump supporters, who have followed him down a rabbit hole of baseless election fraud conspiracies, and more buttoned-down, business-friendly Republicans could also set the tone for Trump’s post-presidency — and decide how much sway he carries with him as he leaves the White House.
For now, though, Trump is dead-set on keeping a party that has indulged him, enabled him and been enabled by him at every pass onside for one more battle. The results of those efforts, though, have been uneven. The decision to dash his veto of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which Trump opposed because it didn’t strike legal protections for social media companies and included a provision to rename military bases named after Confederate leaders, marked the first time during Trump’s presidency that Republicans openly and materially rejected his desires.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also blocked a vote on legislation, demanded by Trump, that would increase the size of stimulus to checks to many Americans from $600 to $2,000. In one of a string of Friday tweets, the President — bunkered in the White House after returning before New Year’s Eve from Mar-a-Lago — blasted GOP senators for defying him.
“Our Republican Senate just missed the opportunity to get rid of Section 230, which gives unlimited power to Big Tech companies. Pathetic!!!,” Trump blared. “Now they want to give people ravaged by the China Virus $600, rather than the $2000 which they so desperately need. Not fair, or smart!”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rubbed salt in the wound in a statement after the Senate vote. Her chamber, too, had, with Republican support, overridden Trump’s veto.
“The full United States Congress, with these sweeping and overwhelmingly bipartisan votes, has delivered a resounding rebuke to President Trump’s reckless assault on America’s military and national security,” the California Democrat said. “In three weeks, our country will inaugurate a President who respects our military, protects our security and honors the will of the Congress. Until then, the Congress urges Trump to end his desperate and dangerous sabotage.”
That seems unlikely.
One last loyalty test
Trump is ramping up his push for Republicans to hijack Congress’ Electoral College confirmation duty and use it as a last stand against the will of the people. He has commitments from Hawley, the Missouri Republican, and the expected backing of as many as 140 GOP House members to join the charade, which will have one immediate meaningful outcome: forcing GOP lawmakers to go on the record with a vote for or against Trump’s shambolic coup attempt.
That, it appears, is the elusive bridge too far for McConnell. Having mined Trump’s presidency for years as he installed conservative judges — including three to the Supreme Court — and passing massive corporate tax cuts, the majority leader is not on board this time around. Looking ahead to the 2022 midterms and the next general election two years later, he knows his members’ actions could be used against them, no matter what direction they go, in future campaigns.
In a call with Republican senators this week, the Kentucky Republican described it as “the most consequential vote” of his career, and he has urged his conference to stand down and refuse to join their House colleagues in denying the results. But Hawley, who didn’t dial-in, had already broke ranks with leadership and said on Wednesday he planned to object.
Trump retweeted Hawley’s statement on Friday and layered it with a promise to — on January 6 — reveal “massive amounts of evidence” to support fraud claims that have been tossed out of dozens of courts around the country and dismissed by Republican state lawmakers and nonpartisan election officials.
Before Hawley’s decision, Thune — the Senate majority whip — had played down rumors anyone from his conference would join the electoral college challenge, telling reporters a couple weeks ago any attempt “would go down like a shot dog.”
“I just don’t think it makes a lot of sense,” he added then, “to put everybody through this when you know what the ultimate outcome is going to be.”
But Thune might have just been a bit too colorful for his own good. His comments grabbed Trump’s attention and on Friday the President called on a loyalist, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, to challenge Thune in a 2022 GOP primary. (She has previously said she wasn’t interested in running against Thune, a position her spokesman confirmed late Friday to The Argus Leader.)
Dissent in the GOP ranks
Meanwhile, fissures in the Senate GOP are opening up as the prospect of a vote becomes more real.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski defended Thune and called it “dispiriting” that Trump was “working to pit Republican against Republican.” She also expressed frustration that the President was complicating life for Republicans who had stood by him throughout his term.
“I think it’s quite interesting that he has demanded a loyalty test from so many Republicans and then when they are loyal to him — and there is one incident, one statement — and he is the first one to throw those loyal individuals under the bus,” Murkowski told CNN. “That’s not loyalty as I know loyalty,” added the Alaska Republican, who’s no stranger to internecine contests, having been defeated in a 2010 GOP primary only to win another term in a write-in campaign that year.
It is, however, precisely how Trump understands the concept — as a one-way street, with fidelity to him a requirement demanding precisely nothing in return. For his part, Thune on Friday shrugged off Trump’s tweet, asking reporters as he left the Capitol, “What took him so long?”
In a lengthy Wednesday night Facebook post, another Republican senator, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, called out Hawley — though not by name — over his plans to contest Trump’s loss.
“Let’s be clear what is happening here: We have a bunch of ambitious politicians who think there’s a quick way to tap into the president’s populist base without doing any real, long-term damage,” Sasse wrote. “But they’re wrong — and this issue is bigger than anyone’s personal ambitions. Adults don’t point a loaded gun at the heart of legitimate self-government.”
Hawley and his allies will be yielding something more like a leaky water pistol, but their actions combined with Trump’s rhetoric, doomed though they all are to fail, represent a cynical ploy for short-term personal gain at the expense of further damaging the already tattered social fabric underlying American democracy.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, one of the few Republicans in Washington who has occasionally broken from Trump, expressed concern on Friday about the stunt.
“It continues to spread the false rumor that somehow the election was stolen,” Romney said. “Spreading this kind of rumor about our election system not working is dangerous for democracy here and abroad.”
Retiring Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander and West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who was reelected in 2020, on Friday made public their disagreement with Hawley. But fellow Republican Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana said he was yet to decide whether to join him, despite suggesting that doing so would effectively amount to a “protest vote.” Braun’s current term comes up in four years and the complications seeded by a potential vote are surely weighing on him.
Pence gets reprieve from judge
Even Vice President Mike Pence, who has been on vacation and mostly out of sight, has quietly sought to extract himself from the mess, despite the best attempts of Arizona Republicans and one House Republican to make him its centerpiece.
Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert and the Arizona group filed a lawsuit effectively asking that Pence be empowered to toss out the electoral college results. Under the law, the vice president’s role is largely — as Gohmert’s Friday brief puts it, rather accurately — to play emcee to a “perfunctory coronation” of the next president.
But Pence appeared to want no part in the pantomime, a fact that might have prompted a rare Trumpian rebuke against the vice president, who has for years labored — often exploring the boundaries of neutral language — to stay in lock-step with the President, had a federal judge not tossed it on Friday night. (He said Gohmert and the Arizona slate didn’t have the standing to file it.)
Justice Department lawyers, on Pence’s behalf, had trashed the maneuver, writing that “a suit to establish that the Vice President has discretion over the count, filed against the Vice President, is a walking legal contradiction.”
Pence has not himself spoken out about the process, or what role he might or might not seek to play, but in the meantime he is headed down to Georgia — remember Georgia? — on Monday to stump for Perdue and Loeffler.
Trump will be there, too, but a few hours away, campaigning in a county he won by 40 percentage points.