The waiting is over. Now comes … the waiting.
The first stage of the presidential interregnum, from Tuesday night through Saturday, was the slow but inexorable march toward Joe Biden being declared the winner of the presidential race. No one knew quite when that would happen, but there was an objective end point: whenever enough votes were counted for the outcome to be clear.
The second stage is stranger and more open-ended. When will President Donald Trump acknowledge that he lost? The Democratic Party, the media, and most American voters appear to be moving on, simply treating the election like the fait accompli it is. But Republicans are mostly staying quiet and holding back. The election may be over, but the characteristic political cowardice of the GOP is still here.
Before November 3, it seemed like there were two major scenarios for a Trump loss. Either the president would cling to power, inciting mass demonstrations and maybe even violence in an attempt to defy voters, or else Republicans, realizing that a vanquished Trump no longer posed much of a political threat to them, would turn on the president and reject any denial. Instead, the situation has settled into an awkward equilibrium, in which the mass of elected Republicans is neither signing on to his baseless fraud claims nor pushing him to concede.
The president has embarked on a half-hearted attempt at disputing the election, filing a flurry of lawsuits and toying with the idea of holding rallies. But he shows few signs of putting real effort into it, and spent the weekend practicing his putts, not fomenting a putsch.
A few Republicans congratulated Biden, notably George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, and Senators Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, as well as some former elected GOP officials. (All of them have been either critical of Trump or pointed in their silence about him.) A few others have embraced the president’s bogus fraud claims, including Senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, a handful of governors, and some representatives. Trump has also retained support from the conservative media, which are indulging his complaints. (Fox News’ non-opinion journalists, though, were relatively quick and decisive in calling the race for Biden.)
That leaves the rest of the party, including most current elected Republicans, sitting on their hands and hoping no one pays them much notice. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a top Senate Republican, did not quite measure up to his surname during an appearance on ABC’s This Week, in which he emphasized the importance of the election process and said it was “time for the president to turn this discussion over to his lawyers, time for the lawyers to make the case that they have, both in court and to the American people, and then we’re going to have to deal with those facts as they’re presented.” But he stopped short of following those facts to their obvious conclusion or calling Biden the president-elect.
One prominent Republican who initially endorsed Trump’s fraud claims tried to hedge a bit, perhaps realizing he’d headed down a blind alley. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested on Fox that there was chicanery in the process, then claimed he’d only meant that Trump’s presence on the ticket had helped House Republicans. (No, that explanation doesn’t make sense to me either.)
The White House, including the president himself, has been uncharacteristically reticent. Trump has mostly limited himself to tweeting video clips of sympathetic commentators. His aides are either unwilling or unable to talk him into delivering a concession speech.The New York Times reported: “Several Trump advisers said that while they now wanted to give the president space to process the loss, they were exhausted after four years of tumult, and were eager for clarity about what would come next.” This is embarrassing, and it is more fodder for Daniel Drezner’s wise observation that staffers treat the president like a petulant toddler, but it also hints at the acknowledgment among many of Trump’s aides that it’s just a matter of time before it’s over.
When, however, is the sticking point. Former Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney predicts that Trump will concede gracefully if he loses, which ignores the fact that Trump has already lost, and that he has seldom, if ever, acted with any grace in his political career. All of this might just be academic, if not for the fact that a very important transition of power needs planning. While the Biden team is not waiting around, and has begun naming task forces and working to assemble a government, the formal process can’t begin until the head of the General Services Administration signs a letter to kick it off. The Trump-appointed head of the GSA, Emily Murphy, has so far refused to do this.
The GSA cloaks this in bureaucratic language—“an ascertainment has not yet been made, and its Administrator will continue to abide by, and fulfill, all requirements under the law,” a spokesperson told The Washington Post—but what’s really going on here is that federal agencies are afraid to get out in front of the president.
That fear is probably not entirely unfounded. On Thursday, the former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted, “If you want to win in 2024 as a Republican. I would probably start saying something. Just saying.” Even while vanquished, Trump may still retain the power to make life hell for those who break with him. Since he never really learned to master the power of government, that rhetorical bludgeon was his most powerful tool as president, and it’s not yet clear how much losing office will weaken his ability to wield it. Voters as a whole have rejected him (twice), but Republican voters have not, and if their attachment remains strong, Trump could sink incumbents in primaries in 2022 and 2024. Appointed officials who do not toe the Trump line might find themselves blacklisted from future Republican administrations.
One Republican refrain now is that the declaration of Biden’s victory is a media creation and not an official one, which is true. Real deadlines loom ahead: States will begin certifying election results, and on December 14 the Electoral College will meet. At some point, most of these people will have to bend to reality. Maybe not the president, though. If one lesson of the past four years is that it’s no fun to be a Republican on Trump’s bad side, another one is that anyone waiting for Trump to acknowledge reality could be waiting forever.