Trump’s postelection power plays risk troubles at home and abroad

Republicans have remained largely silent as Trump launched two-pronged attack on legal, security institutions

People celebrate Joe Biden becoming president-elect at Black Lives Matter Plaza at 16th and H Streets, NW on Saturday, November 7.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
People celebrate Joe Biden becoming president-elect at Black Lives Matter Plaza at 16th and H Streets, NW on Saturday, November 7. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 11, 2020 at 6:10pm

ANALYSIS — Since President Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection last week, his lies and lawsuits and his fuming and firings have left the country and the world wondering: Is he just a sore loser or a national security threat?

The Trump campaign’s allegations of widespread election fraud so far have run smack-dab into reality as judges demand evidence in the lawsuits filed in several key states — and they show no indication they could change the election result anyway.

Yet the fire that Trump’s legal strategy is starting, one that Republicans largely have not poured water on, could dangerously erode the nation’s confidence in the election outcome, some political observers say.

Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor, said Trump is willfully perpetuating a narrative that most of the leaders of his own party privately reject: that he actually won the election. “And by humoring him, those leaders only give it oxygen, and do nothing to combat the growing view among the president’s base that the result is illegitimate,” he said.

Also not getting much Republican pushback: The TV reality show boss turned president, who famously fired people on each episode of “The Apprentice,” fired his Defense secretary in a tweet Monday and is reportedly mulling firing other appointees.

The next day, Trump raised more concerns when he ousted other top Pentagon civilians — who were replaced in some cases by staffers linked to shady misinformation campaigns during the Mueller probe and the impeachment inquiry. People around the world mused aloud on social media that Trump could be destroying evidence, organizing a coup to remain in office or planning some military move that his presumably more compliant new secretary would carry out without complaint.

“Could be smoke. Could be fire. But the purge happening at the Department of Defense, in the middle of a messy transition, should worry us all,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy tweeted. “Michael Flynn loyalists and Fox news personalities now populate some of the most important Pentagon posts.”

Pentagon power play

Trump tweeted on Monday that Esper had been “terminated” and replaced with Christopher Miller, who had been a top counterterrorism official. The next day, there were more personnel moves.

Miller’s chief of staff is Kash Patel, a White House aide and former staffer for California Republican Devin Nunes, one of Trump’s most loyal supporters and a habitual spreader of untruths during Trump’s impeachment. Patel replaced Jen Stewart, a former GOP congressional aide.

Second, Pentagon policy chief James Anderson was replaced by Anthony Tata, whose Islamophobia and conspiracy-mongering, including calling former President Barack Obama a terrorist, had made him unconfirmable even in the Republican-run Senate.

Third, Joseph Kernan was bumped from his post as undersecretary for intelligence, replaced by another Trump loyalist, Ezra Cohen-Watnick.

And Pentagon officials told reporters Wednesday that Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and Fox News contributor who has made anti-Muslim slurs and who advocates pulling U.S. troops from Afghanistan, will be a senior adviser to Miller.

In the wake of the bureaucratic bloodletting, speculation mounted about what the moves meant.

Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator who served as Defense secretary under Obama, said U.S. adversaries might try to exploit the disarray.

He also worried that Trump might use the more pliable Pentagon leadership for some “unconstitutional purpose” or even start a war just to distract people or to increase his leverage, in his own eyes, to obtain immunity from prosecution.

“He may be setting us up to use our military somewhere in the world to start some kind of conflagration or international incident — blowing an Iranian ship out of the water in the Persian Gulf, or something like that — to distract,” Hagel said.

Hagel also predicted more firings.

“When you add it all up, it makes for a dangerous situation that we’ve never been through before,” Hagel said.

Hagel says his Republican colleagues are past due to speak out.

“They have been silent for so long,” Hagel said, adding that he tells them privately, “‘You’re going to have to exercise some leadership here.’”

The greatest danger of the Pentagon disorder, some say, is not what Trump will pull off in the coming weeks but rather what he and his Defense Department appointees might bungle.

Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security think tank and a former Republican Senate aide, said in an email Wednesday that he is concerned any unforeseen crisis would be harder to handle.

“Removing the Pentagon’s top leadership during a presidential transition only makes it harder to deal with any international crises over the next two months,” Fontaine said. “It unnecessarily injects risk into an already unsettled time.”

Domestic strife

There are also rumblings that Trump could soon fire FBI Director Christopher Wray, cutting short his own appointee’s 10-year term at the helm of a bureau he regularly accused of “the biggest political crime in American history” against him.

It could be a political own goal. In exchange for the catharsis of firing Wray, it would allow Biden to install his own choice to lead the FBI.

But it would come at a critical time in the FBI’s efforts to stymie domestic terrorism that some accuse Trump of fueling. The bureau last month charged 13 men in connection with an anti-government group’s plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan.

The Anti-Defamation League reports that right-wing extremist groups have reacted to the election with vague threats of violence but also focused on disseminating and elevating unfounded rumors of election fraud.

Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, said Trump is “contributing to democratic backsliding” and damaging “democratic norms and values” when he challenges legitimate election results as fraud without evidence and shows resistance to the peaceful transfer of power.

The result is beyond doubt, the lawsuits will fail, courts will validate the election administration and results, and Washington elites will accept it and move on, Huder added.

“Several courts rejected Trump’s lawsuits. State election officials administered a well-run election and withstood pressure amid insane circumstances. Results are broadly accepted among an ideologically diverse media,” Huder said.

President-elect Joe Biden hasn’t sounded any alarms, even as the Trump administration reportedly declines to work with his transition team.

Biden brushed aside comments from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday — “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” Pompeo said with a smile — and said Republicans will come around eventually.

But for now, some Republicans are bucking the reality of the election.

Lawsuits have reports of fraud or election errors that are problematic, but not on a broad scale that would make a difference.

Here’s one episode: Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul on Tuesday suggested that one way to uncover election fraud involving mail-in ballots would be to examine a random sample to find a rate of fraud. “If fraud rate is low, voters may be convinced of the election’s legitimacy,” Paul tweeted. “If the fraud rate is high, then every mail-in ballot should be examined.”

That is done as part of Kentucky law, an election law and voting rights professor at the University of Kentucky pointed out.

“This is, umm, exactly what happens with random auditing of elections,” Joshua Douglas tweeted back. “Maybe learn something about election law before making up lies?”

Trump’s campaign has moved to join a lawsuit at the Supreme Court about whether to count ballots that arrived in the three days after Election Day.

The Pennsylvania secretary of state reported that about 10,000 ballots arrived during that time frame. Biden is currently winning the state by more than 50,000 votes.

“This is an illustration of how small the fights are the Trump campaign is picking,” said Marc Elias, a leading election litigator for Democrats.

Hagel said one of the biggest security perils Trump poses right now is to Americans’ faith in their democracy.

“What this president has been doing these last few months, in undermining the legitimacy of our electoral process, that in itself is very dangerous,” Hagel said.