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Editorial: Trump lost. Republicans need to stop indulging his denial of reality

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said President Trump was “100% within his rights” in questioning election results.
(Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg)

Given what we know about Donald Trump, it’s futile to urge him to accept defeat gracefully and put the welfare of the country above the gratification of his bruised ego. Nor would there be much point in calling on an incorrigibly dishonest president to stop serving up conspiracy theories about a rigged election. This, after all, is the man who made baseless allegations about voter fraud in the 2016 election because he couldn’t accept losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.

But it’s important to call out other public officials who are enabling the president in his divisive denial of reality. They include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and, surprisingly, the head of the General Services Administration, who has declined so far to authorize full cooperation with Joe Biden’s transition team. Her stance has allowed the rest of the administration to keep the transition on ice.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Tuesday that Trump “may not have been defeated.” In more anodyne comments, McConnell said Trump’s legal challenges were “not unusual” and are “no reason for alarm.” Similarly, McCarthy told Fox News on Sunday that “what we need in the presidential race is to make sure every legal vote is counted, every recount is completed and every legal challenge should be heard. Then, and only then, America will decide who won the race.”

But even that statement, which was less strident than McCarthy’s remarks last week, suggested that there was serious doubt about whether Biden had prevailed in a fair election. The same suspicion drips from Atty. Gen. William Barr’s precedent-busting memo telling the Justice Department that it may investigate “substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities” before the results are certified — even though Barr didn’t say that consequential irregularities actually exist and even though he cautioned against investigating “specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims.”

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It’s not hard to see why some — but not all — prominent Republicans are unwilling to acknowledge the obvious. Trump remains popular among the party’s base, and indulging him in his delusions is a way of staying on the right side of that constituency. McConnell may further believe that antagonizing Trump loyalists would harm Republican Senate candidates in two runoff elections in Georgia that probably will determine whether the GOP keeps its majority.

Besides, these Republican leaders may reason that, in the end Trump will leave office, however reluctantly, even if he settles scores on his way out. (On Monday, Trump spitefully fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who dared to disagree publicly with Trump’s suggestion that active-duty troops should be used to quell unrest that followed protests over police brutality.)

It’s harder to see why Emily W. Murphy, the GSA administrator, is stalling the transition process. In a departure from past practice, Murphy so far has declined to issue an “ascertainment” that Biden is the apparent winner of the election, a step necessary to trigger the release of millions of dollars for the transition and give Biden’s team access to federal offices.

It’s true that the Trump campaign, as is its right, is going to court in a quixotic attempt to establish irregularities that might change the outcome. But, as Max Stier, the president and chief executive of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, points out, such litigation doesn’t preclude starting the transition arrangements.

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Murphy’s foot-dragging may have more symbolic than substantive import. Biden said Tuesday, “I’m confident that the fact that they’re not willing to acknowledge we won at this point is not of much consequence in our planning and what we’re able to do between now and Jan. 20.” Unlike Trump in 2016, Biden has a deep understanding of how the federal government works and has assembled an impressive network of advisors to help him hit the Oval Office running.

Still, the country would benefit from an early activation of the formal transition process, just as it would from a recognition by prominent Republicans in Congress that the people have spoken. Republicans who persist in enabling Trump’s denial and tolerating his unsupported allegations of widespread fraud run the risk of encouraging false hopes among Trump’s sometimes volatile supporters and further weakening faith in the democratic process.

Over the weekend, former President George W. Bush issued a statement congratulating Biden. While he acknowledged that Trump had the right to pursue legal challenges, Bush said: “The American people can have confidence that this election was fundamentally fair, its integrity will be upheld, and its outcome is clear.” The sooner McConnell, McCarthy and other Republicans accept that reality, the better.


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