Stephen Sondheim’s wistful 1973 song Send in the Clowns was a song of regret. Things had gone so well. Everything had been fun. And then everything turned to dust. It had all been a clown show. And the singer suddenly realizes that she (or he, depending on who’s singing the cover version) had been the biggest clown of all. And like all sad songs, this was a big hit. We’re all pathetic clowns. Some of us don’t know that yet, but we will.
Rudy Giuliani doesn’t know that yet. But he will. Still, his clown-show this week might have saved our democracy. This clown is the president’s lawyer? If so, let’s think twice about sitting back and shrugging and, what the heck, letting this president keep his office no matter what the vote was. He asked Giuliani to represent him. What the hell was this president thinking?
This president wasn’t thinking. Politico’s Quint Forgey and Alex Isenstadt covered the big event:
They called themselves an “elite strike force team.” But the madcap news conference by President Donald Trump’s attorneys on Thursday afternoon was more campaign farce than cogent legal argument, as Rudy Giuliani offered several conspiracy theories and a litany of false claims that he pledged would reverse the outcome of the 2020 White House race.
“I guess we’re the senior lawyers,” Giuliani told a packed room of reporters inside the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C., flanked by fellow Trump campaign attorneys Jenna Ellis, Joseph diGenova and Sidney Powell.
In the 90 minutes that followed, the former New York mayor and his colleagues spun a web of mistruths that made mention of the Clinton Foundation, liberal megadonor George Soros and the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez.
Hugo Chávez died long ago. If they are Trump’s senior lawyers then Trump is in trouble:
Just hours earlier on Thursday, the Trump campaign withdrew its last remaining federal lawsuit in Michigan after having no substantive success with similar pieces of litigation across other swing states. Nevertheless, the president’s legal team pushed an alternate political reality at their news conference, which seemed designed primarily to show their boss that they were still fighting on in the face of facts.
Giuliani spoke next to a map of the United States that purported to show “multiple pathways to victory,” with six key battlegrounds highlighted in red: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. All of those states have been called for Biden, but the president’s personal attorney insisted his client would prevail – all while claiming that Trump was the victim of a “plan from a centralized place to execute these various acts of voter fraud.”
None of this seemed remotely possible:
Giuliani said this scheme had been “specifically focused on big cities” with a “long history of corruption,” all of which were controlled by “Democrat bosses.” Mail-in ballots “are particularly prone to fraud,” he falsely claimed, and the lack of security protocols in some states meant that votes could have been cast by “a dead person” or even “Mickey Mouse.”
“What I’m describing to you is a massive fraud. It isn’t a little, teeny one,” Giuliani said, going on to complain to reporters that “the coverage of this has been almost as dishonest as the scheme itself.”
That’s because no one took him seriously. The late Hugo Chávez is out to ruin us all! The coverage of this sort of thing might have been appropriate:
Trump campaign officials looked on aghast as the circus-like affair unfolded. At one point, the campaign’s own audio livestream of the news conference was interrupted by unknown voices remarking about the hair dye that seemed to be running down Giuliani’s face. The Trump campaign later claimed on Twitter that the people who could be heard mocking the former mayor “were NOT campaign employees.”
Does it matter? Rudy’s clown makeup ran down both sides of his face in the heat and hot lights. The world saw that, but there were bigger issues:
Even Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who hardly shies away from the president’s claims of election malfeasance, said on his Thursday-evening show that his team had reached out to Powell asking for evidence to back up her claims. Carlson told viewers he admires Powell and takes her seriously. But Powell angrily told his team to stop contacting her, he said, and never offered any proof.
And the whole time, Trump was tweeting – Everyone tune in and watch! An open and shut case of voter fraud. Massive numbers!
Two weeks have elapsed since Election Day, there is still no evidence to support accusations of mass voter fraud, and the 2020 election has been deemed to be “the most secure in American history” by a group of federal officials, election supervisors and voting technology vendors.
