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Politics

Journalist says Republicans now have more reliable ways to overturn election results

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In a new article titled "Trump's Next Coup Has Already Begun," published in The Atlantic, my guest, journalist Barton Gellman, warns January 6 was just practice. We face a serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end in 2024. The attempt by Trump and other Republicans to overturn the results of the 2020 election failed. But Gellman reports that Republicans have been building an apparatus for election theft. They've studied Trump's crusade to overturn the 2020 results. They've noted points of failure and have taken steps to avoid failure next time by working to change whose votes are counted, who oversees the election, who chooses the electors and what happens in the courts.

Gellman also warns that Republicans have set lose tens of millions of aggrieved Trump supporters who are prone to conspiracy thinking, embrace violence and reject Democratic defeat. He writes Trump has built the first American mass political movement that is ready to fight by any means necessary, including bloodshed, for its cause. Gellman sounded the alarm before the 2020 election in articles titled "The Election That Could Break America" and "How Trump Could Attempt A Coup." Barton Gellman is a staff writer at The Atlantic and a former Washington Post reporter. He won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his coverage of the National Security Agency and Edward Snowden. He's the author of the books "Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden And The American Surveillance State" and "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency." We recorded our interview yesterday.

Barton Gellman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So, you know, a lot of people have said Trump tried so many different paths to overturn the 2020 election, but there was always someone who refused to go along with it. So democracy works. But you say in nearly every battlespace of the war to control the count of the next election - statehouses, state election authorities, courthouses, Congress and the Republican Party apparatus - Trump's position has improved since a year ago. And Republicans have identified the weak points in the election apparatus and are exploiting them.

Is there a master plan or a group of master planners who are overseeing the big picture? Or is this just a lot of people working independently at whatever level they're on?

BARTON GELLMAN: It's much more the latter. It's a kind of accumulation of local and state Republican operatives who are on their own initiative driven by the base going after all sources of impediment and dissent that prevented Trump from stealing the last election. So just for example, there's an obscure and otherwise little-known position on the Michigan Board of State Canvassers which is composed of two Republicans and two Democrats. The last time, in 2020, Trump's strategy was to get both Republicans to refuse to certify the state election results, which was required as part of the procedure before electors could be appointed for the state of Michigan, which Biden won. He wanted to deadlock that panel to save time and to give time for the Michigan legislature to take other actions in his favor.

There was one Republican on that panel who refused Trump's entreaties to vote against certification. His name was Van Langevelde, you know, a 30-something Republican functionary. But he said the election results are valid. I'm going to vote for them, and he's now been hounded out of office and he's off the board of state canvassers. That's what the Trump allies have done all around the country. They've looked for everywhere that said no to Trump, and they have tried to remove those people, or they have changed the law so those people no longer have any authority to get in Trump's way.

GROSS: You write that the strategic object of nearly every move by the Trump team was to get Republican state legislatures in states that Biden won to seize control of the results and appoint Trump electors instead and all of the other objectives in the courts, in the state election panels, the Justice Department, the vice president's office was to reach that goal of substituting Trump electors for Biden electors at the state level. Is that still the strategy?

GELLMAN: That's exactly the strategy. Electors are the currency of a presidential election. You have to get to 270, and that's how you win the presidency. And Trump's strategy last time and next time is to take a state that Biden nor the Democratic nominee wins and persuade the Republican legislature to substitute Trump electors for the Biden electors to say based on some excuse or another that the choice of the voters can't be relied upon, that there was fraud or irregularities and the legislature is therefore going to choose who the legislature thinks won. I mean, it's an audacious and outrageous and completely beyond the pale kind of transaction here. It's saying let's fire the voters and decide for them who wins the presidency.

It was so audacious that last time around, Trump never managed to persuade any of the legislators acting formally to do this. But the conversation has now been had over and over and over again. It's been normalized since 2020. And there is much more reason to believe that Trump could be successful next time. What it needs is an excuse from something like a board of state canvassers or a judge or a state election authority that's been taken over by a proponent of the big lie and that gives a quasi-legal cover to the legislature to appoint its own electors.

GROSS: So what is the legal strategy that would allow Republican-controlled state legislatures to basically overturn the results of the election in that state and appoint Republican electors to the electoral college instead of the Democrat electors that were elected in the state?

