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Essential Politics: Trump refuses to fade away

President Trump speaks in the Oval Office on Thursday.
President Trump speaks in the Oval Office on Thursday.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Trump and his allies had lost 42 judicial decisions as of Thursday night in his challenges to November’s election, prevailing only once, on a relatively minor side issue.

His refusal to accept the voters’ will has generated discord within his party as Trump has attacked Republican governors and other elected officials in states he lost. That’s especially true in Georgia, where he has added to the jeopardy his party faces in twin Senate runoffs in early January.

And Trump’s intense focus on groundless claims of widespread election fraud have allowed President-elect Joe Biden to take center stage on the most pressing national issue — the raging COVID-19 pandemic that, so far, has taken roughly 275,000 American lives. Thursday, for example, Biden announced in a CNN interview that he would ask Dr. Anthony Fauci both to continue his role at the National Institutes of Health and to serve as a “chief medical advisor” to the new administration.

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Judged in traditional terms, none of what Trump is doing makes much sense: Despite the dire fears of some Democrats, he isn’t staging a coup, he’s just loudly spinning his wheels while sliding downhill.

But as Trump has repeatedly shown over the five years since he announced his presidential campaign, his actions operate according to a logic of their own. Assess them by what Trump is doing, rather than what he says he’s doing, and that logic becomes apparent. Already, he’s setting a pattern that’s likely to shadow the Biden administration, at least through its early chapters.

Keep the money coming

Trump says he’s combatting fraud in the election. But, like O.J. Simpson claiming to be searching for the “real killer,” there’s no sign of an actual investigation. The filings in courts around the country from Trump and his allies have featured a pathetic lack of actual evidence.

One affidavit in a Michigan case filed earlier this week by Sidney Powell, for example, included alleged voting discrepancies in Edison County. No such county exists in that state. Last week, Trump’s campaign announced that Powell no longer was part of the president’s legal team, but he has continued to cite her, and the legal filings from Trump’s official lawyers, led by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have not been much stronger.

In state after state, judges — many of them Republican appointees — have dismissed Trump’s challenges, citing not only a lack of evidence, but elementary errors of law and logic.

“Though it alleges many conclusions, the ... Complaint is light on facts,” Judge Stephanos Bibas, a Trump appointee to the federal U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote last week in tossing out Giuliani’s effort to overturn Pennsylvania’s election results. “Calling an election unfair does not make it so.”

But if the legal effort isn’t serious, the fundraising effort is.

Since election day, the Trump campaign has sent out hundreds of feverish emails to supporters asking for help in the legal fight. Thursday night, his campaign announced that it had raised $207.5 million since election day. That’s more than twice as much as Trump raised during his best month of pre-election fundraising.

Only those who read the fine print of the post-election solicitations would learn that the bulk of the money — at least 75% — doesn’t go to the legal effort at all, which is being mostly paid for by the Republican National Committee. Instead, the funds are pouring into a new Trump political committee, a type of fundraising entity known as a leadership PAC, that the president can use for political expenses in future years.

The money, mostly from small-dollar donors, could be used to directly benefit Trump. The committee could spend it, for example, at Trump properties to host events. Trump could put family members on the payroll, as he did during the campaign, or use the funds to pay for travel for himself or family members connected to his political operation. All very helpful for a soon-to-be ex-president facing large personal debts and whose other sources of income have been on the decline.

The gusher of money probably does not provide the entire explanation for Trump’s antic crusade; attention, which Trump craves almost as much as cash, provides another big piece of the picture.

Trump’s intense need to be on center stage has provided one of the most consistent motifs of his presidency. If he spent his post-election time on substantive issues — the pandemic, for example — he would have to share that space with Biden. As other lame-duck presidents have found, the spotlight moves very quickly to the president-elect.

Hammering away at fancied election grievances, by contrast, allows Trump a continuing series of solo turns.

That hunger for attention virtually guarantees that Trump will announce plans to run again in 2024, whether he really intends to follow through or not.

