LANSING — After three weeks of sound and fury in all-caps tweets, Republican President Donald Trump’s flailing bid to overturn his Michigan election loss came to a quiet close on Wednesday afternoon.
The Trump campaign failed to request either a full or partial ballot recount by Michigan’s 4:34 p.m. deadline, according to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office.
A recount would have been a long-shot unlikely to change the results, but experts say it was the campaign’s last obvious legal option to challenge a race Democrat Joe Biden won by 154,188 votes.
“It’s over, and they know it,” said John Sellek, a Republican strategist with Harbor Strategic Public Affairs in Lansing.
“The end game is for there to be no end, really, and I think that's mostly because President Trump's thing is to never admit that he lost. I would not expect that to change.”
While Republican legislators have placated Trump by launching an inquiry into the election, none has backed the president’s false claim he won Michigan, and a growing number have now congratulated Biden as the president-elect.
The GOP-controlled Legislature also politely declined campaign attorney Rudy Giuliani’s request to come to Michigan and testify before an election oversight committee next week.
“We considered it, and we determined that logistically, it wasn’t going to work,” House Oversight Committee Chair Matt Hall, R-Marshall, told Bridge Michigan.
It’s the second rebuff in as many weeks from GOP leaders in the state Legislature, some of whom met with Trump in the White House on Friday but say they made clear to him that Michigan law would not allow them to appoint electors to anyone who did not win the popular vote.
Trump and Giuliani have spent weeks perpetuating conspiracy theories about unproven widespread voter fraud, touting Michigan lawsuits already lost or withdrawn and disputing results certified in a Monday vote that thrust Republican canvasser Aaron Van Langevelde into the national spotlight.
Trump has sparked a “wildfire” that’s led GOP activists to confuse election administration mistakes with voter fraud, said state Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, who told Bridge he was “horrified” by some of Giuliani’s recent claims.
“Biden won the state,” Miller said. “It shouldn’t be politically controversial for a Republican to say, but sadly it is. He did it by well over 140,000 votes, and we ought to respect that even if we don’t like it.”
Republican state canvasser Aaron Van Langevelde earned praise for voting to certify Michigan’s election results despite heavy pressure from party leaders to delay a vote. (Screenshot of canvassers meeting)
With the end near, the Trump campaign on Tuesday boasted that Legislatures in three battleground states where the president is contesting losses – Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan – would hold public hearings “in an effort to provide confidence that all of the legal votes have been counted and the illegal votes have not been counted in the November 3rd election.”
The Senate Oversight Committee is slated to meet next week for a hearing on absentee ballot counting at the TCF Center in Detroit, but that is “not in response to, or coordinated with, Trump or his campaign,” said GOP spokesperson Amber McCann.
The House House Oversight Committee, which has held joint hearings with the Senate, does not plan to meet next week, according to Hall.
Instead of granting Guiliani’s request for a public audience, which would have turned into a national media spectacle, Hall said the committee is inviting the former New York mayor to submit written testimony that the panel could consider at a later date.
Legal losses pile up
Monday’s vote certification triggered a 48-hour window for Trump to request a recount, his last legal option to fight an election, but one that experts say would have been expensive and unlikely to succeed given Biden’s margin, which was roughly 14 times larger than the 10,704 votes Trump won by here four years ago.
A full statewide recount could have cost the Trump campaign close to $1 million, a deposit that would only be refunded if the outcome changed. Past recounts revealed only minor discrepancies. In a 2016 hand recount of more than 2 million Michigan ballots requested by Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Democrat Hillary Clinton picked up a total of 103 votes on Trump.
“It’s kind of the end of the road,” said Steven Liedel, a Democratic attorney who served as legal counsel to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey and others defended the integrity of Michigan elections during a state Board of Canvassers meeting Monday that featured sharp questions from GOP canvasser Norm Shinkle. (Screenshot of canvassers meeting)
“Unless there's some sort of evidence they have of fraud that affects the results of the election, which they've yet to present to anyone, judge or otherwise, there really are no other avenues.”
