It was not a perfect call. Indeed, it was a very imperfect one. In a move eerily reminiscent of the Ukraine call that led to his impeachment in the House of Representatives just over one year ago, Donald Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in a call this Saturday to “find 11,780 votes” to overturn the state’s election results. “There’s nothing wrong with saying that you’ve recalculated,” Trump told Raffensperger.
All the while, Raffensperger—one of my “political heroes” of 2020—calmly, but firmly, rebuffed the president’s indecent proposal. As the Washington Post notes in its story that broke the news of the call and includes audio from it, Trump “tried to flatter him, begged him to act and threatened him with vague criminal consequences if the secretary of state refused to pursue his false claims, at one point warning that Raffensperger was taking ‘a big risk.’” At one point, Raffensperger responded to Trump, saying, “Mr. President, the challenge that you have is, the data you have is wrong.”
It’s easy to say you’d stand your ground if confronted with such a barrage of temptations, but we are talking about the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES flattering and threatening a government functionary who, 15 minutes ago, few of us had ever heard of. The fact that Raffensperger is, like Trump, a Republican makes his courageous stand all the more impressive. Democracy cannot function without such leaders who put loyalty to the rule of law above loyalty to Trump, concerns about their professional advancement, or even, their personal safety.
Of course, we can’t always count on heroes to emerge. Friedrich Hayek famously wrote that in a totalitarian regime,”the worst get on top.” He had a point. In a truly dysfunctional system (the kind we seem to be ambling toward), the best get weeded out while the worst, as Yeats might say, remain “full of passionate intensity.” For this reason, we must also have incentives that reward good behavior and punish bad behavior.
Count me among those observers who believe this attempt at election tampering needs to be investigated and vigorously prosecuted. This might sound strange coming from me. During the beginning of the Obama era, I would occasionally appear on cable news arguing against progressives who wanted to retroactively go after George W. Bush’s administration for war crimes. At the time, I believed that this sort of retribution would spiral out of control, threatening to turn us into a banana republic where today’s administration second-guesses and habitually prosecutes yesterday’s.
I still believe that would have been a grave mistake, but the egregious and consistent mob-like behavior of Trump and his administration makes turning a blind eye to his crimes a much more dangerous precedent to set. He hasn’t put America on a slippery slope to a banana republic; he’s simply governed as though we already were one. An example has to be made so that this doesn’t happen again.
Some observers are suggesting that Joe Biden’s Department of Justice should launch an investigation. According to Michael Bromwich, former Inspector General for the DOJ, “Unless there are portions of the tape that somehow negate criminal intent, 'I just want to find 11,780 votes’ and his threats against Raffensperger and his counsel violate 52 U.S. Code § 20511. His best defense would be insanity.” Others are suggesting that Trump violated Georgia state law, which has the benefit of being an offense he could not pardon himself for committing (even if you believe a president could pardon himself for federal crimes).
Of course, there's also the fact that Trump is in office until January 20, which means he could continue exploiting his power—or that he could still be impeached. Again. After all, the similarities to the Ukraine call are striking. In both cases, Trump attempted to intimidate and extort someone for his own personal political benefit. I’ll let the Democrats decide if the political fallout would be worth it, but this behavior is clearly worthy of impeachment. Still, aside from the ignominy of being the first president to have been impeached twice, impeachment would likely be just another sequel; the House would impeach and Senate Republicans would refuse to convict.
This brings us to the abominable Republicans who are set to object to the certification of Biden’s victory on January 6. It was already clear that they were putting loyalty to Trump (and their own careers) ahead of the constitution. But now—in the wake of Trump’s latest “perfect” call—they look even more complicit. By making this call, Trump removed any pretense that they are anything other than dishonorable sycophants who are, themselves, aiding in an attempt to subvert democracy.