Biden, speaking later in the afternoon, said Trump’s increasingly desperate moves are “totally irresponsible” and greatly damage the United States’ standing globally.
“It’s hard to fathom how this man thinks,” Biden said following a speech in Delaware.
Biden was not alone:
Top Trump campaign officials who had spent months preparing for post-election litigation, including deputy campaign manager Justin Clark and general counsel Matt Morgan, have taken a backseat as Giuliani has assumed full leadership of the campaign’s legal effort – pursuing a plethora of debunked conspiracy theories alongside Ellis, Powell and others on his squad of attorneys.
Neither Clark nor Morgan were present at the news conference on Thursday. Also, notably absent, was Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, even though the event was held in the lobby of party headquarters.
Senior Republicans involved in Trump’s reelection effort privately tried to distance themselves from Giuliani’s appearance hours before it even began.
That’s what Axios was reporting:
Most of President Trump’s closest advisers have completely distanced themselves from his legal effort and are avoiding his lawyers to avoid being swept into their courtroom dramas.
Some of the president’s advisers act like they think he can still overturn the election results – because they remain on the payroll and don’t have another choice. But talk to them privately, and many say Rudy Giuliani and his team are on a dead-end path.
The true believers are Giuliani and his sidekicks – Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell – and not many others. Even Jared and Ivanka think this is going nowhere, people who’ve spoken to them told Axios.
Will they explain that to daddy? They know better. The only option is to carry on:
The campaign still has a daily conference call with communications director Tim Murtaugh, battleground director Nick Trainer and lawyers Matt Morgan, Justin Clark and Ellis. Kushner joins occasionally. Giuliani and Powell aren’t invited.
The near-universal opinion: In his efforts to “help,” Giuliani could not have done more harm to Trump.
So they’ll tolerate what their boss tells them to tolerate:
Giuliani asked the Trump campaign to pay him an eye-catching $20,000 daily fee for his legal services. And now, he’s litigating a case rooted in conspiracies: Powell is alleging that voting machines used in the U.S. were hijacked with software designed to keep the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez in power.
Donald Trump eats this up. Humor him. Write the check to Rudy. It can’t get worse.
That was Thursday. On Friday, things got worse:
President Trump received twin blows Friday to his effort to overturn his election defeat, with Georgia officials certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s slim victory there and Michigan Republicans declaring after a White House meeting that they had learned nothing to warrant reversing the outcome in their state.
“We will follow the law and follow the normal process regarding Michigan’s electors, just as we have said throughout this election,” Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R) and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield (R) said in a joint statement issued late Friday.
The developments were a substantial setback for the president after the tumult of Thursday, when his lawyers held a news conference on Capitol Hill and made incendiary and false claims that Biden had rigged the election and proclaimed their intent to aggressively challenge the results.
Biden hadn’t rigged Michigan:
Trump this week made an extraordinarily personal intervention in Michigan, where his lawyers hope to stall the state’s certification of the vote, set to be considered at a meeting Monday, and get the GOP-controlled legislature to appoint pro-Trump electors to the electoral college. Trump trails Biden in Michigan by about 156,000 votes.
But even after a personal invitation to the White House by the president, the state’s top two GOP lawmakers notably did not endorse his baseless claims of widespread fraud in the state and instead said they used the meeting to press Trump for more coronavirus relief funds.
The two guys from Michigan then decided to slap Trump in the face:
“We have not yet been made aware of any information that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan,” Shirkey and Chatfield said in their joint statement.
“Michigan’s certification process should be a deliberate process free from threats and intimidation,” they added. “Allegations of fraudulent behavior should be taken seriously, thoroughly investigated, and if proven, prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And the candidates who win the most votes win elections and Michigan’s electoral votes. These are simple truths that should provide confidence in our elections.”
