Overturning the election.

Trump's legal fight is nearing its end.
Isaac Saul Nov 23, 2020
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

The latest on Trump’s legal effort to change the election results, a reader asks how I’d commit election fraud, and an important story about the fake faces on the internet.

Sidney Powell (left), Rudy Giuliani (center), and Jenna Ellis (right) speak at a oress conference on Thursday. Ellis and Giuliani distanced themselves from Powell on Sunday night, saying she was no longer part of the Trump legal team. Screenshot: 10 Tampa Bay News

Quick hits.

  1. U.S. hospitalizations for COVID-19 set a record for the 13th day in a row. The CDC recommended that Americans refrain from traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday.
  2. President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Antony Blinken as his Secretary of State. Blinken has been a Biden aide for 20 years and is expected to bring the U.S. back into the Paris Climate Accord, the World Health Organization and rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.
  3. Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) tested positive for COVID-19 and went into isolation. Loeffler had to pause campaigning for her January 5th Senate runoff in Georgia.
  4. AstraZeneca said Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine developed in concert with Oxford University was 90% effective, offering the third 90% effective or better trial results for a vaccine.
  5. Joe Biden said he is not pushing Nancy Pelosi and Democrats to accept a smaller, faster coronavirus relief bill, but supports Pelosi’s effort to pass an expansive package worth up to $2 trillion.

Reader feedback.

I received some fascinating feedback from epidemiologists, teachers and students in response to Thursday’s Tangle on school closures. Here are some excerpts, and then a link to two emails I got that I encourage you to read.

Clare, a COVID-19 epidemiologist tracking cases for the Philadelphia Department of Health, said "I completely agree with you that keeping restaurants open and schools closed is absolutely ridiculous, dangerous if not fatal for student development, and widens the gap in opportunities between rich and poor kids. Do I know the perfect solution? Maybe not, but I think it lies in opening schools and emphasizing the need for a change in the behaviors of families. First up is wearing a mask. Next up would be to stop having indoor gatherings with large groups of kids, probably just indoor gatherings in general." She also added "That's not to say that transmission doesn't happen in schools. Or that schools don't have the potential to be COVID cesspools in a perfect storm type of situation," but that she rarely sees COVID-19 transmission happening in schools.

Caitlin, a single mother of two living in Queens, NY, who lost her job due to coronavirus, wrote in to say “Everything about this sucks. For all of us. And it must be said that the children who stand to lose the most from this are drastically underrepresented in this conversation. Some of us are equipped to manage this better than others. Some schools have better administrators and teachers and access to more resources. I’m angry that in cities all across this country, indoor dining has remained available but classrooms have been shuttered. I’m mad that my governor and my mayor (both of whom I support!) seem to only communicate through a series of escalating and combative press conferences instead of actually working together… Still, it is beyond unreasonable to expect, let alone demand, a clear, impenetrable plan, an unobstructed view of how the coming days and weeks will look, or anything other than taking things day by day for a while.”

William, a high school student from Fort Smith, Arkansas, wrote in to tell me about his experience being in school this year. “I can say from firsthand experience that the majority of high school students who had to work from home last semester experienced a large drop in motivation and learned content at a much slower pace. I am very worried about schools closing again because I was terrible at managing my work from home last time it happened. Home is just a completely different environment, and it’s especially difficult to work if you have young siblings in your household. If schools close again, we could be talking about massive increases in students who repeat a grade, and even in students who completely drop out of high school, especially in low-income families and at-risk youth.”

Both Caitlin and William actually sent in lengthy, detailed notes about their experiences, which I’ve published in full in a Google document because I found them so interesting. You can go read them here.


What D.C. is talking about.

Trump’s legal fight. Over the weekend, the president’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in court stumbled again, with several states certifying their results and judges dismissing the latest efforts by the Trump campaign to obstruct Biden’s inauguration.

After completing its hand recount, which showed Biden winning the state by more than 12,000 votes, Georgia’s Republican governor and Republican secretary of state certified its election results over the weekend. Maricopa County, Arizona, the most populous county in the state, also certified its election results. Michigan is expected to follow suit today, though it’s possible the state board — with two Democrats and two Republicans — deadlocks. If they do, it’s expected Democrats will challenge the election board and force the certification in court. A recount is also underway in Wisconsin, where Trump is trailing by more than 20,000 votes. In 2016, a recount initiated there by Jill Stein gained Trump 131 votes.

In Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann issued a fiery rebuke of the Trump administration’s effort to throw out millions of legal ballots based on the fact that Democrats in some counties were allowed to “cure” mail in ballots sent in with errors. Brann, an unorthodox Obama appointee who is a registered Republican and member of the Federalist Society, is well regarded by Democrats and Republicans alike. The Trump team used “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations,” Brann wrote. “In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populated state.” After the ruling, with Biden leading in Pennsylvania by more than 81,000 votes, Senate Republican Pat Toomey issued a statement saying Trump had exhausted his legal options and congratulating President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on their victory. Pennsylvania is expected to certify its results today.

On Sunday, a group of Republicans led by Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA) filed a lawsuit attempting to delay the certification of results alleging that a 2019 state law creating a universal vote-by-mail system was unconstitutional. But the law was passed in the Republican-controlled state House in 2019, and it’s past the deadline to be challenged in court, making their attempts to undermine it now even more far-fetched and confounding.

Meanwhile, the Trump team separated itself from Sidney Powell, releasing a statement last night that Powell was not representing Trump and not on the president’s legal team. Until last night, Powell had been appearing at press conferences with Trump’s lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, claiming she had evidence Dominion Voting Systems had changed millions of votes for Trump. But shortly after refusing to present any evidence to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, word spread on the Trump legal team that, in fact, nobody had seen the evidence she claimed to have. Powell had grown a loyal following amongst some Trump supporters who insisted she was going to “release the Kraken” and lead a legal effort to overturn the results.


What the right is saying.

They’re about to throw in the towel. For the first couple of weeks after the election, the right was divided between those insisting the election be fully audited or recounted due to “irregularities” in swing states, and those insisting Biden had won fairly. Now, though, with Trump’s legal options all but exhausted, most on the right outside of Trump’s most loyal and fervent supporters are admitting it’s over.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote on Friday that the “figures barely budged” in Georgia’s recount of five million ballots by hand, though “the audit turned up several thousand votes that had been overlooked…But the errors don’t fit any conspiracy theory. Floyd County went 70% for Mr. Trump. Does anyone think a deeply red area intentionally forgot Republican votes? Floyd’s top voting official has now been fired, so at least shoddy elections have consequences.”

“If software flipped Georgia’s electronic totals, there would be some big, unexplained discrepancy between those data and the paper ballots,” the board said. “The hand recount found nothing of the sort. Georgia also asked Pro V&V, a testing laboratory certified by the federal Election Assistance Commission, to audit a random sample of Dominion machines. No tampering was found… Republicans have given Mr. Trump ample leeway to prove his case for ballot fraud, and we’ve approached his claims with an open mind. But if there’s no evidence beyond general innuendo, the President’s charges of a stolen election will undermine public faith in the electoral system.”

In The Federalist, Christopher Bedford said that the battle to secure the future of our elections is “far too important to be buried by conspiracy-theory accusations from the left and its media, which means it’s far too important to be left to conspiracy theorists. Election fraud is not just a real issue, it is a deadly serious one to the future of our country,” he argued. “It’s well-accepted both inside and outside campaign and serious election circles that once the vast majority of illegally counted votes are in the mix, it’s next to impossible to remove them beyond getting a federal judge to order a complete re-do on a state’s election. In the Trump campaign’s case, this would require multiple federal judges committing to multiple states redoing their elections. This isn’t going to happen — the crimes will not be undone in any kind of a meaningfully result-altering way.”

In The National Review, the editorial board hammered Trump for a “disgraceful gambit” after his failed legal attempts that haven’t “come close to supporting the kind of feverish charges” they’ve made in the press.

