By Jeremy Herb, CNN
Seven Senate Republicans defied former President Donald Trump by voting to convict him for inciting an insurrection after losing the 2020 election. But eight months later, they’re largely responding with a collective shrug to warnings again he’s taking steps to try to overturn the 2024 election, telling CNN they see no reason yet to be alarmed.
CNN surveyed the lawmakers this week in the very halls of the Capitol where the Trump-inspired insurrection occurred on January 6, less than a year after the lawmakers took a bold stand against the powerful leader of their party and voted to remove him from office in response. The months that followed have been filled with recriminations by Trump against the lawmakers who opposed him, as he now systematically attacks and tries to run them out of office with the support of his MAGA base that’s kept a stranglehold on the Republican Party.
The Republican senators say they it’s too early to be concerned that Trump would seize on another election conspiracy to try to overturn a 2024 result that doesn’t go his way: He’s not even a candidate yet, and even if he runs, Trump won’t have the power of the federal government at his disposal like he did in 2020.
“Until there’s a 2024 filing date, I don’t necessarily know if anybody is in or out of the race,” said Sen. Richard Burr, a retiring North Carolina Republican who said he’s focused on election security and the 2022 midterms. “So, it’s sort of an irrelevant thing to talk about somebody that might run in ’24 and what they might be saying.”
CNN spoke to six of the seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump about the concerns democracy experts are raising. The seventh, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, declined to answer questions when approached by CNN, and a spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
“That’s kind of premature,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican. “He obviously tried to miscommunicate the one that already did happen.”
“I have no idea what President Trump’s plans are,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican. “I’m really not focused on that. I’m focused on all the issues we have going on.”
The response from the Senate Republicans who voted that Trump’s conduct was impeachable after the 2020 election is starkly different than the urgent warnings coming from scholars who study democracies and election law. They’ve held conferences about election subversion, penned multiple opinion articles asserting a constitutional crisis is already here and argued Congress has an pressing need to act to put new guardrails in place.
Democracy experts say Trump and his allies already pose a grave threat to a close 2024 election — and American democracy. He’s convinced significant chunks of the Republican Party base to buy into his lies about the 2020 election being stolen, he’s got a stranglehold on the GOP to launch a presidential bid and he’s endorsed candidates echoing his election conspiracies who are seeking to run elections in the key battleground states.
“What Republicans discovered in 2020, maybe to their surprise, was that it’s possible to overturn the election, and that the base will not only tolerate it but support it,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist and co-author of “How Democracies Die.”
“And now, much more than 2020, there will be Republicans on the ground ready to exploit opportunities to either toss out ballots from rival strongholds or overturn the results,” he added.
Democrats say they, too, have deep concerns about Trump’s actions, the implications of new restrictive voting laws and the prospect of election subversion, and a new Senate Democratic report released Thursday revealed new details about how Trump tried to use the Justice Department to help him overturn the 2020 election.
“I think what we’ve learned from the Trump presidency, and the behavior of his allies, is not to ever dismiss what they are seeking to do,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who has authored voting rights legislation in the House. “Too often, when people said, ‘Well, they’ll never try that,’ or ‘He’ll never do this,’ or ‘That would be beyond the pale,’ — they go do it.”
‘It’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure again our systems are sound’
After Trump lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden, he began spreading false conspiracy theories of fraud in the states he lost. Trump took increasingly desperate steps to try to hold power, pressuring state election officials, state lawmakers, top Justice Department officials, congressional Republicans and even his vice president to embrace his election lies and try to overturn the election result.
His efforts were ultimately unsuccessful — but not before thousands of his supporters descended on the Capitol to try to stop the certification of the 2020 election in a deadly insurrection on January 6. Ten Republicans in the House voted to impeach Trump a week later, and seven Senate Republicans voted to convict him on the charge of incitement. But in the months that followed, Republicans have coalesced around Trump and his stronghold on the party’s base. He’s seeking revenge against all who crossed him: Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming was kicked out of GOP House leadership for defying Trump and is in a fight for her political life in Wyoming, while Ohio GOP Rep. Anthony Gonzalez chose to retire from Congress, citing in part the “toxic” atmosphere of the Republican Party.
A CNN poll last month found nearly 60% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said “believing that Donald Trump won the 2020 election” was “very” or “somewhat” important to their definition of what it means to be Republican.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is the only Republican out of the seven who supported impeachment up for reelection in 2022, though she hasn’t yet said if she’s running. Trump endorsed her would-be challenger in June.
