It has been too easy to overlook the slow drip of new information about former President Donald Trump’s attempt to remain in office after being voted out, but make no mistake: This was an attempted coup. And it was thwarted, in part, by state laws that prevented politicians from overruling the voters.
The latest revelations about Trump’s anti-democracy campaign make it all the more urgent to prevent Republican-controlled legislatures from rolling back those safeguards. The For the People Act, the federal voting rights law pending in Congress, would do that, if only President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats could get their act together.
The steps Trump has taken publicly to subvert democracy since last year were bad enough. Trump refused to accept his clear electoral defeat on Nov. 3, outrageously claiming victory before the votes were counted, flinging around false fraud allegations and generally doing all he could to undermine public faith in the electoral process.
Given what he was willing to do in plain sight, it should come as no surprise that Trump’s behind-the-scenes antics were even worse. Still, newly emerging details are astonishing. They show that, far from just putting on a bellicose show for his supporters on his way out of office, Trump was fully engaged in a genuine, determined campaign to overturn a legitimate election so he could stay in office.
Recent congressional testimony highlights the appalling extent to which Trump directly pressured Justice Department officials to intercede in the election, prompting a threat of mass resignations. Trump told acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen (according to an aide’s handwritten notes), “just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen.” That puts an even darker shadow over the shameful votes of 147 congressional Republicans attempting to overturn the election just hours after the violent Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6.
A key Trump strategy was to pressure Republican leaders in states Trump lost to overturn those results. One Trump Justice Department official, it was recently revealed, even drafted a letter urging a special session of the Georgia Legislature to reconsider its slate of presidential electors. State laws that prevent such strong-arming of election officials helped stave off Trump’s coup attempt. Now some of those states are passing laws making it harder to vote and easier for state politicians to steer the outcome.
The For the People Act would protect voting rights and ensure some future Trump-like figure wouldn’t succeed at subverting the vote. It has passed the House but has stalled in the Senate because of the filibuster — that antiquated anomaly that lets the minority party grind the majority’s agenda to a halt at will. Democracy itself won’t be safe unless Congress enacts protections against subverting the will of the voters.