Trump didn’t shoot them dead on the spot. He knew this had been a long shot, and the other news that day was more important:
In Georgia, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger certified Biden’s roughly 12,000-vote win, and Gov. Brian Kemp, also a Republican, signed the certification, leaving little chance for a delay of the seating of Biden’s electors there. Trump can still request a recount in the state, but Raffensperger – who has resisted pressure from Trump’s allies to support their claims of irregularities in the vote – has said he does not expect such an exercise to change the outcome.
“As secretary of state, I believe that the numbers that we have presented today are correct,” he said in a statement Friday. “The numbers reflect the verdict of the people, not a decision by the secretary of state’s office or of courts or of either campaign.”
He’s a Trump guy. So is Brian Kemp. They both said so. And they said Biden won the state. Neither mentioned Hugo Chávez. Rudy Giuliani has his theories. They have the numbers. They hate the result. But they don’t cheat. They too had just slapped Trump in the face.
In Wisconsin, election officials in Milwaukee and Dane counties on Friday began a recount requested by the president’s campaign. The Trump campaign asked that several categories of ballots, potentially amounting to tens of thousands of votes, be set aside for potential challenge. It was unclear that any large-scale ballot rejection would succeed, however, given that the types of ballots the campaign targeted were treated no differently from ballots elsewhere in the state.
In Arizona, the last pending legal challenge to the election, involving complaints from two voters that their votes were not properly counted, was dismissed Friday. And in a unanimous decision, the five-member Maricopa County Board of Supervisors — four of whom are Republicans — voted Friday to certify that county’s election results, vouching for the integrity of the voting process.
In Nevada, the statewide results are expected to be certified Tuesday. The following day, a Carson City judge is to hear the Trump campaign’s argument that the results should be overturned or annulled as a result of what the campaign said were widespread irregularities and fraud. Similar claims have met with defeat in other court proceedings in Nevada.
Pennsylvania counties were given a deadline of Monday to submit their official results to Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who is expected to move swiftly to certify the presidential race for Biden.
It was now too late to send in the clowns, and Paul Waldman adds this:
This isn’t funny anymore.
Okay, maybe – for a moment here and there – it’s a little funny. When Rudolph W. Giuliani conducts a deranged news conference laying out the globe-spanning conspiracy he says is stealing the election from his client, President Trump, and grows so sweaty that his brown hair dye oozes down his face, it’s hard to take seriously.
But this is what Trump has always been: a profound threat to everything we as a country hold dear, wrapped in a package of absurdity.
Everyone should have seen that from the beginning:
It was that way from the moment he began his run for president in 2015. The ridiculous hair, the ludicrous boasting, the pathetic insecurity, the gang of dime-store thugs he collects around him – all of it made the whole thing seem unreal. “Did he just say that?” we’d ask ourselves again and again, laughing through the shock.
The show he put on was so bizarre and compellingly absurd that our fascination with it made the horror seem less threatening. We didn’t believe Republican primary voters would really vote for him. Then we didn’t believe he could really win the general election. Then we didn’t believe he’d really do so much of what he did in office.
And when it was suggested that he’d refuse to leave the White House if he lost this election, even some of us who have assiduously documented his misdeeds for four years couldn’t quite believe he’d do that, too.
But that is what he just did:
The president of the United States has lost the election by a wide margin in both the popular vote and the electoral college. He and his allies have mounted legal challenges in state after state trying to get votes excluded, sometimes by the hundreds of thousands. They have made fantastical claims of voter fraud but have been unable to substantiate any of them, which is why their preposterous lawsuits keep getting tossed out of court…
Even if Trump somehow got Michigan’s electoral votes in this way, it wouldn’t be enough for him to win the electoral college. His hope might be that if he can get one Republican legislature to do it, the dam will break and other Republican legislatures in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia will join them. As the New York Times reported, “The president has also asked aides what Republican officials he could call in other battleground states in his effort to prevent the certification of results that would formalize his loss to Mr. Biden.”
