Politics

Trump Targets Michigan in His Ploy to Subvert the Election

President Trump on Thursday accelerated his efforts to interfere in the nation’s electoral process, taking the extraordinary step of reaching out directly to Republican state legislators from Michigan and inviting them to the White House on Friday for discussions as the state prepares to certify President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. the winner there.

For Mr. Trump and his Republican allies, Michigan has become the prime target in their campaign to subvert the will of voters backing Mr. Biden in the recent election. Mr. Trump called at least one G.O.P. elections official in the Detroit area this week after she voted to certify Mr. Biden’s overwhelming victory there, and he is now set to meet with legislators ahead of Michigan’s deadline on Monday to certify the results.

The president has also asked aides what Republican officials he could call in other battleground states in his effort to prevent the certification of results that would formalize his loss to Mr. Biden, several advisers said. Trump allies appear to be pursuing a highly dubious legal theory that if the results are not certified, Republican legislatures could intervene and appoint pro-Trump electors in states Mr. Biden won who would support the president when the Electoral College meets on Dec. 14.

The Republican effort to undo the popular vote is all but certain to fail, as even many Trump allies concede, and it has already suffered near-total defeats in courts in multiple states, including losses on Thursday when judges in Georgia and Arizona ruled against the Trump campaign and its allies.

Mr. Biden, whose transition has been hindered by Mr. Trump’s attempt to cling to power, on Thursday delivered his most forceful condemnation yet of the president’s refusal to acknowledge his loss, saying Mr. Trump would be remembered as “one of the most irresponsible presidents in American history.”

“It sends a horrible message about who we are as a country,” Mr. Biden said in remarks in Wilmington, Del., after a discussion about the economy with both Democratic and Republican governors.

“It’s hard to fathom how this man thinks,” Mr. Biden added. “I’m confident he knows he hasn’t won, and is not going to be able to win, and we’re going to be sworn in on Jan 20.”

Election officials and legal experts say there is virtually no scenario in which a Republican-controlled state legislature could legitimately override the results of a properly held vote. And some G.O.P. legislators in battleground states said they would not intervene.

“Under our statutes, we have no part in the process,” said Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly.

In Arizona, the Republican speaker of the House, Rusty Bower, sent a letter to his Republican colleagues emphasizing that he voted for Mr. Trump, but noting that the courts had already debunked some of the president’s claims and making clear that lawmakers could not interfere with the will of the voters.

“I wish to respond by simply saying — I took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution and laws of the State of Arizona,” he wrote, according to a copy of the email obtained by Yellow Sheet Report, an Arizona political tipsheet. Mr. Biden won Arizona by about 11,000 votes, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has won Arizona since 1996.

Despite Mr. Trump’s increasing brazenness, Republican leaders in Washington and in state capitals have otherwise stayed quiet on his latest effort to interfere with the results of the election. Aides to the Republican governors of Ohio and Maryland did not respond to messages, and a spokeswoman for Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, among the nation’s most anti-Trump elected Republicans, referred to remarks he made on Nov. 10 in which he asserted that Mr. Biden was the rightful winner of the election.

The Trump maneuvering has intensified in part because many states are now poised to certify their election vote totals; crucially, six states that Mr. Biden won — Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin — have deadlines between Friday and Dec. 1 to certify his victories. Georgia on Thursday also announced the completion of a full recount of its presidential election vote, reaffirming Mr. Biden’s win there.

Facing those deadlines, the president has grown more strident with his false messages about a stolen election in a last-ditch bid to do nothing less than disenfranchise the legally registered votes of entire states and cities.

Mr. Trump’s outreach to Republican officials in Michigan represented a remarkable intrusion into state and local politics: a sitting president personally contacting officials who usually play a small and invisible role in a routine process.

The president requested the White House meeting with Mike Shirkey, the State Senate majority leader, and Lee Chatfield, the speaker of the Michigan House, and they will sit down with him on Friday afternoon, according to a person briefed on the arrangements. It is not clear what the president will discuss.

On Tuesday night, Mr. Trump called Monica Palmer, a Republican member of the canvassing board of Wayne County, which includes Detroit. Ms. Palmer was at the center of a fast-moving controversy over the routine certification of votes, when she and the other Republican board member at first declined to certify the county’s votes, then changed their mind, then rescinded again, saying the votes should not be certified. Ms. Palmer told The Washington Post that Mr. Trump had called to thank her, but that he did not pressure her.

Roughly 24 hours after that contact by the president, Ms. Palmer and the other Republican board member, William Hartmann, announced late Wednesday that they were reversing their move to certify the results. The announcement was accompanied by sworn affidavits alleging that they had been bullied into approving the certification despite their doubts about small discrepancies in many of the county’s precincts.

