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Trump pressures powerless Pence on electoral count

Jill Colvin and Zeke Miller
Associated Press

Washington – President Donald Trump on Wednesday tightened the screws on his most loyal soldier, trying to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to use powers he does not have to overturn the will of voters in a desperate and futile bid to undo President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the November election.

Pence finds himself in the most precarious position of his tenure as he prepares to preside over Wednesday’s congressional tally of Electoral College votes, bearing witness to the formality of the Trump-Pence team’s defeat.

President Donald Trump speaks in the Brady Briefing Room in the White House, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in Washington as Vice President Mike Pence looks on.

Beginning at 1 p.m., Pence’s role is to open the certificates of the electoral votes from each state and present them to the appointed “tellers” from the House and Senate in alphabetical order. At the end of the count, Pence, seated on the House of Representatives’ rostrum, has the task of announcing who has won the majority of votes for both president and vice president.

Despite his largely ceremonial assignment, Pence is under intense pressure from the president and legions of supporters who want the vice president to use the moment to overturn the will of the voters in a handful of battleground states.

“If Mike Pence does the right thing we win the election,” Trump told thousands of supporters who rallied Wednesday on the Ellipse, just south of the White House, an hour before the count in Congress was to begin. Pence did not attend the event.

“All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify and we become president and you are the happiest people,” Trump said, repeating a falsehood he has been promoting leading up to the congressional session.

Pence told Trump during their weekly lunch in the West Wing on Tuesday that he did not believe he had the power to unilaterally overturn electoral votes, according to a person briefed on the one-on-one conversation. This person was not authorized to publicly discuss the private discussion, which was first reported by The New York Times, and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Trump said he spoke with Pence on Wednesday morning to urge him to act once again. “I said Mike, that doesn’t take courage,” he said. “What takes courage is to do nothing.”

Pence has no such unilateral power under the Constitution and congressional rules that govern the count. It is up to the House and Senate to voice objections, and states’ electors were chosen in accordance with state law, not fraudulently.

“We’ve fought on every front on legally viable methods that are based on the Constitution of the United States. We don’t want anarchy here, folks,” said lawyer Jay Sekulow, who represented Trump during his impeachment, on his radio show Tuesday. Sekulow dismissed the notion that Pence could act to overturn the vote. “Elections have consequences,” Sekulow said.

Trump denied the report in a statement late Tuesday in which he continued to falsely assert Pence has powers he does not. But the vice president, whose office declined to discuss his plans, was not expected to deliver on Trump’s request to overturn the electors, acknowledging he has no such unilateral power.

Pence has spent hours with staff and the Senate parliamentarian to prepare for Wednesday’s joint session, including studying the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which governs the proceedings, and relevant legal opinions.

“I think he will approach this as a constitutionalist, basically, and say, ’What’s my role in the Constitution as president of the Senate?’” said David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth and a Pence friend. “What he’ll do is allow anybody who is going to move to object to be heard, but then abide by what the majority of the Senate makes the outcome.”

In fulfilling one of the few formal responsibilities of the vice presidency, Pence risks compromising his own political future. Pence is eyeing a run for the White House in 2024 and is banking on his years of loyalty to Trump, who could be a political kingmaker for years to come, to help him stand out in what is expected to be a crowded field.

That means Pence must avoid angering Trump along with large numbers of Republican voters who have bought into the president’s unsupported claims of widespread election fraud and have been falsely led to believe that Pence has the power to reverse the outcome by rejecting the votes from states such as Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that swung from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020.

Despite claims by Trump and his allies, there was not widespread fraud in the election. This has been confirmed by a range of election officials and by William Barr, who stepped down as attorney general last month. Neither Trump nor any of the lawmakers promising to object to the count have presented credible evidence that would change the outcome.

Nevertheless, more than 100 House Republicans and a dozen Senate Republicans have said they will challenge the electoral votes of at least one state. Majorities in both chambers are required to reject the will of voters, but enough Republican lawmakers have said they will join with Democrats to reject the last-ditch move by Trump’s allies.

Trump made clear at the rally that he was putting his faith in Pence. “Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us,” Trump said, “and if he doesn’t, it’s a sad day for our country.”