Trump Says the Election Is Being Stolen. GOP Leaders Aren’t So Sure.

Few Republican Party leaders or right-wing media stars backed Trump’s claims on illegitimate votes, and many repudiated it.

LOUISVILLE, KY - NOVEMBER 04: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), gives election remarks at the Omni Louisville Hotel on November 4, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. McConnell has reportedly defeated his opponent, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Amy McGrath, marking his seventh consecutive U.S. Senate win. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gestures while giving election remarks at the Omni Louisville Hotel in Louisville, Ky., on Nov. 4, 2020. Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

President Donald Trump declared at the White House last night that “we did win this election” and that “we’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court.” He also claimed on Wednesday via Twitter that Democrats are “trying to STEAL the Election” and that votes that hadn’t been counted by the end of Election Day are somehow illegitimate.

However, Trump’s ability to stick to this position and maintain support for it within the Republican Party — critical for any attempt by him to wage legal battles to exclude any votes — appeared fragile by Wednesday afternoon. As Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden took the lead in vote counts in key states, few GOP leaders, elected or in the media, backed Trump’s accusations, and most ignored or even repudiated them.

Given the unpredictability of U.S. politics, it is likely that Republicans will reverse themselves if they feel it’s politically expedient to do so. Trump may also have the power to generate enough street chaos that state counts could get into GOP-dominated courts where anything could happen. This is particularly true with Democratic leadership, as in 2000, who were resistant to getting into the streets themselves.

That said, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., fresh off a successful reelection campaign, clearly seemed uninterested in going to battle for Trump for now. “It’s not unusual for people to claim they’ve won the election. I can think of that happening on numerous occasions,” McConnell said on Wednesday morning. “But claiming you win the election is different from finishing the counting.”

In a sign of the hesitation of GOP leaders to support the president, McConnell’s deputy, Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., has not made any comments on the presidential election. In response to questioning from reporters, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., claimed that “what POTUS wants to make sure is that every legal vote is counted,” but he did not endorse Trump’s assertions of widespread fraud.

On Twitter, GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of Trump’s top opponents in the 2016 Republican primary turned Trump superfan, took a fairly standard good government position that was notable in its subtweeting of the president:

Another 2016 Trump rival, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, was uncharacteristically quiet on Wednesday. Cruz had nothing to say about the presidential election on Twitter and did not respond to requests for comment about Trump’s remarks.

A third 2016 Trump opponent, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, told ABC early Wednesday morning that “there’s just no basis to make [Trump’s] argument tonight. … There comes a point where you have to let the process play itself out before you judge it to have been flawed.” Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum went further on CNN, saying that he was “very distressed by what I heard the president say.”

The right’s media stars, many of whom wield more power than actual politicians, reacted with more variation but generally were not rallying behind any particular Trumpian storyline.

Ben Shapiro, host of the popular eponymous show, was especially unequivocal:

Fox’s Sean Hannity had little to say on Twitter on Wednesday about Trump. Tucker Carlson said nothing at all.

On Wednesday’s show, Rush Limbaugh did stand by Trump’s version of reality, but with notable anxiety. “Come on, folks, you gotta keep the faith. Stick with me here,” Limbaugh told his audience. “Donald Trump was reelected last night. Time will show us this. You know this. When they stopped counting, it means they’re looking for Democrat votes.”

University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci astutely commented Wednesday morning that, from the perspective of the top of the Republican Party, Trump may have served his purpose and can now be discarded:

In a statement, Biden spokesperson Jen O’Malley Dillon called Trump’s assertions “outrageous, unprecedented, and incorrect … a naked effort to take away the democratic rights of American citizens. … The counting will not stop. It will continue until every duly cast vote is counted. Because that is what our laws — the laws that protect every Americans’ constitutional right to vote — require.”

In America’s morass of uncertainly, one thing that is certain is that anything is possible. But if Biden’s Electoral College edge continues to solidify and GOP support for Trump’s position continues to be weak or nonexistent, the day will likely come when none of Trump’s fulminations will matter. There is no precedent for Trump, but previous presidents have never been able to cling to power without the support of their party. When Richard Nixon’s Watergate misconduct was conclusively proven in the so-called smoking gun tape released on August 5, 1974, Nixon was not certain he would resign. Then the GOP’s previous presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, Republican House leader John Jacob Rhodes, and Senate leader Hugh Scott traveled to the White House to tell him he had to go. On August 9, he did.

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