A Draft DoJ Letter Shows How Close We Were To a Coup. The GOP Is Learning For Next Time.

A recently released draft letter by then-acting Civil Division Chief of the Justice Department Jeffrey Clark, Trump’s would-be successor to acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, once again reveals how close we came to a coup by the White House in 2020. That letter asked the acting AG and another official to sign on to an untrue statement about election fraud in order to plant a false flag around which GOP state legislators could rally. In pertinent part, the draft read as follows:

The Department of Justice is investigating various irregularities in the 2020 election for President of the United States. The Department will update you as we are able on investigatory progress, but at this time we have identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple States, including the State of Georgia.

It went on to suggest actual mechanisms by which the Georgia legislature could nullify the results of the election:

While the Department of Justice believe[s] the Governor of Georgia should immediately call a special session to consider this important and urgent matter, if he declines to do so, we share with you our view that the Georgia General Assembly has implied authority under the Constitution of the United States to call itself into special session for [t]he limited purpose of considering issues pertaining to the appointment of Presidential Electors.

Acting AG Rosen refused to sign off on the letter, and for this Trump entertained the notion of simply firing him and placing Jeffrey Clark in charge of the whole Department. An alarmed group of Department leaders convened a conference call and asked aloud, “What will you do if Rosen is dismissed?” The answer was unanimous: They would all resign. That informal pact was enough to prevent Trump from going through with his coup attempt, on the belief that a mass resignation would gain more media attention and cast doubt upon his already flimsy and unsupported claims of election fraud in Georgia. 

The near move recalls a crisis nearly fifty years ago begun by President Nixon and dubbed the “Saturday Night Massacre,” when the embattled chief executive demanded his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General fire the special prosecutor who was looking into the break-in at the Watergate Hotel. When these men refused, Nixon fired both of them, leaving only the almost-SCOTUS bound Robert Bork in line to do his bidding. Bork fired the special prosecutor, albeit reluctantly, but the blowback from the public was severe: A public outcry was followed by widespread calls for Nixon’s impeachment and the appointment of a new special prosecutor who eventually secured the release of the damning Oval Office recordings that led to Nixon’s resignation.

Many believe the takeaway from these incidents is that the system is strong and will hold against would-be autocrats, even those willing to sack their own officials until they can find someone compliant and loyal enough to do their bidding. But what is happening today differs in one very major respect: Nixon did not have the backing of most of his party when he sought to install his own people and get rid of those pesky prosecutors. Had Trump been a bit more cunning in December of 2020, Clark or someone like him would have been installed long before the crisis reached a tipping point, and actions from the Justice Department would have given license and cover to the GOP to nullify the electoral counts in battleground states they controlled.

This is what the GOP is laying groundwork for now at both state and local levels. Their frightening takeaway from the 2020 election apparently is that they simply didn’t have enough of their cronies installed as Secretaries of State and election board members and commissioners, so they are now in a full-court press to ensure that the mechanisms for an overturning of elections are in place for 2024.

In Georgia, for example, a Trump-backed loyalist is primarying Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who despite being a stalwart Republican refused to bend to Trump’s requests that he “find” enough votes to change the election outcome. And a new law in Georgia permits the State Election Board to investigate and suspend local election boards that report repeated problems, such as long wait times, problems with voting equipment or problems processing absentee ballots. This seems targeted at Georgia’s largest and most reliably Democratic stronghold of Fulton County, home to Atlanta. It would potentially place GOP loyalists in charge of the county, perhaps following the primary of 2024, and open the door to all manner of mischief in the general election, including the very kind of false accusations and conspiracy theories that we saw proliferate in the wake of 2020.

Democrats are fighting back, filing several lawsuits against GOP takeovers of elections and shoring up their own candidates in key positions such as the Secretaries of State in Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. (Never before have so many cared who the Secretary of State is in a given battleground, but here we are.) Control of the governorships in the latter three will also be critical in keeping at bay the most blatant attempts at election stealing. 

Our takeaway must be this: Democrats cannot ever take for granted that the system will hold or that there will always be people of integrity willing to stand up for the system. The fact that some have stood up to disinformation and conspiracy—like Raffensperger or the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in Arizona, which is majority Republican but has defied a GOP subpoena and refused to countenance election shenanigans by the far right—may have simply bought us time and alerted us to the greater threat. The GOP already has identified systemic weaknesses that it can exploit or critical positions in election integrity it can fill with loyalists, and its radical foot soldiers continue to scare off election workers through increasingly rabid threats of violence. We have seen in the case of Rep. Liz Cheney how they are willing to hound out any party members who fail to toe the Trumpian line.

2022 will be a test run of how effective the new voter suppression laws and GOP takeover of local elections truly are. Democrats need to respond proportionately—in the form of greater turnout, robust lawsuits, strong local and state candidates, and ready assistance from the Justice Department—to stop a full-scale electoral calamity in 2024. In short, we must learn hard lessons from these very near misses because the GOP already has.