With one month to go until Joe Biden takes office, Donald Trump remains fixated on his failed bid to overturn the 2020 election – with his advisers reportedly floating the idea of invoking martial law, triggering outrage and disbelief in Washington.
Trump has stayed largely out of sight as several hugely consequential matters play out in the US: from a massive cyberattack to high-stakes talks on a huge Covid-19 relief package to the rollout of a historic vaccine campaign.
But, according to accounts in The New York Times, CNN and The Wall Street Journal, the president found time Friday to oversee a turbulent White House meeting to discuss new ways to resist or overturn Biden’s victory – with the idea of deploying the military to assist in his fight raised, before being shot down.
Multiple reports said Trump also considered seizing election machines to inspect them; and naming Sidney Powell, a lawyer for his campaign team who has put forward outlandish conspiracy theories, as a special counsel to keep digging into Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations of mass election fraud.
‘Rerun our election’
Present at the fractious Oval Office meeting was retired General Michael Flynn, who was briefly the national security adviser before resigning under pressure, admitting to lying to the FBI, and then, in November, being pardoned by Trump.
Flynn recently told a Newsmax television interviewer that Trump could “take military capabilities and place them in those (battleground) states and basically rerun our election”.
Trump denied reports about the Friday meeting in a tweet shortly after midnight Saturday, saying, “Martial law = Fake News. Just more knowingly bad reporting!”
Several senior military officers have made clear they would take no part in any effort to overturn the results of an election that has been certified by every state and confirmed by the Electoral College.
“There is no role for the US military in determining the outcome of an American election,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Army Chief of Staff James McConville said in a statement Friday.
Trump, in any case, would need congressional approval to invoke martial law, according to a study earlier this year by the Brennan Center for Justice.
But accounts of the extraordinary meeting – which reportedly devolved at times into “screaming matches” – raised eyebrows across Washington, drawing strong condemnation from some quarters while others were left shaking their heads in dismay.
‘It’s going nowhere’
“It’s not going to happen,” the Republican senator and frequent Trump critic Mitt Romney said bluntly on CNN’s State of the Union, adding, “It’s going nowhere.”
Romney, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2012, added: “It’s really sad in a lot of respects, and embarrassing, because the president could, right now, be writing the last chapter of this administration with a victory lap….” over the historic vaccine rollout.
“He could be championing this story, but instead leaving Washington with conspiracy theories and things so nutty and loopy that people are shaking their head wondering what in the world has gotten into this man?”
Many of the president’s advisers pushed back hard in the Friday meeting against the notion of martial law, according to the New York Times.
But John Bolton, a former Trump national security adviser who has been a frequent critic since leaving the administration in September, called the meeting’s reported contents “appalling”.
“There’s no other way to describe it,” he told CNN late Saturday. “It’s unbelievable – almost certainly completely without precedent.”
But he also said such talk was not atypical from his former boss – and a case of “incompetence” rather than “malevolence”.
Bolton added: “He is unfit for the job.”
‘What on Earth’
Jen Psaki, named as press secretary for the Biden administration which takes office Jan 20, refused to be drawn on the matter, telling Fox News Sunday she would leave it to others to explain “what on Earth is happening in the Oval Office and the White House”.
She added: “Leadership of the Republican Party has acknowledged the outcome of the election.”
But Pete Buttigieg, nominated by Biden as transportation secretary, was more forthcoming.
“Well, obviously, it’s irresponsible and it’s dangerous,” he told CNN.
“At the end of the day, this is a country of laws, and the American people have spoken.”
The Trump campaign has lost dozens of legal challenges to Biden’s election, and the window for further such action is nearly closed.
But the president’s continuing resistance has drawn vocal support from many in his base – and allowed him to raise millions of dollars.