The fact that having state legislatures overrule their voters would be legally impossible – state laws do not allow legislatures to step in and reverse the voters’ decision after the fact – is beside the point. We are witnessing an attempted murder of democracy, and the fact that it won’t succeed makes it no less horrifying.
And part of that horror is this:
For all that divides us, every American should agree that we must not stand for this. We cannot tolerate a president seeking to have his allies simply declare him the winner of an election he lost. What is the point of having a democracy if this is possible?
And forget the Republicans:
Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) is the only elected Republican who has come close to calling this crime in progress what it is; he issued a statement saying, “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American President.”
But that wasn’t some tremendous act of courage on Romney’s part. It’s the bare minimum of what should be expected from anyone who claims to be a patriot.
The rest of the Republican Party, with just a couple of exceptions, has not been capable of even that. They say, “Let’s let the process play out” or, “President Trump has the right to pursue all his legal options” or they duck into an elevator to avoid answering questions about what the president they’ve done so much to support is doing.
The next time any of them starts waxing rhapsodic about the glory of the Constitution and the timeless wisdom of the Framers, we should remind them of what shameless cowards they were at the moment when the system the Framers designed was tested.
And there’s this:
Five years ago, Trump said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose the loyalty of his supporters. Like so much else he said, it was almost comical in its absurdity, so much so that it was hard to take seriously.
Now he’s doing it – but it’s not some random person he’s trying to kill; it’s the American system.
So, choose sides:
No one can be neutral any longer. Either you believe in this democracy and have loyalty to your country, or you believe in Trump and have loyalty to him. There is no more middle ground.
The New York Times’ Timothy Egan puts that this way:
What’s unfolding now is an attempted coup by a con. It’s a bigger political scandal than Russian interference four years ago. And yes, it is likely to fail, and the system is likely to prevail. But the American majority cannot rest, nor rely on its sense of decency, until the election hooligans are beaten back.
Failing in court, this most authoritarian of presidents is pressuring Little Trumpers everywhere to overturn an election that Trump’s own cybersecurity chief, Christopher Krebs, said was “the most secure in American history.” He’s trying to force canvassers, certifiers, election board referees and state legislators to create enough chaos so that he can steal a win.
Egan is a bit outraged and sees that this will not end well:
The good news is that a decent majority of Americans think the election was conducted freely and fairly, a belief that has the added benefit of being true. Krebs, a Trump appointee who oversaw defense of the election for the Department of Homeland Security, issued a statement saying, “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” That assessment got him fired by the president on Tuesday.
The bad news is that an indecent majority of Trump voters think Biden won because of fraud. The Big Lie – that the election was rigged unless Trump is declared the winner – thrives in a disinformation ecosystem.
And that is here to stay:
Since the election, I’ve been trying to remain open-minded about what moved more than 73 million Americans to vote for Trump, knowing that he’s an awful human being and a nation-wrecker, trying to soil every institutional value we hold sacred.
I understand the tribalism, the urge to push back against condescending libs and the suffocating ubiquity of political correctness, the sense that only Trump can save a certain way of life.
But then Trump unleashed his flying monkeys to try to take back the office he lost by nearly six million in the popular vote.
So, here we are:
“American democracy cracked last night, but it didn’t break,” said Mayor Mike Duggan of Detroit, on the morning after the certification back-and-forth. “We are seeing a real threat to everything we believe in.”
One of those beliefs is the idea that honorable people will put aside partisan passions to keep the machinery of democracy moving forward.
But it’s pretty hard to do that when the routine act of ballot counting has become a life-threatening job. Arizona’s secretary of state, Katie Hobbs, described “ongoing and escalating threats of violence” against her and her family for trying to perform her duty.
This is Trump’s legacy: an attempt to blow up an election, from Wayne County, Mich., to Maricopa County, Ariz.
For Trump the failed businessman, cheating and suing were a way of life. For Trump the failed president, cheating and suing are a blueprint for his followers into the future. And I fear there’s no going back.
Send in the clowns? Don’t bother. They’re here.
That song was infinitely sad.