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Trump, GOP’s ridiculous, flailing coup isn’t a joke. It’s a crime. There must be consequences | Will Bunch

Trump's push to overturn his election defeat is laughably bad, but it's no joke. We need to make it clear that assaulting democracy is a crime.

Supporters of President Donald Trump rally outside of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Saturday.
Supporters of President Donald Trump rally outside of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Saturday.Read moreBen Gray / AP

OK, so you haven’t seen so many slam dunks since the USA “Dream Team” won the 1992 Olympics, as Team Trump’s ace legal department actually embraces My Cousin Vinny while racking up a courtroom won-loss record that rivals the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s been more than two weeks since the media and all other reputable observers called the 2020 election as a resounding win for Joe Biden, and yet President Donald Trump and his minions continue to press a case for overturning the result that’s melted faster than the stuff running out of Rudy Giuliani’s hair or his wherever.

Yes, it’s so easy to laugh at the ridiculousness of Trump’s scheme — which he telegraphed for months before Election Day — to somehow get judges, or state legislatures, or the Electoral College to anoint him the victor of an election he couldn’t win by getting the most votes, even in the battleground states that handed him the White House in 2016.

The latest proof of the pathetic nature of the president’s plot to allege widespread voter fraud, with zero actual evidence, came Saturday when a Republican, straight-outta-the-Federalist-Society jurist here in Pennsylvania — U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann — dismissed his campaign’s latest election challenge with prejudice,” using words like a “Frankenstein’s monster” and “unhinged” to describe the case argued by Giuliani last week. Yet as that was happening, the Trump campaign was demanding a reality-defying third recount that will surely ratify his loss in Georgia, much like the quadruple-amputated knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail continuing to insist that “it’s only a flesh wound.”

But it’s time now for all the laughter to die in outrage. Because we need to state in the clearest and most unambiguous terms what is happening in America in November 2020: The president of the United States is using the power of his office to try to overturn, by any means necessary, the fair and democratic election that will remove him from office. In a nation that stakes its claim to “exceptionalism” on 44 peaceful transfers of power (despite one that wasn’t) over 231 years, its current leader is attempting a coup.

It’s not a joke. It’s a crime. And there ought to be consequences — for Trump and his enablers, and to ensure this never happens again.

The president, the Republican Party, and some of its key elected officials crossed a line last week when they went from frivolous courtroom challenges and insistent recount demands — annoying and antidemocratic, but legal — to demanding that election canvassers and state legislatures ignore legal vote counts, untainted by any evidence of fraud, and simply award unearned electors to Trump. What Team Trump and the Republican National Committee are demanding in Lansing, Harrisburg and other state capitals is the moral equivalent of sending tanks into America’s streets and seizing the studios of CNN and MSNBC.

You are living in a state of mimosa-fueled back-to-brunch denial if you don’t think that [stuff] got real the moment that the obscure Republican apparatchiks in Wayne County, Mich., attempted not once but twice — with direct encouragement from the president of the United States — to simply cast aside thousands of votes cast in the majority-Black City of Detroit.

Or when the Twitter account of the Republican National Committee — one of the two foundational structures of our supposedly exceptional democracy — endorsed the delusional claim by attorney Sidney Powell that “Trump won by a landslide” and that “we are going to reclaim the United States of America for the people who vote for freedom.”

Or when a just-reelected U.S. congressman from Pennsylvania, Rep. Mike Kelly, joined Saturday with other state elected officials with a galling lawsuit that — while almost surely doomed to fail — seeks to throw away my vote and millions of others that were cast here by mail, under a recently enacted law that was passed with overwhelming Republican support.

So I wouldn’t be high-fiving when a Sen. Pat Toomey — who’s retiring from politics in two years — admits that Biden won the election, not when the vast majority of his colleagues remain complicit in this coup attempt through their silence. Trump’s courtroom losses and hasty retreats — the outrageous stand by the Wayne County canvassers collapsed in about three hours — shouldn’t allow us to obscure that we are not only witnessing a crime in progress, but one that’s more insidious and damaging than Watergate, let alone the Ukraine matter.

The antics of Trump and his thoroughly corrupted Republican Party probably (and it’s alarming enough that I have to say “probably”) won’t undo the result of our fair, democratic election, but they are already having dire consequences in the real world. A recent poll found that a staggering 70% of Republicans don’t believe Biden’s election victory was “free and fair,” despite the mountain of real-world evidence to the contrary. The entrenched denial of Biden’s legitimacy by millions of Americans will make it all but impossible for the 46th president to govern as he deals with a deadly pandemic and a crippled economy. Even worse, it’s all but certain to inspire acts of violence by the deluded “people who vote for freedom.”

