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As legal cases founder, Trump ratchets up personal involvement in election

Failing to prove any widespread fraud, President Trump’s allies have turned the post-election spotlight to the people who canvass and certify votes. Now, Wisconsin officials formally ordered a recount in two heavily Democratic counties. Stephanie Sy reports and William Brangham talks to Yamiche Alcindor and Nate Persily of the Healthy Elections Project.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Unfounded claims of fraud and calls for recounts escalated again today in battleground states from the presidential election.

    In a moment, William Brangham will explore the legal challenges and their potential for success.

    But Stephanie Sy begins with this report on the latest efforts to contest the results.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Failing to prove any widespread fraud, the president's lawyers and allies have turned the post-election spotlight to the people who canvass and certify votes.

    President-elect Biden said the efforts were debilitating to the country.

  • President-Elect Joseph Biden:

    It will be another incident where he will go down in history as being one of the most irresponsible presidents in American history. It's — it's just out of the — not even within the norm at all. There's questions whether it's even legal.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In Wisconsin, officials today formally ordered a recount in heavily Democratic Milwaukee and Dane Counties paid for with $3 million from the Trump campaign.

    The rancor over how to conduct the recount was on full view last night, as state election officials argued for six hours.

  • Julie Glancey:

    This is ridiculous. All you and Dean keep talking about is these evil Democrats are going to do something nasty so That these honest, hardworking Republicans aren't going to be able to see what's going on.

    And I'm tired of that. We need to look at this in terms of, even though we're partisan, a nonpartisan commission, and stop worrying about stuff that doesn't exist.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In all, the president's campaign and allies have initiated legal actions in six battleground states, employing a hodgepodge of debunked allegations that range from voting equipment conspiracies to supposed improprieties by election clerks.

    Publicly, at least, most Republicans in Congress still defend the effort.

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif:

    I think every legal vote should be counted, every recount should be finished, and every legal challenge should be heard.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Lacking evidence or legal standing, several of the cases have been dismissed or dropped.

    But while the allegations have fallen flat in court, the president's lawyer Rudy Giuliani continued today, in a lengthy news conference, to spread them to the public.

  • Rudy Giuliani:

    There was a plan from a centralized place to execute these various acts of voter fraud, specifically focused on big cities.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Even with disinformation emanating from the very top, the process marches on.

    Michigan has now certified its statewide results. A recount in Georgia is coming to an end, with Biden still winning. And, as more battleground states certify tallies ahead of a December 8 deadline, President Trump's pathways to challenging votes are being closed off one by one.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

  • William Brangham:

    For more on the Trump campaigns election maneuverings, we turn to our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor. She's in Wilmington, Delaware, tonight.

    Yamiche, so nice to see you.

    Help us explain, what is the political strategy behind the Trump campaign's efforts to keep fighting these fights in these different states?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, President Trump is continuing to ratchet up his campaign to unjustifiably have the election overturned in his favor by getting personally involved in a way we have not seen any American president do in an election.

    And the Trump campaign is continuing to file lawsuit after lawsuit without any evidence of their claims of voter fraud. And most of that is coming through the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.

    Now, the president did something that was very, very remarkable. He called two county officials in Michigan, in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, and he essentially talked to them about the election.

    Now, these officials were people who did not at first want to certify the votes. They then went ahead and voted to certify them. But after talking to President Trump, they then decided they wanted to rescind their votes to certify. Now, state officials say that there is no legal avenue to do that.

    But critics of the president say that this is dangerous behavior for him to actually be calling people personally, as the president of the United States.

    Also, the president has invited the top two Republican elected officials in Michigan — they have a Republican controlled state legislature — to the White House. Critics of the president say that's going to be, again, a bid for him to try to overturn a state where President or Vice — I should say, president-elect Joe Biden is leading him by 150,000 votes.

    And I put the question to the vice president — to president-elect Biden today, is this — all of this behavior from the president, is it making you change your legal strategy? Is it making you alarmed? He said that he is not changing his legal strategy at this time, but that the president is being irresponsible and possibly being the most irresponsible president in U.S. history.

  • William Brangham:

    Yamiche, as you mentioned, they have had some legal setbacks, the Trump campaign. But is this perhaps working in the court of public opinion?

    I mean, are these various fights actually changing people's minds?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, despite President Trump not having any evidence of his claims of voter fraud, it is absolutely having an impact on the American electorate, in particular, Trump supporters.

    Now, yesterday, Monmouth University released a poll. And it showed that 77 percent of Trump supporters believe that Joe Biden is the president-elect due to fraud, and only 11 percent believe that the election was actually fair and square.

    Now, that's problematic, because president-elect Joe Biden will have to govern it in America where millions and millions of Americans believe the president's unfounded claims.