U.S. Senate candidate John James, who officially lost to incumbent Democratic Sen. Gary Peters by 92,335 votes, on Tuesday conceded the race, a step the president hasn’t made despite allowing the official transition process to begin this week.
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Trump is effectively out of legal options in Michigan, where his campaign last week withdrew a federal lawsuit on the false premise that the Wayne County Board of Canvassers had failed to certify local election returns, including absentee votes from Detroit, an African American-majority city and Democratic stronghold that Republicans fixated on.
Wayne County canvassers actually did certify those results, and while Republican challengers Monica Palmer and William Hartmann later filed affidavits expressing a desire to rescind their votes, they had no legal mechanism to do so.
The voluntary dismissal was the latest in a string of legal blunders from the Trump campaign, which had erroneously filed its Michigan lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which only hears monetary claims against the U.S. government, and failed to submit proper paperwork to appeal a state court loss.
“Early on, I described it as throwing nothing against the wall and hoping something sticks, and I think that proved to be the case,” Liedel said of the Trump campaign’s legal strategy.
The Michigan Supreme Court on Monday declined to immediately reconsider a case brought by Trump allies in Wayne County, where Republican-appointed Judge Timothy Kenny rejected an attempt to halt certification in Wayne County, calling affidavits from several GOP poll challengers “incorrect and not credible.”
Conservative Justices Brian Zahra and Stephen Markman joined the 6-1 majority in declining to immediately hear the case, but they urged Kenny to continue to vet the underlying allegations in an expedited fashion.
“I am cognizant that many Americans believe that plaintiffs’ claims of electoral fraud and misconduct are frivolous and obstructive, but I am equally cognizant that many Americans are of the view that the 2020 election was not fully free and fair,” Zahra wrote in a concurring opinion.
“The latter is a view that strikes at the core of concerns about this election’s lack of both ‘accuracy’ and ‘integrity’ – values that [the Michigan Constitution] appears designed to secure.”
A certification heard ‘round the world
Trump’s longshot bid to overturn the Michigan election results made the typically obscure Board of State Canvassers must-watch TV on Monday as partisan appointees completed what is usually a routine affair: confirming results that had already been certified by all 83 counties.
Citing second thoughts from two Wayne County GOP canvassers, Trump campaign senior legal adviser Jenna Ellis urged state canvassers to block certification, claiming that if they did, “the Republican state legislator will select the electors,” which would be a “huge win” for Trump.
But Van Langevelde, a Republican attorney who works for the House GOP caucus, said at the outset that he believed Michigan law was clear: The board had a “duty” to certify results and did not have authority to do much else.
“We’re not a court here,” he said. “We don’t have judicial power. We don’t have the authority to conduct a trial on whether election fraud occurs.”
Van Langevelde avoided the spotlight for weeks, unlike fellow Republican canvasser Norm Shinkle, who told Bridge and national publications he had doubts about the results and ultimately abstained from certifying the election.
Both Republicans were lobbied heavily by activists and political officials, including Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel and Michigan GOP Chair Laura Cox, who urged delay.
But speaker after speaker on Monday defended the integrity of the election, with Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey and other clerks saying that claims of fraud were actually minor mistakes that didn’t affect the outcome.
“As humans, we all make mistakes,” Winfrey said.
Less than two hours after Van Langevelde joined two Democratic colleagues in certifying the election, Trump acknowledged that the General Services Administration had authorized the presidential transition process. (He later disputed the agency’s characterization that Biden is the “apparent winner” of the election.)
Van Langevelde’s vote made him a folk hero in some circles but a target of scorn among some Republicans and die-hard Trump supporters.
Incoming state House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Clare, told The Detroit News the GOP caucus will continue to employ Van Langevelde as a policy advisor next session, calling him a “very valued member of this team.”