GELLMAN: It goes back to the days of the founders. In the first years after the Constitution was written in the first elections, under Article 2 of the Constitution, electors for the presidency were selected, as the Constitution says, in the manner of their own choosing, referring to the legislators. So state legislatures were in charge of choosing electors. Now, for more than 150 years, every state has decided that it would choose electors by asking its voters to vote. So we are accustomed to choosing electors by the popular vote in each state. But that's not the way the Constitution required. And so what the legal strategy is is for the state legislators to take back their constitutional authority to directly choose electors. And so they can disregard what their voters choose or they can claim that the voters' choice has been irrevocably tainted by fraud and therefore the legislators can make the choice.

And the reason for this strategy is that there are a number of important swing states in a presidential election that went for Biden in 2020 but have all-Republican legislatures at home. And so the Republican legislatures could theoretically override the choice of the voters. And that's exactly what Trump asked them to do last time and will be asking them to do next time.

GROSS: So let's look some more at this Republican strategy to potentially overturn the Democratic electors and substitute a slate of Republican ones. What would it take to successfully do that? How do you create a slate of Republican electors that are legitimate if the Democratic electors have won?

GELLMAN: So the scenario goes something like this. Take the state of - suppose it's Arizona in 2020. The people vote. Biden wins the state by a narrow margin of - I don't actually remember. It was something on the order of 10,000 votes. The Democratic secretary of state, Katie Hobbs, certifies that Biden has won the vote in the state and therefore that the electors from the state of Arizona shall be Biden electors and those electors will gather on December 14 during the quadrennial meeting of the Electoral College and cast their votes for Biden.

Meanwhile, the Republican legislature in Arizona says, we don't trust the count. We have done our own pretend audit, have detected fraud. And we believe that Trump has actually won the vote, that Trump is the victor in Arizona. And we, the legislature, using our powers under Article 2 of the Constitution, hereby appoint Trump electors instead of Biden electors.

And so now what happens is that Congress, when it gathers to meet on January 6, is presented with a slate of electors that were signed by the Democratic secretary of state and the governor of Arizona, who did sign the certification in 2020, on the one hand. And then another slate of electors that are duly transmitted by the lawful legislature, House and Senate, by majority vote have appointed Trump electors. And Congress has to sort out which ones count, if either.

GROSS: So was Katie Hobbs, the secretary of state in Arizona who you mentioned - was she one of the people who have been pushed out?

GELLMAN: No, she hasn't been pushed out. She's been bypassed. The Republican state legislature passed a law that says only until the date of the next election, in case a Republican wins, the secretary of state will have no power to represent the state of Arizona in legal matters pertaining to the election. So they simply took away her power to do what secretary of state does, which is to oversee the election. That's just another example of the way Republicans have gone around methodically either pushing out or defanging every opponent of Trump's big lie.

And so for example, Trump, also in Arizona, has denounced the governor, Republican Governor Ducey, who signed the certification of Biden's victory in 2020. And so he's now endorsed a candidate to replace Ducey who has stated that she would not have certified by his victory despite the fact that Biden won and, in effect, is promising to put her thumb on the scale next time as well.

GROSS: How close did any state come to overturning a Biden victory in that state in 2020?

GELLMAN: There was a crescendo of pressure from Trump in the days leading up to January 6, which is the day that Congress actually counted the electoral votes. And state legislators had been resistant. They were stunned by the request to discard all the votes of their voters. And they wanted to support Trump, but they weren't quite sure what to do. The state of Pennsylvania had its state House and Senate leadership send a letter to Congress saying that Pennsylvania should not have certified the victory for Biden and asked Congress to delay the count of the electors so that Pennsylvania could reconsider.

That's the closest any state actually came. But Rudy Giuliani was convinced that if they could have 5 or 10 more days to keep the pressure on the state legislatures that they would be able to flip some of them into at least decertifying their votes so that there would be no certified electoral votes from that state and the election would therefore be thrown to the House of Representatives.

GROSS: You know, most people, I think, don't even know who is in their statehouse. And it's so interesting to see how much power state legislatures have when most voters don't even know much about who those legislators are.

GELLMAN: Yeah. It's quite frightening in the context of presidential politics because we haven't had to worry about what state legislators thought about the presidential election very much because the voters got to choose their president. If you get into a situation in which the statehouse and the state Senate are going to choose for them, then yeah (laughter). I'm going to want to take considerably more interest in who those people are.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Barton Gellman. His new article in The Atlantic is titled "Trump's Next Coup Has Already Begun." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN JEANRENAUD'S "AXIS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Barton Gellman. His new article in The Atlantic is titled "Trump's Next Coup Has Already Begun." Gellman is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

You say that Republicans are already preparing court strategies, legal strategies for overturning the results of the 2024 election if a Democrat wins the election. What do you know about what those strategies are?