    And the president, President Trump, he could take that same influence and have these voters continuing to believe that the election was rigged and somehow stolen from him. And he could continue to fund-raise, continue to have influence in the Republican Party.

    So, it's definitely a place where we should watch that space.

  • William Brangham:

    God, those poll numbers are really incredible.

    Yamiche Alcindor from Wilmington, Delaware, great to see you. Thank you.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks.

  • William Brangham:

    For more on the president's moves, we turn again to Nate Persily. He is at Stanford University Law School, and he is the co-founder of the Healthy Elections Project.

    Nate, great to see you again.

    There are so many pots cooking on the stove here, legal pots all over the country. I wonder if you could help us figure some of these things out.

    Let's talk about the lawsuits first. By my count, the Trump campaign has filed maybe two dozen different kinds of lawsuits. Will you remind us, what are those suits, what have they been suing, and how have they been received?

  • Nate Persily:

    Well, there's been 31 decisions at this point, actually, or withdrawals of lawsuits, and they have lost 30 of them.

    And these lawsuits span the gamut, from questioning signature verification in Nevada, to accusing different election officials in Pennsylvania of applying different standards to Democrats than Republicans, as well as a host of other procedural objections about, for example, not enough observers getting close enough to observe the ballot counting process.

    And so, so far, the courts have been quite resilient, and they have been turning away these lawsuits, or — and the Trump campaign has been losing them. But there's still several that are in the pipeline, five or six that are sort of the more major cases, many in Pennsylvania.

    And, in addition to those cases, we have recount processes in Georgia and in Wisconsin that themselves might lead to lawsuits.

  • William Brangham:

    The thing I find so interesting is that we heard, again, in Stephanie Sy's report, that Rudy Giuliani is still alleging this broader conspiracy that there was this sort of cadre of people in a central place plotting this voter fraud.

    And yet, as you're describing, when you look at the actual cases, the cases don't seem to be alleging any part of that grand conspiracy?

  • Nate Persily:

    Well, that's right, because it can't be proven.

    So, you can't just say sort of the man behind the curtain is responsible for all of these voting problems, and not know who that man might be. And so there's been a kind of blunderbuss approach to these accusations.

    They include accusations about the voting machine manufacturers, accusations about local election officials or even people in polling places. And then you have accusations against the state officials, some of whom are Republican and some of whom are Democrat.

    So, it's not as if it's just going after some kind of conspiracy on the part of the Biden campaign. It's going after the entire election infrastructure in some respects, saying that there was a multistate effort in order to sort of shift votes to Biden.

  • William Brangham:

    You mentioned before that there were recounts that are going on.

    Can you remind us where those are happening and whose votes are being counted?

  • Nate Persily:

    So, right now, we have a full-on recount that's happening in Georgia. And that should conclude in the next few days. And those are all the ballots that were cast in Georgia. It's actually technically what we call an election audit, but they're going to be recounting all the ballots.

    And just prepare your viewers, there will be a difference in the numbers that are recounted than the ones that were the final totals. There always are in these kinds of recounts. But they won't be in the thousands that would be needed to flip the result.

    In Wisconsin, we have a different procedure that's about to unfold, where the Trump campaign has paid $3 million to have recounts in Dane and Milwaukee counties. Dane is where the capital, Madison, is. And so they will do some recounts there to see whether there's any sort of significant errors between the votes that were cast on Election Day and in the mail balloting process in the final totals.

  • William Brangham:

    So, help us — if, as you describe, the lawsuits have almost universally failed, and the recounts are unlikely to change things in any substantive way, what is the point here? What is this — you have described in the past the so-called nuclear option.

    What is that? And are these steps leading up to that?

  • Nate Persily:

    Well, Yamiche Alcindor was talking a bit about this, that I think there are several strategies afoot.

    There is still the short-term strategy, the hope that some of these lawsuits might flip enough votes that then it would lead to one or another state shifting from the Biden column to the Trump column.

    Then there's a sort of larger strategy, I think, of casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election and the legitimacy of Joe Biden as president. That serves two purposes. One is a long-term purpose of undermining the Biden administration.

    The other is to maybe spur some state legislators to say, well, this election was inherently flawed, and so, therefore, we, the legislature, under the Constitution, are going to designate the slate of electors for Trump for the Electoral College.

    But I don't want to — that is such a farfetched and unlikely possibility, I don't want people to think that that's — either that it's happened before, because it hasn't, or that it's very likely.

    But it is, as you said, the nuclear option, the idea that you would overturn an election, and essentially take away the rights of the voters and replace it with the rights of the politicians in the state legislatures.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's fervently hope it doesn't actually come to that.

    Nate Persily of Stanford University Law School, always great to have you. Thank you very much.

  • Nate Persily:

    Thank you.

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