“Getting nowhere in court, the White House appears to be shifting to a political strategy based on blocking the certification of results and getting state legislatures to appoint Trump electors in states Trump lost,” the board wrote. “This is a profoundly undemocratic gambit that, if it were to enjoy any success, would precipitate a major constitutional crisis. The Constitution gives state legislatures the power to appoint electors, but it has been the norm for legislatures to appoint those electors on the basis of state elections for about 200 years. For any legislature to turn around now — solely because its party’s candidate lost and refuses to accept the result — and appoint electors in defiance of the public will would lack all legitimacy. It’d also be legally dubious, at best, to bypass state laws establishing elections as the mechanism for selecting presidential electors.”


What the left is saying.

The left has criticized Trump throughout his efforts to challenge the results, and that criticism has only intensified as his court challenges continue to flop. In The New York Times, Richard Hasen warned of an impending attack on voting rights.

“Even as the campaign lawsuits brought by President Trump over the 2020 election enter their death throes, many people continue to worry that Mr. Trump will find three Republican legislatures to magically snatch victory from the jaws of defeat,” he wrote. “They are concerned that he will pull off an antidemocratic hat trick through maneuvers like delaying recounts in Wisconsin and blocking certification in Michigan to allow these legislatures to submit competing slates of electors to Congress. The goal is to prevent Joe Biden from securing the Electoral College votes he needs on Jan. 6 for Congress to declare him president…

“The good news is that there is no real prospect that Mr. Trump can avoid a reluctant handover of power on Jan. 20. The bad news is that Mr. Trump’s wildly unsubstantiated claims of a vast voter fraud conspiracy and the litigation he has brought against voting rights have done — and will increasingly do — serious damage to our democracy. Our problems will deepen, in particular, because Mr. Trump’s litigation strategy has led to the emergence of a voter-hostile jurisprudence in the federal courts. New judicial doctrines will put more power in the hands of Republican legislatures to suppress the vote and take voters, state courts and federal courts out of key backstop roles.”

Karen Tumulty argued in The Washington Post that Republicans who swore an oath to the Constitution must tell Trump it’s over.

“As President Trump becomes more and more detached from reality, it is past time for him to hear directly from senior members of his own party that he must accept his loss to President-elect Joe Biden and participate in a peaceful transfer of power,” she said.

Trump needs to hear this directly, not via a concerned tweet here and there. “Republicans cannot deliver the message by cluck-clucking to the media behind a cloak of anonymity. Instead of stepping up to the national interest that beckons, they have indulged the president’s narcissism and abetted Trump in spreading unhinged conspiracy theories that claim the election was stolen. And what has that done? It has encouraged Trump to become more and more reckless, more and more lawless, to the point where he is putting the arm on Republican officials in Michigan, Georgia and elsewhere to overturn the will of voters in their states.”


My take.

Of all the things Trump has done, this is the most dangerous, the most extraordinary and the least justifiable. One might reply to this claim with cries of “children in cages” or family separation or the COVID-19 response. And while I agree those scars on the president’s record are more painful, the unfortunate reality is they were at least done with some precedent. Trump is not the first president to impose cruel immigration policies, nor was he the first to imprison migrant children or separate them from their parents. And he’s hardly the only global leader to be flummoxed by the coronavirus pandemic. But he is the first U.S. president ever to do this — the first to refuse to concede, the first to attempt to use presidential power to overthrow the results of an election, the first to deny the reality of his own defeat. Nobody before him has ever done what we are watching now. Only three former presidents have so much as snubbed an inauguration, and the last of those was in 1869.

Many try to justify this “fight” by arguing that liberals never accepted the 2016 election. That argument is not without merit. Four months into his first term, 68% of Democrats did not believe Trump was a legitimate president. Half of Clinton voters thought Russia had tampered with the Election Day vote count in 2016, something there is no more evidence for than Dominion Voting Systems flipping millions of votes to Biden. Indeed, liberals were sounding the alarm about electronic voting systems — including Dominion Voting Systems — between 2016 and the 2020 election. And many were prematurely grasping at conspiracy theories this year on Election Night when the outcome of the race was still in question.