Asked if she’s concerned Trump could try to overturn a future election, Murkowski told CNN this week she has concerns about efforts to subvert elections through actions like the intimidation of poll workers and foreign election interference. She said she’s “not speculating about what may or may not come in 2022 or 2024,” but argued there are systems in place in states to stop rogue actors who might to overturn an election result.
“You can have one election official, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to corrupt your entire state’s process,” Murkowski said. “You still have governors who are responsible to the people. You still have legislators who are responsible to the states that they serve, the districts they serve. It’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure again our systems are sound and the people that have oversight of those systems are good, honest and fair and principled people.”
Asked if he was concerned if Trump could try to subvert the election, Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy told CNN, “I’m concerned if anybody would.”
But he said the situation “is very different” now that Trump was out of power, because many of the actions Trump took in the lead-up to January 6, such as lobbying the Justice Department to investigate fraud and urging the vice president to intervene in Congress, could only happen as president.
“I think that was 2020 when he had the levers of power, which won’t be the case then (if he runs in 2024),” Cassidy said.
Election law scholars, however, argue Trump is taking steps that would give him the ability to try to overturn the election in the states themselves, including his endorsements of candidates in typically low-key secretary of state races who have falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, despite no evidence of widespread fraud. If they’re elected, the Trump-backed candidates would be in charge of certifying elections in states like Georgia and Arizona key to winning the White House.
The warnings from academics grew increasingly dire last month following the revelation of a memo drafted by conservative lawyer John Eastman, who advised Trump in the leadup to January 6. The memo proposed a step-by-step plan for then-Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election by throwing out electors and declaring Trump the winner when he led a session of Congress counting the Electoral College vote.
“It’s chilling. It is literally a document full of lies that would have provided a way to put an end to American democracy,” said Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science and co-director of the Fair Elections and Free Speech Center at the University of California, Irvine.
The fight over voting rights
Part of the disconnect over voting and elections is explained by the fight over voting rights, where Republicans have resisted the voting laws proposed by congressional Democrats.
Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who is retiring and voted to convict Trump, said he’d given plenty of statements on January 6 and stood by them when asked if he was concerned Trump could try to overturn another election.
Toomey dismissed efforts to change voting laws at the federal level.
“I think there’s a fundamental disagreement,” Toomey said. “The states are responsible for the conduct of elections. I think it works, I think it’s the right way to do it, and I think that legislation to nationalize that is misguided. It’s someone’s idea of a solution but it’s in search of a problem, so I’m not interested.”
Moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has thus far rejected voting rights activists’ calls for blowing up the filibuster to pass voting legislation, introduced a compromise bill last month, the Voting Rights Act, in an effort to win over Republicans with more tailored legislation. So far, he’s had little success, though he is talking to some Republicans, like Murkowski. She noted that she’s also worked with Vermont Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a bill to would restore part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision.
But so far, she’s the only Senate Republican to express support.
Collins said she seems some areas for bipartisan compromise on election laws, like the disclosure of campaign contributions from groups that shield their donors. But she said she’s opposed to federalizing election laws that are run by the states.
“Maine has high voter turnouts, and I don’t see why its laws should be replaced by federal mandates when we’re doing a good job,” Collins said.
‘Too many potentially realistic scenarios left unaddressed’
The voting bills that have been proposed in Congress this year deal largely with voting rights, but a group of Democrats and democracy scholars say an opaque 1800s law dictating rules for Congress to certify the presidential election, the Electoral Count Act, is long overdue for a fix — and could be exploited by bad actors.
“There are too many potentially realistic scenarios left unaddressed in the statutes … that create unnecessary room for political manipulation and introducing uncertainty and chaos into the process,” said Michael Morley, a law professor at Florida State University.
On Thursday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin released a staff report revealing Trump asked the Justice Department nine times to undermine the election result and considered replacing the acting attorney general with a DOJ lawyer who supported his election fraud conspiracies.
The goal, according to the report, was to convince state legislatures not to certify the results or to appoint alternate slates of electors, which could have led to Congress ultimately voting on who won the presidential election. Under the rules, each state delegation gets one vote — and Republicans controlled 26 of the 50 delegations.
Sources close to the House select committee investigating January 6 say the panel is likely to look at ways to safeguard the system for certifying the presidential election as the panel investigates the circumstances surrounding Trump’s effort to overturn the election in the lead-up to the attack on the Capitol.
“I have felt ever since the impeachment trial that there was a political coup wrapped up in a violent insurrection,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a Democrat on the select committee. “And we need to fortify ourselves against both of those nightmare prospects from ever taking place again.”
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