Did President Donald Trump commit a crime when he pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" the votes necessary to overturn President-elect Joe Biden's victory in that state? Probably not, but the reason does not reflect well on Trump.
It seems clear from the recording of Trump's one-hour telephone conversation with Raffensperger on Saturday that the president sincerely believes he actually won the election, notwithstanding the complete lack of credible evidence to support that belief. In his mind, he was not soliciting fraud but attempting to correct it.
Trump's evident sincerity casts doubt on the charge that he was intentionally encouraging Raffensperger to commit a felony, as required to convict him of soliciting election fraud under Georgia law. But it also highlights the president's extraordinary capacity to believe anything, no matter how improbable, that makes him look good while rejecting out of hand anything, no matter how credible, that makes him look bad.
Trump begins with the conviction that he won the election. Although the official count shows that Biden won Georgia by about 12,000 votes, Trump knows that can't be true. He told Raffensperger he actually "won this election by hundreds of thousands of votes," because "there's no way I lost Georgia." The only possible explanation, as far as Trump is concerned, is that Biden's supporters cheated.
Exactly how they cheated is of little concern to Trump, who floated a litany of discredited rumors and conspiracy theories that Raffensperger and his office's general counsel, Ryan Germany, politely but firmly refuted. Trump was unfazed, because he knows he won. Desperate to validate that belief, he eagerly accepts even the most dubious claims of election fraud.
"This may or may not be true," Trump says at one point. "This just came up this morning, that they are burning their ballots, that they are shredding, shredding ballots and removing equipment. They're changing the equipment on the Dominion machines and, you know, that's not legal. And they supposedly shredded—I think they said 300 pounds of, 3,000 pounds of ballots. And that just came to us as a report today. And it is a very sad situation."
Trump starts by acknowledging that the rumors he describes "may not be true." But within a few sentences, he has convinced himself that the allegations of shredding and equipment swaps are reliable enough to establish "a very sad situation."
Later he practically begs for confirmation of the allegations. "Do you think it's possible that they shredded ballots in Fulton County?" he says. "Because that's what the rumor is. And also that Dominion [Voting Systems] took out machines. That Dominion is really moving fast to get rid of their, uh, machinery. Do you know anything about that? Because that's illegal, right?"
Germany, because he lives in the real world, cannot give Trump the lifeline he needs. "No, Dominion has not moved any machinery out of Fulton County," he says. "They have not been shredding any ballots. There was an issue in Cobb County, where they were doing normal office shredding, getting rid of old stuff, and we investigated that. But this stuff [is] from, you know, past elections."
Trump is unmoved. "It doesn't pass the smell test because we hear they're shredding thousands and thousands of ballots, and now what they're saying [is], 'Oh, we're just cleaning up the office.' You know." Now Trump has gone from presenting what he himself described as unverified rumors to not only believing those rumors but accusing Raffensperger, a Republican and Trump supporter, of covering up the truth.
Trump does not understand why Raffensperger is resisting his efforts to find the votes he needs to avoid admitting defeat. "You're a Republican," he says with dismay, as if that fact alone should make Raffensperger more cooperative. It does not enter Trump's mind that Raffensperger has public responsibilities that go beyond party allegiance. Those responsibilities include investigating claims of election fraud, but they also include rejecting such claims when they prove to be unfounded.
Similarly, Trump repeatedly calls himself a "schmuck" for endorsing Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, another Republican and Trump supporter. In Trump's view, Kemp's refusal to accept the claim that Biden stole the election shows he is unworthy of the office he occupies.
Trump describes another rumor, based on a misleadingly edited video that supposedly shows a Georgia election worker counting "18,000 ballots," "all for Biden," "three times." Germany says agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI looked into that allegation and found no basis for it. "They're either dishonest or incompetent," Trump declares.
Trump asserts that "dead people voted" in Georgia, and "I think the number is close to 5,000 people." That estimate, he says, is based on a comparison of voter rolls with obituaries, a method that can err in various ways: Sometimes people die soon after casting absentee ballots, for example, or voters have the same names and birth years as dead people. "The actual number [was] two," Raffensperger says. "Two people that were dead that voted. So that's wrong."
Trump can't believe it. "In one state [Michigan, supposedly], we have a tremendous amount of dead people [voting]," he says. "So I don't know—I'm sure we do in Georgia, too. I'm sure we do in Georgia, too."
I could go on, but you get the idea. Trump's conviction that he won is impervious to evidence.
The same could be said for many of the president's followers, who seem to believe the sheer volume of allegations shows something nefarious happened. Even if some of the specific charges don't hold water, they figure, there are bound to be enough illegal votes to change the outcome. The alternative is unthinkable.
Trump's self-flattering fantasy probably would not have persisted for so long or gained the following it has if he were not surrounded by people who reinforce his delusion that he won the election. During the call with Raffensperger, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and two lawyers, Cleta Mitchell and Kurt Hilbert, repeatedly chimed in to feed Trump's suspicions and cast doubt on Raffensperger's assurances. Pro-Trump lawyers such as Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, and Lin Wood spin increasingly baroque and bizarre conspiracy theories to explain why Trump was denied a second term. GOP lawmakers, including at least a dozen senators and nearly two-thirds of House Republicans, either endorse those theories or lend credence to them by claiming that electoral votes in "disputed states" cannot be trusted. Vice President Mike Pence neither acknowledges nor denies Trump's defeat, saying only that he "shares the concerns of millions of Americans about voter fraud and irregularities in the last election."
The result is entirely predictable: Polls suggest a substantial percentage of Americans, including most Republicans, think the election was "rigged" to install an illegitimate president. But it didn't have to be this way. Since Trump seems constitutionally incapable of conceding Biden's victory, that responsibility fell to his advisers and to leading politicians from his party. With some notable exceptions, they have failed to tell the president the truth or done it too late to check the spread of his outlandish claims.
The upshot is that on Wednesday, when Congress officially tallies the election results, Republicans will be forced to choose between alienating Trump's fans by acknowledging reality and appeasing them by joining Trump in his fantasy world. It's a no-win situation for which they have no one but themselves to blame.