Republicans who worked with Van Langevelde in the House rose to his defense amid attacks from conservative social media.
“He’s going to look at the letter of the law and do the right thing, no matter what his opinion is,” said Miller, the Sturgis Republican who is serving his third and final term. “The man definitely does his homework, which is why I knew Aaron Van Langevelde was going to be a steady pair of hands on the steering wheel.”
It was clear he “didn’t want to make a circus out of this and he just wanted to do his job,” said Martin Van Howrylak, a former Republican state lawmaker from Troy who served on two committees that Van Langevelde staffed.
“That’s what we’re used to with Aaron: Just no frills and get the job done and be honest and even-keeled and even-handed,” Howrylak said. “It’s just good to see somebody like him in a position where he’s really to apply the law, and nothing more and nothing less.”
Van Langevelde is a former Branch County assistant prosecutor who knows Michigan election law well, according to Miller, who last session chaired the House Elections Committee that Van Langevelde staffed as a policy adviser.
In that capacity, they spent time together analyzing Senate GOP bills that would have shifted campaign finance oversight to a new political commission, a proposal critics feared would weaken enforcement by making it a partisan process.
“We really did not feel good about them,” and ended up killing the bills in the House, Miller recalled.
“I have every reason to trust Aaron’s conscience. He’s an extremely honorable person who has demonstrated time and time again that he is all about doing the right thing. In advocating for policy, his conscience is loud and clear there too.”
The popular vote will prevail
Michigan lawmakers have heard Giuliani’s fraud claims before, including Friday in the Oval Office, where Trump met with a Republican delegation that included Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake, House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering, Wentworth, Rep. Jim Lilly of Park Township, Sen. Tom Barrett of Charlotte and Sen. Dan Lauwers of Brockway Township.
With state legislators seated in a semi-circle around Trump’s desk, Giuliani phoned into the meeting and gave them a “repeat” performance of prior night’s press conference with Sidney Powell, a fellow attorney the Trump campaign cut ties with two days later in an unexplained move, according to Shirkey.
Trump has openly encouraged Legislatures to appoint their own electors in states he is contesting, and Shirkey said Michigan legislators were “expecting” he might ask them to interfere in the state election but were “delighted” when “all he did was inquire about our processes.”
There are still many unanswered questions about the meeting, including why Trump would summon seven GOP legislators to Washington D.C. just to inquire about Michigan law, which clearly mandates that all 16 electors go to the winner of the statewide popular vote.
But that’s what happened, according to Shirkey: “He inquired about Michigan election law, and we explained to him how they work, and he was convinced that there’s nothing we can do,” he said Tuesday in a radio interview. “The law is the law, and we made it very clear we were going to follow it.”
While they faced national criticism for even taking the meeting, Shirkey and Chatfield sought to squash speculation by immediately reiterating their plans to honor the popular vote.
“We will follow the law and follow the normal process regarding Michigan’s electors, just as we have said throughout this election,” they said in a joint statement shortly after the meeting.
Democrats expect Trump will continue to try and exert pressure on Michigan lawmakers to overturn the election. But at least so far, the system has survived an unprecedented attack by a sitting president who refuses to concede.
“The president and his team were kicking the tires of some of the institutions that exist to keep democratic elections on track,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist with the Grassroots Midwest Consulting firm in Lansing.
“The system seems to have survived a stress test, but the election wasn’t all that close... In a situation where there had been a couple of tipping point states that were close, I’m not sure that we would have performed as well.”
The Trump resistance came in phases, said Sellek, the GOP strategist: First, rhetoric and protests. Then, lawsuits. And when that failed, a push for Republcan Legislatures to overturn results by appointing electors themselves.
“That phase looks like it’s already over,” Sellek said. “The groundwork he’s laying right now is for permanent opposition to everything that comes next, and only time is going to be able to tell us if the movement gets more splintered as other voices come forward."