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The revealing Trump White House debate over whether to seize voting machines

The major question — use the military or ask DHS? — shows how perilous things were for democracy.

Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, both lawyers for President Donald Trump, during a news conference at Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, DC, on November 19, 2020.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

By December 2020, as President Donald Trump was trying feverishly to overturn Joe Biden’s election win, his closest remaining advisers had broken into two warring camps.

Both factions, at this point, supported and encouraged Trump’s strategy to retain power: pressuring state legislatures, state officials, and members of Congress to throw out results in key states, claiming they were tainted by fraud. Both were even interested in using the federal government’s power to seize voting machines in key states.

But one camp, led by Sidney Powell and Michael Flynn, wanted to go even further and use the military to seize those machines — while the other, led by Rudy Giuliani, thought that was a bridge too far.

Think of it as a divide between the dangerously unhinged and the totally batshit.

That’s the takeaway from a new article by the New York Times’s Alan Feuer, Maggie Haberman, Michael Schmidt, and Luke Broadwater, which describes the private deliberations among Trump and his allies.

The Times’s headline revelation is that Trump directed Giuliani, his personal lawyer, to ask the Homeland Security Department whether it could take control of voting machines, purportedly to look for evidence of fraud. (The department’s acting secretary said they couldn’t, and no voting machines were seized.)

But the article’s fuller narrative presents this stunning request as somewhat of a compromise down from the even more extreme proposal for military seizure pushed by Powell and Flynn. Giuliani, per the article, was staunchly opposed to using the military to take possession of voting machines, and argued with Powell and Flynn over it in a tense December 18, 2020, Oval Office meeting with Trump.

The story makes clear just how dire things were for democracy at this point. Everyone around Trump was recommending extreme measures that, if successful, would have amounted to stealing the election.

Yet even some of Trump’s unhinged, irresponsible, and conspiratorial advisers, like Giuliani, were still trying to steer him away from the even worse actions counseled by Powell and Flynn, who seem to have been totally unmoored from factual and political reality at this point.

Institutions only work if the people in them let them work

Sen. John Thune (R-SD) reacted to the news by telling CNN, “I guess what I would say is, I’m glad there were people in the right places and the system worked. Obviously, people who had positions of responsibility held their ground when asked to do things they knew they shouldn’t do.”

This is one way to interpret what happened. Giuliani argued against using the military to seize voting machines, and it didn’t happen. Then the acting secretary of homeland security, Ken Cuccinelli, told Giuliani his department couldn’t seize voting machines, either. Attorney General Bill Barr had earlier told Trump the same.

But the uncomfortable reality is that Trump wanted to go even further, and some people around him were quite eager that he do so. Trump considered appointing Sidney Powell as a special counsel to investigate supposed election fraud. Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark wanted the DOJ to do more to try to get the results thrown out, and Trump considered elevating him to acting attorney general.

So while some officials might have refused to go along with Trump’s whims, he did have the option to replace them but simply chose not to — due to his own calculations that this would be too far, or because other advisers talked him out of it. But there was no guarantee that Trump, who had been willing to push so far already, would back off here. If he were just a bit more stubborn and willing to stretch the boundaries of his power, the election 2020 crisis could have grown far worse.

In the end, one major check on the president is his own ability to recognize political reality, but that had badly frayed by this point. It may have gotten worse since. Trump could very well be president again. And lately he has sounded unchastened, expressing bitterness that his administration didn’t go far enough.

“Mike Pence did have the right to change the outcome,” Trump said in a statement this weekend. “Unfortunately, he didn’t exercise that power, he could have overturned the Election!” That same day, he mused at a rally about pardoning January 6 rioters. In a battle between the unhinged and the batshit for Trump’s favor, the latter camp may be gaining strength.