Their announcement and the affidavits were sent to reporters by a public relations firm called ProActive Communications, which has close ties to Mr. Trump and received about $2 million in payments from his campaign during the 2020 election cycle, according to records kept by the campaign finance website OpenSecrets. The firm, based in Virginia, did not answer questions about how it had come to represent Ms. Palmer and Mr. Hartmann.

ProActive later issued a statement explaining Ms. Palmer and Mr. Hartmann’s position from Phill Kline, the director of the Amistad Project, a legal initiative with the conservative public interest law firm the Thomas More Society. That firm lists Jenna Ellis, a senior legal adviser to the Trump campaign, as its “special counsel.”

In the statement, Mr. Kline said that the decisions by Ms. Palmer and Mr. Hartmann to rescind their votes for certification meant that Wayne County’s results remained uncertified.

But Michigan’s secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said he was wrong.

“There is no legal mechanism for them to rescind their vote,” Tracy Wimmer, a spokeswoman for Ms. Benson, said on Thursday. “Their job is done and the next step in the process is for the Board of State Canvassers to meet and certify.”

At the White House, Mr. Trump has been toggling between appearing to recognize his loss and expressing bitterness and disbelief that a victory he believed was his was being taken from him, aides said. Bolstered by some core supporters, he has hardened in his belief that state legislatures could hold the keys to his political salvation.

The few people who have tried to intervene and tell him that it is time to let Mr. Biden begin a transition have been shut down by Mr. Trump.

The president has been goaded along in particular by his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has further stoked Mr. Trump’s fury, along with his hope of overcoming the reality of Mr. Biden’s victory, a half-dozen White House and campaign advisers said.

The president has become obsessed with a conspiracy theory advanced by one of his lawyers, Sidney Powell, about Dominion Voting Systems machines, aides said, asking one adviser after another about whether there is something to the theory that there was a global effort to hack the election. Cybersecurity officials have said that “there is no evidence” voting systems were compromised.

Though Mr. Trump has discussed reaching out to Republicans in other swing states, so far he has called officials only in Michigan, aides said.

High-level Republicans in key battlegrounds said they had not been pressured by Mr. Trump.

The office of Butch Miller, the Republican leader of the Georgia Senate, said he had received no overtures from the White House. Both Jake Corman, the State Senate majority leader in Pennsylvania, and Bryan Cutler, the speaker of the House there, said they had not heard from Mr. Trump.

“We are certainly very focused on completing this budget right now and have no plans to take any breaks from that work,” said Mike Straub, a spokesman for Mr. Cutler.

The next step in the election process in Michigan comes on Monday, when the four-member state canvassing board faces a deadline to finalize the certification of the state’s vote, after the submission of all 83 county certifications that were completed by Tuesday.

At a news briefing on Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a Democrat, was asked about what her message to Mr. Trump would be on his election efforts.

“Stop spending energy to mislead about what happened in this election and spend it on a real Covid relief package,” she said. “This election was overwhelmingly decided. It was a safe, it was a secure, it was a fair election, and Joe Biden won the state of Michigan by over 150,000 votes.” She added, “The canvassers need to do their job. I expect that they will do their job and certify this result.”

Bob Bauer, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden and a longtime election lawyer, said there was no legal means by which Republicans in Michigan could cast aside a duly held election without violating the voting rights of the state’s entire electorate. “They cannot change the outcome after the fact,” he said.

Still, he acknowledged, Mr. Trump could try, and though it would be legally inconsequential, it could create “a disgraceful spectacle.”

Initially, Trump campaign aides favored a discreet series of challenges and recount requests, people briefed on the discussions said, saying they would have been long shots but would not have been laughed out of a courtroom.

Now, the effort has been taken over by Mr. Giuliani, who has embraced a strategy in which he has injected the wildest of conspiracy theories even into court proceedings, as he did at a hearing in Pennsylvania this week.

On Thursday, Mr. Giuliani appeared in a cramped room at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, where he and his team of lawyers unspooled a meandering thread of conspiracy theories, baselessly alleging a “centralized” plot of widespread fraud with no evidence. (Though Mr. Giuliani said that he had evidence, he said that he could not share it to protect personal identities, and that there were other allegations that “at this point, I really can’t reveal.”)

Ms. Powell, another lawyer for the Trump campaign, followed Mr. Giuliani and furthered the baseless claims, including a lengthy digression that involved Hugo Chávez, the former strongman leader of Venezuela who died in 2013.

Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa who just won re-election, was sharply critical of Ms. Powell’s allegations.

“To insinuate that Republican and Democratic candidates paid to throw off this election, I think, is absolutely outrageous, and I do take offense to that,” Ms. Ernst said on Fox News Radio. “To have that accusation just offhandedly thrown out there just to confuse our voters across the United States, I think that is absolutely wrong.”

Reporting was contributed by Kathleen Gray from Detroit, Michael Crowley and Kenneth P. Vogel from Washington, and Trip Gabriel, Stephanie Saul and Rebecca R. Ruiz from New York.

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