But Hillary Clinton never did what Trump is doing now. She never even came close. She has blamed Russia’s influence, but this is a claim bolstered by Robert Mueller saying it was a “sweeping and systemic” effort to undermine her candidacy. She’s blamed James Comey and campaign staffers and racism and sexism as well. She’s continued to call Trump an illegitimate president. She’s done little in the way of conceding many of the more realistic reasons for her defeat. But she didn’t go to court trying to overturn the results. She didn’t demand a recount. She didn’t test the institutions’ limits or refuse to concede (in fact, she conceded quite graciously the very next day). In short, while she had more reason to be skeptical of the election outcome than Trump — however far-fetched those reasons were — she did far less to contest or challenge the actual results.

All of this is made worse by the fact that Trump is the incumbent, a sitting president using the tools of the presidency to undermine public faith in our elections. As I have documented extensively, and told you repeatedly, none of the campaign’s allegations of election fraud have panned out. Nearly all were easily explainable and many were concocted out of thin air (including the Dominion Voting Systems conspiracy, so absurd and evidence-free even the president himself has now abandoned it). All these claims did was endanger innocent poll workers, waste money on recounts and destroy the credibility of otherwise reasonable people who elevated them. Trump’s failed, comical, bizarre legal efforts have done little but undermine American trust in one of the few remaining institutions Americans trusted: our elections.

My weeks of tracking these fraud claims, the court cases, and talking to election experts has left me confident that this was the most secure election in recent memory, as the Department of Homeland Security claimed. Many of the past examples of election fraud are no longer possible due to changes we’ve seen in recent decades. 95% of all votes in this election were cast on paper ballots, the simplest and most reliable audit tool there is, including nearly every single vote (save those cast by people with disabilities) in the battleground states. Canvassing, audits and recounts have so far affirmed these vote totals, and not one has turned up notable issues with the mail-in voting process. None have turned up any evidence to bolster the Trump team’s claims. Live streams that were broadcast across the globe gave us an in-person look at the counting process. Judges in every battleground state have affirmed there was no voter or election fraud that deviated from the normal, minor kinds of illegality or mistakes we see in every election — things that rarely if ever change election outcomes.

Christopher Bedford, whose aforementioned article in The Federalist argued that this moment is too big for conspiracy theories, goes on to cite several allegations of voter and election fraud that I have personally researched, explained and debunked. The idea that election fraud or voter fraud doesn’t happen is a myth (it does). It’s also not true that the Trump campaign has refused to provide evidence (they’ve produced several sworn affidavits virtually all of which have been exposed as fraudulent or baseless). The issue is that the evidence they’ve provided is so inept it hasn’t lasted more than a few hours in any courtroom in America, and even the evidence that’s been thrown out has often deviated substantially from the claims Trump is making on Twitter or to the press.

It’s not hard to do what honest conservatives — even those who desperately wanted to see a second Trump term — are doing now. The Wall Street Journal editorial board, The National Review, Pat Toomey, Fred Upton, Chris Christie, Stephen Schwarzman, Tucker Carlson, Liz Cheney, Brad Raffensberger and dozens of other Trump-friendly right-wingers have all said Trump has failed to provide evidence for his claims. He’s exhausted his legal options. He lost. It’s not “partisan” and doesn’t make me a “hack” to point this out and say that what Trump is doing right now is dangerous and deranged. Because it is. Most people at or near the political center feel this way, whether they voted for Trump or not. The only ones still holding out are the actual hacks and Trump sycophants.

It’s past time for this charade to end.


Your questions, answered.

Q: I'm wondering if you could tackle the election fraud story from a different angle: (if you wanted to commit fraud) How would you do it?

— James, Eden Prairie, Minnesota

Tangle: This is one of my favorite Tangle questions I’ve ever gotten.

The first and most obvious response is I would target a local race. While election fraud is rare, the times that it has been effective were when the margins to change the outcome of a race were very small. That’s what we saw in Philadelphia and in North Carolina, where ballot harvesting and ballot stuffing could have changed the outcomes of these races had they not been intercepted.

If I wanted to “go big,” I would target a place — like Texas — where there was a heavy dose of electronic voting. The Dominion Voting Systems conspiracies, which fell apart in spectacularly laughable fashion last night, are, of course, absurd. But what is actually true is that all-electronic voting is still the most vulnerable kind of voting, because when there is no paper trail there’s no way to “know” for sure what happened. 95% of all votes in this year’s election were cast on paper ballots, which is part of why it was the most secure and transparent election we’ve had in a long time. “You can’t hack a paper ballot,” election expert David Becker said to me last week.

