The United States Congress, a week after the nation’s Capitol was overrun by a violent mob while lawmakers were carrying out one of their paramount duties, now faces a paramount challenge: how to hold President Trump properly accountable for his role in the insurrection.
Failure to do so, whether by forced resignation or impeachment, would be an intolerable insult to the rule of law and thus to America’s system of government.
Trump stoked his followers to malevolent fury as he urged them to fight to overthrow his re-election loss to Joe Biden. It was the culmination of his effort to discredit the election as shot through with voter fraud unless he emerged the winner.
But the alleged “steal” that his followers sought to avenge as they ransacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 and put lawmakers’ lives as risk was a fraud itself. None of the purported evidence Trump cited in his pre-riot harangue on the Ellipse has stood up under inspection by the authorities and the courts as having had any bearing on the election’s outcome. He manifestly didn’t win in a landslide, as he has continued to assert.
This was plain enough to some Republicans who have been among the president’s most stalwart allies – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example. North Carolina’s two senators, Republicans Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, joined the overwhelming majority of their colleagues in bucking Trump’s insistence that Congress refuse to certify Biden’s victory. Both the Senate and House affirmed that victory just hours after reclaiming chambers that had been overrun by rioters.
In the House, however, even with the same outcome the dynamic was different. Among many Republicans there seemed to be an inability, if not an outright refusal, to process what had just occurred – a mob’s brutal invasion of the nation’s civic sanctum.
It was a mob incited by the president, desperate to stay in the White House. And it was a mob all too willing to believe Trump’s bogus claims that he – and they also, as his “army” – had been cheated of their mutual grip on power.
North Carolina’s House Republicans hardly covered themselves with glory as they aligned themselves with the president and his lawless supporting cast.
Of the state’s eight GOP House members, only Rep. Patrick McHenry of Denver (10th District) agreed to certify the contested electors from Pennsylvania – which Trump had spotlighted as a supposed hotbed of fraud despite his failure to offer any proof recognized by the courts. McHenry said that refusing to approve lawfully chosen electors would have violated his oath to uphold the Constitution.
Apparently the other seven – Dan Bishop of Charlotte (Ninth District), Ted Budd of Advance (13th), Madison Cawthorn of Hendersonville (11th), Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk (Fifth), Richard Hudson of Concord (Eighth), Greg Murphy of Greenville (Third) and David Rouzer of Benson (Seventh) – took a more lenient view of their sworn obligations. All were among the 138 Republicans who sided with Trump and the insurrectionists in voting to reject Pennsylvania’s pro-Biden slate of electors. The same group, minus Foxx and Murphy, also voted against the Arizona slate.
At his rally before the rioters swarmed to Capitol Hill, Trump unspooled a litany of allegations about election fraud not only in Pennsylvania and Arizona but also in the crucial swing states of Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada.
Of course, it’s impossible to show that fraud was utterly nonexistent. That provides a fertile ground for conspiracy theories.
What has been affirmed by none other than Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr — who quit just as the post-election drama looked as though it might drag him into the conspiracy quicksand – is that no fraud has been found that would have affected the election’s outcome. Trump and his allies simply can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that their dozens of attempts to challenge the results in various state and federal courts have flopped because, when it comes to any wrongdoing, none of their allegations have held water.
Ironically, Trump in his tirade hit on a kernel of truth when he linked his defeat to the coronavirus pandemic. His mishandling of the plague that has taken in the range of 380,000 American lives certainly was a campaign factor.
But that wasn’t the president’s point. He wasn’t conceding that his failure to lead an aggressive federal response and to convince people to wear masks had given Biden an edge. His complaint was that Democrats took advantage of the pandemic to tilt election rules in their favor and set the stage for fraud.
Which leads to another kernel of truth: Amid the pandemic, election rules in several states indeed were modified so that voting would be both more convenient and safer. For example, in North Carolina, as the virus began cutting its deadly swath last spring, the State Board of Elections proposed among other changes making it easier to vote absentee by mail. The General Assembly responded by reducing the absentee ballot witness requirement from two persons to one.
A lawsuit spearheaded by national Democratic activists sought further tweaks, such as ensuring that absentee voters would be able to fix errors in their paperwork so that otherwise eligible voters wouldn’t have their ballots thrown out. The elections board settled the suit with several voter-friendly concessions.
Republican legislative chiefs challenged the settlement, consistent with the party’s long-standing preference to keep a lid on the number of voters who might favor Democratic candidates. A main argument was that under the Constitution, only state legislatures may change the rules for federal elections.
In its defense, the elections board maintained that state law delegated to it the authority to make such changes in response to a “natural disaster.” The pandemic wasn’t the same kind of disaster as a hurricane that strikes in the days leading up to an election, but it also affected people’s ability to vote – at least, to vote without putting their health at risk.
These issues were hashed out in various court rulings as the virus continued its surge. In the end, the most conspicuous change agreed to by North Carolina’s elections board but not also by the legislature – extending the deadline for receipt of mailed absentee ballots from three days past Election Day to nine days – was left in place by the U.S. Supreme Court.
N.C. electors, good to go
Notice that when Congress considered each state’s electoral votes, North Carolina was not among the swing states whose votes drew Republican objections. Surprise, surprise – the Tar Heel State was giving its 15 votes to Trump. So even as pandemic-related changes spurred record turnout levels, this state’s voters were able to register their preference that Trump be given another term. There were no claims of fraud from the losing side – and certainly not from the winners.
Yet when election rules were changed in other states in light of the pandemic, without legislatures signing off on every particular, Trump and his forces complained that the Constitution had been violated – violated to such an extent that results favoring Biden should be tossed.
North Carolina’s Dan Bishop was among the Republican House members who spoke on the floor in opposition to the Arizona and Pennsylvania electors after dodging the rioters whom Trump had urged to march on the Capitol.
The day before, Bishop had issued a report entitled “The National Democrat Party Effort to Usurp State Legislature’s [sic] Control of Election Laws & the Implications for the 2020 Presidential Election Certification.”
“The Democrats’ objectives were to weaken ballot security, undermine positive identification of voters, and provide opportunities for post-election ballot-box stuffing,” he wrote.
Bishop channeled the argument of some federal judges regarding the legislature’s sole prerogative to change election rules. At the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, those judges were in the 12-3 minority when the court declined to block North Carolina’s extension of the absentee ballot receipt deadline. At the Supreme Court, Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch echoed that view in a published dissent, with Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas in agreement.
This narrow interpretation of the State Board of Elections’ powers simply failed to carry the day. Underlying issues may still be open to debate. Nevertheless, Bishop and others of like mind – Trump prominent among them – evidently want us to believe that elections conducted lawfully after judicial scrutiny became inherently fraudulent. And that the door was opened to actual cheating by crooked elections officials and voters alike.
All of Trump’s frothing-at-the-mouth incitements and the outrages committed by his deluded “Stop the Steal” thugs don’t change the reality that Biden won the election fairly and squarely under rules scrubbed by the courts for constitutional compliance and with ballots accurately counted in good faith.
Cheating during elections is a means by which power and advantage are hoarded by the cheaters to the detriment of everyone else, including those whose well-being hinges on government operating in the public interest. Of course it can’t be tolerated. But claiming falsely that cheating has occurred as an excuse to overturn an election is a form of cheating in its own right – especially when it leads to mayhem in the citadel of our democracy.
Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches, which first published this commentary.