GELLMAN: Well, first of all, just to set the stage, these strategies are fundamentally opportunistic in that they take advantage of the fact that there are closely contested states in the presidential election that are turning Democratic but are represented at home by state legislatures that are dominated by Republicans. And so you have Republican control of the state House and Senate in a state that is beginning to turn towards Democrats in the presidential election.

So the legal strategy to take advantage of this is called the Independent State Legislature Doctrine. It's a doctrine only by proposal. And the idea is that because state legislatures under the constitution have the authority to decide how electors are chosen, that any deviation from state law about how elections are to be run - for example, if the state election administration sends out mail ballots because there's a pandemic and invites voters to vote by mail when the state legislature has not explicitly authorized that, then the state legislature may take over the selection of electors because its will is paramount. It's basically a doctrine that allows for the override of selection by voters. It's a way of firing the voters and assigning their votes to the candidate of the Republican legislature's choice.

GROSS: Since having a Republican-controlled state legislature is so essential to the strategy for 2024, what is the Republican plan to try to ensure that Republicans control state legislatures in swing states?

GELLMAN: The interesting thing about a state legislature is the state legislature also gets to draw the district lines when apportioning votes inside the state. So they are gerrymandering the - not only the U.S. federal congressional districts, but their own state House and Senate districts so that they just about can't lose. So you have lines drawn in such a way that a state that voted for Biden is represented overwhelmingly by Republicans because of the way they drew the district lines.

GROSS: We talked a little bit about this, but election officials who served as guardrails when Trump was trying to overturn the results of the election - many of them were just, like, pushed out of the way. And one example of that is Brad Raffensperger, who was Georgia's secretary of state. And he refused to, quote, "find" the votes that Trump said he needed to win the state. This was that infamous phone call where Trump said, all I need you to do is find, you know, the number of votes I need to win Georgia. So Raffensperger was censured. He was primaried. He was stripped of his power as chief election officer. What's he doing now? Does he still have a position?

GELLMAN: Brad Raffensperger is still secretary of state. He is running for reelection. A Trump-backed candidate is opposing him in the Republican primary. This Trump-backed candidate says that Raffensperger should not have certified Biden's victory, even though there were three full counts made of the vote - two audits and one original count. So Trump is trying to install - and the state Republican Party is trying to install - a more pliant secretary of state in his place.

Meanwhile, for good measure, the state Legislature has removed Raffensperger as a voting member of the state election board. So if Raffensperger is reelected, the next election, he will not have oversight of the election certification. He won't be one of the people who votes to decide on the election certification. And not only that, but the state Legislature has given itself power to fire the county election officials - with special reference to Fulton County, where Atlanta is and where the Democrats are - so that Raffensperger no longer certifies the vote. The state election authority, appointed entirely by the Republican legislature, has more power, and they can fire the county election authorities in Democratic counties if they want and put in someone else. This is the way they're changing the rules so they get to decide who wins.

GROSS: My guest is Barton Gellman. His new article in The Atlantic is titled "Trump's Next Coup Has Already Begun: January 6 Was Practice." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE REICH'S "MALLET QUARTET I. FAST")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Barton Gellman. He's a staff writer at The Atlantic. His new article is titled "Trump's Next Coup Has Already Begun." And it's in part about how January 6 was just practice. He warns that we face a serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end in 2024. He says the attempt by Trump and other Republicans to overturn the results of the 2020 election failed. But Republicans have been building an apparatus for election theft, finding ways they hope to avoid all the obstacles that stood in the way of subverting the results of the 2020 election.

The infrastructure of elections is being changed in many states. And it's happening quickly. It's happening beneath the radar for many people. Not everybody's paying attention to this. And then it remains in place, right? I mean, it's - what are the odds that these changes will just kind of stay in place and that the whole nature of elections is going to change for a really long time?

GELLMAN: A healthy democracy needs fair referees and counts on the idea that fundamentals of things like counting votes can be done reliably by nonpartisan officials. That's the tradition. That's what distinguishes elections in a place like the United States or in Western Europe from elections in countries where, you know, the results are fixed. And that's changing right now in front of our eyes. And because these seem like small, tactical, bureaucratic changes, they're not arousing the interests of the public. And they're not rousing protectors of democracy to regard this as an urgent problem. And this is, I believe, a democratic emergency, and that without very strong and systematic pushback from protectors of democracy, we're going to lose something that we can't afford to lose about the way we run elections.