All of the battleground states this year — FL, GA, NC, VA, PA, OH, MI, WI, MN, IA, AZ, NV — used paper ballots, with the exception of people with disabilities (who voted on accessible machines but often produced paper ballots as backup). What made this election so secure is that we were able to confirm the electronic results with paper ballots.

But the inverse of that — an election where there were no paper ballots — would be much riper for manipulation. Once you establish the election you want to target based on that criteria, and based on all the crime novels I’ve ever read, you’d want to keep the fraud team to a very small circle. I’d do research on county election officials’ social media accounts and try to find the biggest partisan hack I could, and then target them. If we’ve learned anything from the last two weeks, it’s that a frighteningly small number of people can upend the election process pretty dramatically.

Once you choose your county, then your county official, a district where there is no paper trail and an objective — the options open up a bit. An intrusion of the voting machines would likely be caught in a post-election check-up (which occurs on all voting machines), but simply not tallying early or absentee votes — or uploading them improperly — does not seem so far-fetched. We actually saw this happen by accident in two pro-Trump counties in Georgia where officials likely had pro-Trump political leanings, which makes me think doing it on purpose is certainly feasible.

Of course, once the deed is done you’d also have to hope your election doesn’t raise any red flags in post-election audits, recounts or canvasses, which seems unlikely. And you’d have to hope the partisan county election official you recruited doesn’t shoot off their mouth and blow the secret, which also seems unlikely. And you’d have to work through all of these processes in a successful, targeted way to advance your candidate and simultaneously not leave a trail of your own incriminating evidence or actions.

In summary, performing this exercise reaffirms for me just how hard it would be — even in a state that doesn’t have paper ballots, which makes it practically impossible to pull off without getting caught. You’d need a small team, an extreme partisan with serious election power, perfect execution, and a lot of luck. That’s why local election fraud schemes are so often sniffed out and prosecuted, and it’s why so few political campaigns actually attempt them at all anymore, much less on a larger scale.


A story that matters.

As efforts to stop the spread of misinformation ramp up, the technology to help spread it keeps improving. In a stark illustration of what we’re up against, The New York Times just published a mind bending feature that includes dozens of photographs of computer-generated profile pictures — people who look so real it’s nearly impossible to believe they aren’t. “These simulated people are starting to show up around the internet, used as masks by real people with nefarious intent: spies who don an attractive face in an effort to infiltrate the intelligence community; right-wing propagandists who hide behind fake profiles, photo and all; online harassers who troll their targets with a friendly visage,” The Times reports.


Numbers.

  • 79. The percentage of Trump voters who believe this election was stolen through illegal voting and fraud.
  • 56. The percentage of Trump voters who don’t believe their vote was recorded accurately.
  • 66. The percentage of all voters who support continuing the expanded voting options to increase convenience going forward.
  • 82. The percentage of all voters who believe it’s very-to-somewhat important for employers to give time off to employees so they can vote.
  • 83. The percentage of Trump voters who believe the media is the enemy of the people.
  • 81. The percentage of Republican voters who have less respect for Democrats than they did four years ago.
  • 77. The percentage of Democratic voters who have less respect for Republicans than they did four years ago.
  • $14 billion. The estimated amount of money spent on the 2020 election by political donors.

Polls?

On Friday, Tangle subscribers got a special edition exploring the question a lot of people are asking right now: Were the polls really wrong in 2020? We examined the arguments out there for and against this thesis — and then I shared my takeaway from the data, and what’s next in the polling world. You can check it out by clicking the button below.

Read about the polls!


Have a nice day.

California State University has just opened up a massive database to the public that contains remote job vacancies across the country. The university said it wants to “pull the rising unemployment level in the country back to its normal level” and hopes the database can help. There are more than 3,000 active job openings across different fields and industries in the database, which pulls from job boards that have remote-based positions. More than 21 million Americans are still receiving jobless benefits through government programs.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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