President Trump does not believe in the legitimacy of the electoral process unless he wins—and sometimes, not even then. In 2016, he complained after the Iowa caucuses that “either a new election should take place or [Texas Senator Ted] Cruz results nullified” because of alleged fraud on Cruz’s part. After Hillary Clinton received roughly three million more votes than him, Trump even falsely claimed that he won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” making him one of the few people in the history of representative government to claim widespread fraud in an election that he won.
So it’s little surprise that Trump spent most of this year preemptively discrediting the election results, whether by making false accusations of voter fraud by Democrats or claiming that mail-in voting was inherently suspicious. For weeks before Election Day, he telegraphed that he would challenge absentee ballots in court and threatened to get the Supreme Court to overturn a potential victory by Joe Biden. It was a striking admission of his own weakness and unpopularity disguised as bravado.
After Election Day, however, the Trump campaign’s legal onslaught turned out to be sloppy and haphazard. They and other Republicans have so far filed a series of weak and poorly supported lawsuits that seems performative rather than productive: intended more to placate the president and rile his base than to sway any court. Trumpworld’s lawyers have yet to persuade any state or federal judges to halt vote counting or throw out absentee ballots; there is also no apparent legal path for the Supreme Court to throw out the election results even if it wanted to do so. The Trump campaign and the Republican Party are instead pioneering something new: litigation as self-care.
On election night, Trump struck a downcast and defiant tone as the results began pointing toward a Biden victory. “We’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court,” he warned in the early hours of Wednesday morning. “We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at four o’clock in the morning and add them to the list. OK? It’s a very sad moment. To me, this is a very sad moment, and we will win this. And as far as I’m concerned, we already have won it.” He reportedly understands on some level that he lost the election and even reportedly claimed he might run again in 2024. But his narcissism refuses to allow him to admit it publicly.
Some of his own supporters have asked for Democrats to be patient with Trump and give him time to absorb the results, as if he were a small child who just found out his best friend would be moving out of town. Others have taken his calls to wage a legal war, albeit without success or shame: Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s legal figurehead, gave a bizarre press conference on Saturday where he complained that GOP legal observers hadn’t been allowed to supervise ballot counting in Philadelphia, where Biden’s massive lead helped propel him to a statewide victory.
When interrogated by federal judges, however, Trump’s lawyers are telling a different story. “Are your observers in the counting room?” Judge Paul Diamond asked a lawyer for the Trump campaign in a hearing last week. “There’s a non-zero number of people in the room,” the lawyer cagily replied. “I’m asking you as a member of the bar of this court: Are people representing the Donald J. Trump for President [campaign], representing the plaintiffs, in that room?” Diamond asked again. “Yes,” the lawyer admitted. “I’m sorry, then what’s your problem?” Diamond asked.
Other claims of widespread voter fraud in other states have also faltered. Conservative media figures claimed last week that Trump supporters were given Sharpies to fill out ballots, which made them unreadable by ballot-counting machines. But those claims were refuted not only by state and local election officials in Arizona but also by Mark Brnovich, the state’s attorney general and an elected Republican, who investigated the claims and found no basis for them. In Nevada, Trump-aligned figures released lists of thousands of people last week who purportedly voted in the election after moving out of the state. Local reporters quickly noted that it included dozens of names of military personnel who were stationed elsewhere in the country. Over the weekend, those same figures preposterously claimed that Biden-Harris vans had arrived at county election offices and unloaded thousands of false ballots to be counted.
Perhaps, then, it’s unsurprising that none of Trump’s post–Election Day lawsuits have drawn blood. This isn’t the first time that Trump has over-promised and under-delivered, but it’s striking that he and his inner circle didn’t have a more comprehensive plan for postelection court battles than they’ve come up with so far. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that some Trump advisers anonymously blame Jared Kushner for failing to orchestrate a legal strategy before election night, while others claimed that Kushner thought other people were in charge of it. In either event, it was a remarkable failure of planning to follow through on something that had been telegraphed for months.
Trump’s obstinacy—and his lawyers’ efforts to soothe that psychic pain—will likely fail to fill the gnawing void within him. But it has two greater consequences for the nation. First, Trumpworld’s efforts will likely have a disastrous effect on public confidence in the American democratic process. In the short term, conservative media outlets are telling a broad swath of Americans that the president-elect is illegitimate and his assumption of power is tantamount to a coup d’état. Given the propensity for armed violence shown by some Trump supporters, there’s a risk that such rhetoric could encourage more of it over the next few years.
Second, and perhaps more immediately, Trump’s scorched-earth warfare could have a profound effect on the Biden administration itself. Under federal law, the executive branch is supposed to provide a variety of resources to a president-elect’s transition team to prepare for the transfer of power. But Emily Murphy, the head of the General Services Administration and a Trump appointee, is refusing to formally acknowledge that Biden is the apparent winner of the election. Her resistance could deprive the transition team of offices, salaries, and access until the Electoral College formally elects him as the next president on December 14.
A president’s influence is typically greatest at the start of their first term, so any effort by the Trump administration to hamstring the transition could weaken Biden’s efforts to govern even after Inauguration Day. This sore-loser strategy would be risible in any presidential transition effort; it is unforgivable when the incoming administration will have to confront a major recession and a worsening pandemic on day one. And while Republicans may savor the harm they’re inflicting now, they may eventually come to regret it. Biden, despite the warnings of liberals and the left, campaigned on the belief that he could govern with the GOP and not against them. Republicans may yet radicalize a president-elect who has called for reconciliation over revenge.