Small cracks emerge in Republican support for Trump's baseless election fraud claims

US President Donald Trump has a long memory, a penchant for seeking revenge and overwhelming support among Republican voters. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The first small cracks have begun to appear in the Republican wall of support for United States President Donald Trump and his unfounded claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election.

A growing number of elected officials and party leaders signalled on Thursday (Nov 12) that they would indulge Mr Trump's conspiracy theories for only so long. A few were willing to openly contradict him.

Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio said that it was time to call Mr Joe Biden the "president-elect".

The Republican attorney general of Arizona said that Mr Trump would not end up winning his state, despite the President's protestations.

And on Capitol Hill, several Republican senators have begun, in measured tones, to say that Mr Biden should be entitled to classified intelligence briefings as the incoming commander-in-chief or that it is time to recognise he will soon be certified as president-elect.

Asked when he believed Mr Trump should accept the result, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, even set a deadline for Mr Trump to acknowledge reality: Dec 13 - the day before the Electoral College delegations cast their votes for president.

Influential party financiers and strategists have begun to weigh in, as well.

"The President does a disservice to his more rabid supporters by insisting that he would have won the Nov 3 election absent voter fraud," said an editorial in The Las Vegas Review-Journal, a newspaper owned by the family of Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson. "That's simply false."

Mr Adelson and his wife, Miriam, have given more than US$75 million (S$101 million) to super PACs supporting Mr Trump.

Mr Karl Rove, the Republican strategist, published a Wall Street Journal op-ed essay under the headline "This Election Result Won't Be Overturned".

Mr Trump has a long memory, a penchant for seeking revenge on those who cross him and overwhelming support among the base of Republican voters. The fact that so few prominent Republicans are willing to break publicly with him, even in defeat, is the latest sign of his enduring hold on the Republican Party - now and into the future.

"When you look at the number of votes that he got, you look at the kind of enthusiasm that he engenders, I mean - he's going to be a very, very significant figure whether he's in the White House or not," said Senator Josh Hawley. "I don't know who else would be considered the leader, if not for him."

No prominent potential Republican candidate for president in 2024 - including Mr Hawley - has criticised Mr Trump for his refusal to acquiesce to the transition of power. Most have stayed silent or given Mr Trump, who has spoken privately about running again in four years, latitude and support without parroting his most baseless conspiracies.

Vice-President Mike Pence, who followed Mr Trump to the lectern on election night, tried to sound as if he was standing firmly with the President without echoing his false claims of victory.

But with Mr Biden now leading in enough states to deliver him as many as 306 Electoral College votes - the same sum Mr Trump won in 2016 and declared a "landslide" - and with no credible evidence of electoral malfeasance, Republicans are gingerly beginning to acknowledge the reality of Mr Biden's win.

The former vice-president leads by more than 20,000 votes in Wisconsin, 53,000 in Pennsylvania and 148,000 in Michigan - comparable to or larger than Mr Trump's winning margins in those states four years ago.

"There is an inevitable logic to this," said Mr Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, who has congratulated Mr Biden on his win on Fox News. "None of these recounts and allegations are going to turn this election around."

Democrats argue that indulging Mr Trump's recalcitrance is undercutting faith in the nation's democratic institutions and undermining the incoming Biden administration's legitimacy in the eyes of broad swaths of the nation.

The political and rhetorical safe space that many Republicans have retreated to is a call to "count every legal vote", insinuating there was a raft of illegal ballots that no evidence has shown exist.

There are also more extreme Democratic fears of GOP state legislatures appointing rogue electors who might ignore the results in their states, but Mr Biden's campaign has been dismissive of such talk.

For now, Senate Republicans are especially leery of crossing Mr Trump before the two Georgia run-offs on Jan 5 that will determine control of the chamber, realising they must mobilise Mr Trump's base without him on the ballot. There are fears that Mr Trump might attack either Senator Kelly Loeffler or Senator David Perdue - rumours of draft tweets have swirled - for being insufficiently loyal.

Both senators signed an unusual joint statement calling for the resignation of the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, who has initiated a recount there, in a move widely interpreted as currying favour with Mr Trump.

"It's pretty clear that the President doesn't give a damn about the Senate majority or those two senators, so they know it would not be anything to turn on them and crush turnout," said Mr Brendan Buck, who served as a top adviser to the last two Republican House speakers, Mr Paul Ryan and Mr John Boehner.

"We've always been talking about how the President has taken over the party. But here is an example where is he holding base GOP voters hostage to force Republicans to participate in his charade."

Democrat Senator Chris Murphy said blind Republican fealty to Mr Trump revealed that the party was "now a full-on cult of personality".

The Trump campaign continues to bombard supporters with urgent requests for cash for his "election defence fund", but the fine print of those appeals shows that Mr Trump is actually looking ahead to his own future, collecting cash primarily for a new political action committee, not an account devoted to legal and recount expenses. The first 60 per cent of every donation goes to Mr Trump's new PAC, Save America, and 40 per cent goes to the Republican National Committee.

Only after the PAC gets US$5,000 from an individual would any money wind up in the Trump recount fund.

The reality is that Mr Trump is not just the president but also a major publisher and distributor. In the week after the election, his postings dominated Facebook, accounting for the 10 most engaged status updates in the United States, and 22 of the top 25. "I won this election, by a lot!" was his top post.

Mr Trump also posted the single most engaged link on Facebook that week, a solicitation for cash to fight the election results.

Inside the Republican Party itself, Mr Trump remains a singular influence. He effectively anointed Ms Ronna McDaniel for another term as chair of the Republican National Committee with a tweet this week.

"Parties always belong to the last presidential nominee until the next presidential nominee comes along," said Mr Fleischer, the former White House press secretary. "It will not be Donald Trump's party once Republicans have a new nominee in 2024.

"Unless," he added, "it's Donald Trump."

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