This weekend, I read a remarkable essay by writer Indi Samarajiva, who lives in Sri Lanka and headlined his piece, “I Lived Through a Stupid Coup. America Is Having One Now.” In it, Samarajiva writes about living through a ridiculous failed coup in his homeland two years ago and how the people’s seeming victory was followed by legitimate but weakened and inept government and then deadly violence on an Easter Sunday that killed 269 people. He sees Trump’s America as already way too far down this track.

“There’s a ticking bomb at the heart of your democracy now,” Samarajiva writes. “Your government, the very idea of governance is fatally wounded. Chaos has been planted at its heart. I don’t know what this chaos will grow into, but I can promise you this. It won’t be good.”

In our gerrymandered, truth-denying world, I think we’re long past the point of thinking there’ll be any political consequences for the Rep. Mike Kellys, the GOP chair Ronna Romney McDaniels, the cowardly state lawmakers who play footsie with a real-life coup, and all the Republican quislings too willing to go too far with what’s no longer a game. Instead, subverting elections is a crime — and it ought to be treated as such.

» READ MORE: So is President Trump staging a coup, or what? | Will Bunch Newsletter

If a powerful United States senator like South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham is phoning Georgia’s secretary of state and asking him to toss out legal ballots, or when Trump himself flies Michigan’s top lawmakers to Washington and ... someone is buying them $500 bottles of Dom Pérignon in the name of appointing Trump electors in a state Biden won by 150,000 votes, how is this not election tampering at the felony level?

Indeed, it’s heartening to read that Michigan’s attorney general, Democrat Dana Nessel, is openly considering whether state and local officials who bend to Trump’s wishes and fail to certify or attempt to override the legitimate vote count are committing criminal offenses such as bribery, conspiracy, or perjury (by filing false affidavits). Nessel’s approach is the right one, but it’s also just a start. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we need both stronger laws and a renewal of democratic ethics to ensure that every legal vote counts.

How do we make sure this never happens again?

Put civil servants instead of political hacks in charge of counting the votes and certifying the results. America is fairly unique among nations both in the highly decentralized way our presidents are elected but also in the outsize influence of extreme partisans in counting the votes. “The U.S. is an extreme outlier in the way it administers elections,” Eric Bjornlund of Democracy International told Time magazine, “both because of how much that administration of elections is decentralized and also because the administration of the election is done by a partisan official who … can run as candidates or endorse candidates in elections they oversee.”

Perhaps 2020 will inspire a campaign — which would have to be state and local as well as national — to make vote counting and certification less prone to political tampering. An independent and — to the extent possible — nonpartisan federal election panel could not only set standards for running elections but also ascertain a winner and begin a transition, something that Trump’s blatantly partisan General Services Administration head Emily Murphy has refused to do.

Strengthen state and federal election laws or amend the Constitution so there’s no possibility that a state legislature could override the vote count and appoint electors to the Electoral College. Right now, Trump and his goofy team of lawyers have seized on ambiguous language in our 1787 Constitution to assert that lawmakers in state capitals have the power to name electors, regardless of the results. Clearly, there’s no scenario where this would amount to anything less than a legislative coup; this loophole should be closed, pronto.

Get rid of the outdated and increasingly absurd Electoral College altogether. If fewer than 50,000 votes had shifted in three key states in the 2020 voting, Trump would have been legally reelected despite Biden receiving 6 million more overall votes — and it would have been the third time this happened in our young century. What’s more, Trump’s coup plotting simply wouldn’t be viable under a “one person, one vote” scenario where — as in every other developed democracy — the candidate with the most votes wins. Despite almost insurmountable obstacles, it’s past time for a serious constitutional push for electoral sanity.

If what Trump, Graham and other top Republicans are doing isn’t felony election tampering, then rewrite the criminal code to make it so. Look, it’s a felony to walk into a bar and tell someone whom you think is a hit man but is really an undercover cop that you want to murder someone, so it ought to be a crime to fete elected government officials in your hotel bar and tell them that you want to murder American democracy and the cornerstone of our way of life. Period.

Trump is clearly abusing his power as president. Impeach him. Again. OK, that’s a radical step, and probably not something I would do today, but I would encourage it strongly if the president’s coup gains even the slightest toehold anytime in the next two weeks. It sounds crazy with just 60 days in his term, but consider this: An impeachment resolution could include a political “death penalty” barring Trump from taking office again, not just ending the coup but also his rumored 2024 campaign before it can start. If enough senators like Toomey or Mitt Romney can be signed up to remove Trump now, Congress would even send a message to any future presidents that plotting coups will land you in the trash heap of history.

Here’s the big picture: 2020 has exposed that America’s democracy isn’t exceptional, or even particularly well thought out. To the contrary, it’s incredibly fragile — chock full of loopholes and exploitable flaws that were just waiting for a power-mad, narcissistic demagogue to exploit them, which is now happening before our disbelieving eyes. We can either try to fix this — incredibly hard as that may be in this already poisoned atmosphere — or we can watch as the American Experiment is slow-walked to the slaughterhouse.

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