GROSS: And what you're describing, I mean, it's happening in a significant number of states. You say, in at least 15 states, Republicans have advanced new laws to shift authority over elections from governors and career officials in the executive branch to the state legislature. And that 15 states is a lot of states. And I assume this includes swing states because those are the states that really count in the plan, right?

GELLMAN: Yeah. I mean, it's a strange thing that the ideology of Trumpism - that the last election was marked by systematic fraud, which it was not - is so widespread now that even in states that Trump won, they're calling for audits of the vote (laughter) and claiming that Democrats committed fraud. Although, why they would commit fraud in order to lose the state is left mysterious. But, yeah, there are some Democratic states and some Republican states where these changes are being made. And they're driven by a highly passionate and motivated base of voters who genuinely believe the election was stolen last time. They have fallen victim to this systematic propaganda that was put out by - first and foremost by Trump, but by a whole ecosystem of right-wing amplifiers.

GROSS: Do you think the strategy by Trump supporters to recount votes even when Republicans won is to just normalize the idea of, no, we do recounts, that's what we do?

GELLMAN: It's really to normalize the idea that the system can't be trusted, that the election system is riving by fraud, that nothing is trustworthy and that voters shouldn't trust the administration of elections. I mean, it is so profoundly damaging to civil society, to the whole idea of a democratic republic - that you can't trust the institutions that count the votes. But that is the fundamental message that Trump has been sending since well before the last election.

GROSS: So in terms of who oversees the elections, we've talked about the state legislature. We've talked a little bit about secretaries of state who have been undermined. Nonpartisan election officials at local levels have been driven out by fear because they've been attacked, they've been threatened by Trump supporters. So - like, that's another big change that we're facing. So for the people who are being, like, chased out with threats to their safety, who are they being replaced with?

GELLMAN: Well, this is hard to follow because there are, I want to say, on the order of 10,000 election authorities in the United States, most commonly at the county level. And then there are the precinct level. And they are resigning in droves. I mean, their voicemails and their emails are filled with hatred and scary attacks and people telling them that they're going to be executed in public, that they should fear for the safety of their families and their children. And they're saying, I didn't sign up for this. I'm just a volunteer who wanted to perform my civic duty. But this is too much for me. And there are grassroots efforts, well-funded by Republicans, to replace these people with true believers in the big lie and true believers in the sort of cult of Trump in the Republican Party.

GROSS: They are going from the ground up. Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Barton Gellman. His new article in The Atlantic is titled "Trump's Next Coup Has Already Begun." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Barton Gellman. His new article in The Atlantic is titled "Trump's Next Coup Has Already Begun." Gellman is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

You think President Biden isn't taking the threat of election subversion seriously enough. What would you like to see him do? What could he do?

GELLMAN: It's a hard problem. What I know is that it's going to require hard effort. Biden gave a speech in July. He went to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and stood underneath a gigantic reproduction of the preamble to the Constitution, and he said that the election subversion that we've been talking about today, Terry, is the greatest challenge to democracy since the Civil War. Now, when a president of the United States says that something is the greatest challenge to democracy since the Civil War, you would expect him to spring into action. You would expect him to make it one of his highest, if not his very highest, priority and to bring to bear all of his authority and power to do something about it.

Now, presidents have a lot to do. He has big problems to address. He has COVID and climate and the economy and a giant social spending and infrastructure bill. And even so, he is acting as if it's business as usual on the democracy side. And democracy is very much under threat. I think the president himself knows what it looks like when he says, I'm going to make this my top priority. Clear my schedule. Let's figure out how we address this. And grassroots organizers who are in support of democratic institutions could be doing what the Republicans are doing at the precinct and the county and the state level in terms of organizing to control election authorities to ensure that they remain nonpartisan or neutral.

And news media, frankly, could be putting a lot more attention on this. You're getting some great reporting on the local election changes in places like ProPublica and The Washington Post. Nevertheless, they are not sort of sustained war-footing news coverage that says democracy is under threat.

GROSS: You write that Trump has built the first American mass political movement that's ready to fight by any means necessary, including bloodshed, for its cause, and its cause is Trump. So I guess, you know, January 6 is evidence of that, but you say the extremists who support him and many of the extremists who are at the insurrection and broke into - you know, who rioted and broke into the Capitol, they don't follow the usual demographic patterns for those kinds of extremists who are willing to use violence. In what ways don't they fit the pattern of demographics?