As a former president, he would risk being eclipsed, not just by Biden, but by younger Republicans who would begin jockeying for the job. But as a declared candidate, he would have a ready-made platform from which to attack the new administration. He’ll also freeze any potential pretenders to the GOP throne: Given the intense loyalty many Republican voters feel toward Trump, only a very brave or foolhardy candidate would want to be the first to announce a primary run against him.

The country pays a price for all this: Trump’s false accusations of massive voter fraud have undermined many Americans’ faith in their elections. How many Republicans really believe that Democrats engaged in massive fraud to steal the election is hard to know — poll questions on subjects like that are open invitations for people to say what they wish were true, rather than what they truly think. But clearly some large chunk of the Republican electorate does accept Trump’s accusations as factual.

And while post-election violence by Trump supporters has remained a threat, not a reality, the fear on the part of election officials is very real, a possibility about which Trump appears fecklessly unconcerned.

He may care at least somewhat more about the fates of the GOP’s two Georgia runoff candidates, Sens. David Purdue and Kelly Loeffler. He’s scheduled to fly on Saturday to Valdosta, a small city in the southern part of the state, for a rally on their behalf.

In the days leading up to that rally, however, Republican elected officials have worried increasingly about how much Trump will stick to urging supporters to go to the polls in January as opposed to levying fresh attacks against the state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, and secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, for certifying his Georgia loss.

Republicans may as well get used to that sort of worry. Once Biden takes office, any GOP elected official who compromises with the new administration will risk a blast from the ex-president. That will surely complicate Biden’s efforts to reach across the partisan divide on issues like immigration, climate change and policing.

How much of a barrier Trump will pose and whether he can sustain his position for four years remain open questions. But as the past few weeks have clearly shown, the Trump show isn’t yet ready to go off the air.

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Coming next

As Sarah Wire wrote, Congress is inching toward a new COVID-19 relief package after a bipartisan group of senators announced a proposal for a compromise $908-billion plan. Biden and Democratic leaders quickly embraced that, moving off Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s previous insistence on a plan totaling roughly $2.1 trillion.

The compromise package “wouldn’t be the answer, but it would be the immediate help for a lot of things,” Biden said, adding that he would propose additional spending after he took office.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday that “compromise is within reach,” although he continued to circulate his own plan, which would provide much less assistance.

The biggest obstacle now may be the clock. Congress is scheduled to leave Washington in a couple of weeks for its holiday recess.

Before leaving town, both houses also plan to finish work on the annual defense authorization bill. Trump has threatened to veto that because Congress hasn’t agreed to include an unrelated provision he has demanded that would change the laws that govern social media platforms. Right now, leaders of both parties seem inclined to call his bluff, but McConnell has given himself wiggle room.

Both houses also have to pass a temporary spending bill to keep federal agencies running. That could provide the vehicle for a COVID-19 relief package.

And Biden will unveil more appointments to his new administration. He’s under considerable pressure to announce a Black nominee for a major Cabinet post after naming white choices — Janet Yellen and Antony Blinken — for secretary of Treasury and secretary of State, respectively.

The latest from Georgia

Janet Hook and Jenny Jarvie wrote about how the campaign in Georgia has highlighted the post-presidency challenge Trump creates for the GOP.

The latest from Washington

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris announced key staff picks, as Noah Bierman reported. They included Tina Flournoy, a veteran Democratic operative, as her chief of staff.

The Supreme Court gave a partial win to churches fighting California’s limits on indoor worship services, as David Savage reported. The justices told federal judges to take a fresh look at California’s restrictions in light of the court’s decision last week that overturned restrictions imposed by New York.

House Democrats are threatening to subpoena Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross over continuing disputes about the 2020 census, Wire reported.

Doyle McManus writes that Biden should hope that Trump pardons himself on the way out the door. A pardon, he argues, would remove what would otherwise be a difficult and contentious issue for Biden to handle — whether the Justice Department should investigate Trump for potential criminal offenses.

And Chis Megerian writes that Trump is going out as he entered: amid self-induced chaos.

Stay in touch

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Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.


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