US President Donald Trump's ongoing efforts to overturn the 2020 election results — laid out in stark detail in an hour-long weekend phone call with a Georgia election official — are demonstrating his unrestrained determination to maintain a grip on power no matter the consequences for the nation's democratic traditions.
Trump, in a Sunday phone call, pressed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" enough votes to overturn Joe Biden's win in the state's presidential election. The president repeatedly cited disproven claims of fraud and raised the prospect of a "criminal offence" if officials did not change the vote count, according to a recording of the conversation.
Trump has ventured into uncharted and dangerous territory since his November 3 defeat, becoming the first president who lost an election to try to hang onto his office by rejecting the will of the voters and casting aside results of the Electoral College enshrined in the Constitution.
Trump's refusal to concede, undermining the democratic tradition of a peaceful transfer of power and hindering the transition to a Biden administration, is particularly risky for the nation when it is grappling with a surging pandemic that has killed more than 350,000 Americans. Paying little heed to the virus in recent weeks, the president has largely abdicated day-to-day governing to instead focus on his efforts to cling to power.
On the phone call, Trump peddled anew conspiracy theories, disinformation and outright lies, insisting that he won Georgia despite multiple recounts that show the contrary. He repeatedly argued that Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, could change the certified results.
"All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have," Trump said. "Because we won the state."
Biden won Georgia by 11,779 votes.
The call showcased Trump's evolution since November 3. At first, he privately accepted that he had been beaten even as he publicly protested, hoping to show his loyal supporters that he was still fighting while eyeing his own future, politically and financially.
But as the weeks have gone on, Trump has embraced the narrative that his victory was stolen. His shrinking inner circle is now largely populated by those peddling conspiracy theories. The president lives in a media echo chamber made up of conservative television and social media voices amplifying his claims of fraud.
Asked if he felt like the president was pressuring him to do something illegal, Raffensperger told the Associated Press: "I think he was looking for any kind of advantage he could get, and I just don't see how he's going to get it."
Raffensperger added that Georgia's presidential votes were counted three times — first right after the election, then in an audit that hand tallied the results and finally in a machine recount at Trump's request.
"If they support a challenge of the electors for Georgia, they're wrong, dead wrong," Raffensperger said. Members of Congress will have to make a decision about the results in the other states, he added, "but in Georgia, we did get it right. I'm not happy with the result, as a Republican, but it is the right result based on the numbers that we saw cast."
Trump's renewed intervention and his persistent and unfounded claims of fraud come nearly two weeks before he leaves office and in the lead-up to twin runoff elections in Georgia on Wednesday that will determine political control of the US Senate.
It also added intrigue ahead of Trump's rally in Georgia today — likely the last of his term — in which he stumped for the two Republican candidates. In a rage after the Raffensperger call, Trump floated the idea of pulling out of the rally, which could been devastating to GOP chances in what are expected to be a pair of razor-thin races.
But Trump was persuaded to go ahead with the rally as a stage from which to reiterate his claims of election fraud and to present, as he tweeted, the "real numbers" from the race. Republicans worried that Trump might focus on himself and depress turnout by undermining faith in the runoff elections and not promoting the two GOP candidates.
In the end, Trump split his time rehashing many of the same debunked grievances he made days earlier in the Raffensperger call, while also urging his supporters to swamp the polls on behalf of Loeffler and Perdue in races he said would determine the "fate of our country."
Trump also signalled he had no intention of dropping his election challenges even after Thursday's counting of the electoral votes, urging the crowd to watch for new revelations over the next "couple weeks" and vowing: "They're not taking this White House. We're going to fight like hell, I'll tell you right now."
Raffensperger reiterated his frustration with disinformation that has proliferated since the election, much of it emanating from the Oval Office. He expressed fears that Trump's baseless claims would not only undermine the democratic process but could hurt Republicans' chances. People wonder about the best way to vote after false information has caused them to distrust both absentee ballots and the state's voting machines, he said.
"That is not a good message for you to ever get out to your base," he said.
Egged on by Trump, a dozen Republican senators have announced that they would support up to 100 House colleagues in challenging the Electoral College certification process. Wary of Trump's Twitter account and hold over their party's base, many other Republicans were slow to speak out, allowing the president to sow doubt for weeks and undermine Biden's legitimacy with much of the population.
Among those who spoke out, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a member of the GOP House leadership team, deemed the president's call "deeply troubling." GOP Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said the call was "a new low in this whole futile and sorry episode." He commended election officials "who have discharged their duties with integrity over the past two months while weathering relentless pressure, disinformation, and attacks from the president and his campaign."
Audio snippets of the conversation were first posted online by The Washington Post. The AP obtained the full audio of Trump's conversation with Georgia officials from a person on the call. The AP has a policy of not amplifying disinformation and unproven allegations. It annotated a transcript of the call with fact check material.
Various election officials across the country and Trump's former attorney general, William Barr, have said there was no widespread fraud in the election. Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia, battlegrounds crucial to Biden's victory, have also vouched for the integrity of their state elections.
Nearly all the legal challenges from Trump and his allies have been dismissed by judges, including two tossed by the Supreme Court, which has three Trump-nominated justices.