GELLMAN: That's a great question. One way we know that this Trump political movement is different is by looking at who the January 6 rioters were. If you look at people who are charged with political violence in the past, they were almost always in their 20s or early 30s. The January 6 insurgents have a mean age of 42. That is wildly out of the usual pattern. In the past, you would see very high unemployment rates for those charged with political violence. This time you are seeing unemployment rates that match the population at large.

The Trump insurgents, the January 6 insurgents, were well-employed. They were middle class. They were white collar. They were managers. They were public officials. They were active and retired members of the military, of police departments. They in no way match the demographic profile of politically violent actors in the past. They are also not primarily members of radical extremist groups, like the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers or the Three Percenter militias. There were several dozen of those militia-type members in the group of those arrested. But 6 out of 7 of the January 6 insurgents had no affiliation at all.

Robert Pape at the University of Chicago has done very good work on this and. And he - based on the characteristics of the January 6 insurgents, he commissioned a series of national polls that were designed to find how many people share those essential characteristics, and the way he did that was he looked for people who agreed with two very strong statements. One is that the election was stolen, and Biden is an illegitimate president. The other is that violence is justified in order to restore Trump to the presidency. And he found that there were 8% of Americans - 8%; it's a relatively small number, but it represents about 21 million adult Americans - believe that violence is justified to restore Trump to the presidency.

And the only other common belief that the great majority of them shared was that whites are in danger of being replaced by minorities in this country. And that is a well-worn white supremacist belief that's being reinforced by Trump and by many of his big amplifiers in the media, notably among them Tucker Carlson on Fox News, that whites have to worry about being replaced by Black and brown people. And so if you correlate the January 6 insurgents with county data, you find that they are much more likely to come from counties in which the proportion of the white population is in decline. The more it is that the white population is shrinking in a county, the more likely it is that that county sent an insurgent to Washington on January 6.

GROSS: We've spent a lot of time talking about how Republicans are trying to change the electoral system to their advantage, and Trump has so much to do with this. It's fascinating to me because Trump basically knew so little about politics. He wasn't - like, Biden has been - you know, had been in Congress for so long. He knew how Congress works. He knew - he knows how to get votes. He knows how to count votes. Trump knew none of this, and yet he is reshaping the American political system. He is reshaping the American electoral system. And I keep wondering, how has he managed to do that knowing so little about how the system works?

GELLMAN: He still knows very little about how the system works. And he's not the mastermind of all these changes, he's the motivator. He has created this mass movement of very angry people. And I just have to remind you that a catastrophic number of Republicans believe the election was actually stolen. And again, this is a baseless belief. But 68% of all Republicans - not just the ones who are amenable to violence, 68% believe the election was stolen. And they are angry about it. And Trump has built this angry base. And this angry base is driving politicians at all levels to smite every obstacle in the way of Trump winning. And so every place that stood up to Trump and said, no, well, this is what the vote was, we're not going to change the vote, has been assaulted either by Trump directly or by his supporters. And you then have professional operatives who are motivated by the same forces, who believe their own political futures depend on pleasing this angry base who are looking for all the loopholes in the rules.

GROSS: You've been reporting on politics and power for many years now, including during the George W. Bush administration. Do you see your approach to journalism changing in an era where you're facing lies that have accumulated a lot of strength, where, like, millions and millions of people believe things that aren't true and are changing America with those false beliefs, with those counterfactual beliefs?

GELLMAN: Yeah. There has been a change. You're accustomed, as a mainstream journalist, to not taking sides in a political dispute and not being for or against any political party. But what we're for as journalists is truth. And what we're for as journalists is democracy. We are unambiguously in favor of our democratic system and of allowing the people to choose their own leaders. And the conundrum is that right now we have a political party that is bowing to authoritarian forces, that is systematically lying about the political process, about the election process itself. And so we're not - I'm not trying to advance the interests of the Democratic Party in my reporting. But we have only one party right now that is small-D democratic. We have only one party that is prepared to lose a legitimate election and another one that's prepared to win by sacrificing the essential elements of democracy. And so I am calling out the mainstream of the Republican Party for its lies and for its election subversion in a way that tonally is different from what I could have imagined writing 10 or 20 years ago.

GROSS: Bart Gellman, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for your reporting.

GELLMAN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Barton Gellman's new article in The Atlantic is titled "Trump's Next Coup Has Already Begun: January 6 Was Practice." He's a staff writer at The Atlantic. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE FENTON PERFORMANCE OF SCHUBERT'S "IMPROMPTU NO. 3 IN G-FLAT MAJOR, OP. 90, D 899 (EXCERPT)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.