September 16, 2021


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Michigan lawmakers arrive at the White House amid urgent push to head off Trump’s pressure campaign

But the visit comes as Trump has personally intervened to try to upend Michigan’s vote certification process. All 83 counties have certified their vote counts, giving President-elect Joe Biden a 156,000-vote margin of victory, and the state board of canvassing is scheduled to meet Monday to consider certifying the final state tally.

This week, the president called a GOP official who voted to certify the results in Wayne County, home of Detroit. She and her fellow Republican board member subsequently tried to rescind their votes, a move the secretary of state’s office said was not permitted.

Trump’s invitation to Shirkey and Chatfield ratcheted up alarm among current and former elected officials in Michigan, who expressed fear that he would pressure them into embracing his unfounded claims of massive voter fraud in Detroit and encourage the state canvassing board not to certify the vote.

One of the two Republicans on the state canvassing board, Norman Shinkle, told The Washington Post Thursday that he was leaning toward seeking a delay and requesting an audit of the vote, citing debunked conspiracy theories touted by Trump and his attorneys about voting machines.

“Right now the idea to check into some of these accusations seems to make sense to me,” he said.

John James, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate who lost to incumbent Democrat Gary Peters, also urged the canvassing board Friday not to certify the results, citing voting irregulaties that he said warranted investigation.

Trump’s lawyers have said that if the state board deadlocks on certifying the vote, they want the GOP-controlled legislature to appoint its own slate of electors.

Election law experts have said such a move would be legally dubious, as state law grants no role for the legislature in the certification process. Earlier in the week, Shirkey dismissed the prospect of a legislative intervention in the race — saying Biden won and that a Republican effort to overturn Michigan’s election results was “not going to happen.”

Two individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations said there have been numerous attempts in the last 24 hours to reach out to the two Republican state leaders and ask them not to embrace Trump’s claims. They said they did not have certainty, in the end, about what Chatfield or Shirkey might do.

Both lawmakers are term-limited, with Chatfield on his way out on Dec. 31 and Shirkey serving his final two years. But Chatfield, who is just 32, is considered a potential challenger to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) in 2022.

A political operative in Lansing who spoke on the condition anonymity to describe private discussions said he spoke to Chatfield this week and believes both lawmakers feel an obligation to meet with Trump in part because he is the president and in part because Republicans in Michigan are pushing for them to intervene, despite the lack of evidence.

“They are under immense pressure,” the person said. “They are the two highest-ranked Republicans left in Michigan. The Republican Party along with the grass roots are clamoring for them to just overturn the election. So to say, ‘We’re not going to the White House’ is a slap in the face to their own party.”

On Friday, Chatfield tweeted: “No matter the party, when you have an opportunity to meet with the President of the United States, of course you take it. I won’t apologize for that. In fact, I’m honored to speak with POTUS and proud to meet with him. And I look forward to our conversation.”

Shirkey, for his part, was greeted by protesters after he landed at Reagan National Airport Friday morning, prompting him to begin humming a hymn about persecution, according to a video posted on Twitter.

On Friday, Democratic lawmakers publicly implored their colleagues not to lend their voice to Trump’s efforts to undermine public faith in the election results.

The president “today is trying to cajole, bully and maybe even bribe them into doing something that would be a disaster for our country,” state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D) said on a call with reporters ahead of the meeting. “It would damage our legitimacy, that would ruin our prestige around the world, and that would cause a tremendous instability in our country.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who was also on the call, wouldn’t rule out calling for an investigation into Trump’s attempts at interfering in the election results, but said she also is reluctant to create more division.

“A lot of discussions going on right now about what the right thing to do is,” Dingell said. “We need to see what’s going to happen out of this meeting. Do I think it’s a totally inappropriate meeting? Yes, but … I want to see what actions occur.”

Dingell added, “We are not going to let these people in the White House undermine a democracy that has lasted for 200 years, that makes us the greatest country in the world.”

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said on Capitol Hill Friday that he’s seen no evidence of fraud that would change the outcome in his home state. Upton noted that he was the first House Republican to congratulate Biden on his win.

“I don’t know what path they’re on,” he said of the state lawmakers headed to the White House. “They’ve not shared it with me.”

Former Michigan governor John Engler, who said he spoke to Shirkey this week, said he wasn’t certain what the lawmakers would learn at the White House. But he was confident that neither would attempt to interfere with the certification of the Michigan results.

“I don’t think they’re going to change,” Engler said, referring to their previous statements that Biden appeared to have won the state decisively.

Engler also noted that the results across Michigan belie Trump’s accusation that fraud in Detroit is the only way Biden could have won the state. Biden amassed more votes in many of the state’s largest counties, including conservative ones, than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, he said.

“I’m disappointed that there’s been no analysis coming out of Michigan” to illustrate that point, he said.

Jim Blanchard, the former Democratic governor of Michigan, said in an interview that he suspected neither Shirkey nor Chatfield had visited the White House before.

“This will be exciting for them,” he said. “It’s hard to believe they’d be part of a plot to overthrow the result.”

It’s also not clear they have the power to do so. According to Chris Thomas, who for decades was Michigan’s top election official, there is no role for the legislature in the certification process.

And although much has been written about the possibility that the state canvassing board, made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, could deadlock and fail to certify when they meet on Monday, Thomas said that, too, is unlikely. The law makes clear that the board “shall” certify the results from the counties. There is a provision for a delay if there are unreconciled errors or a county has not yet reported its results. But that is not the case now.

If the board does deadlock, Democrats would most certainly seek a court order that would force the certification to go forward, he added.

Blanchard said any attempt to delay by Republicans would wind up making the Michigan GOP “look foolish.”

“There’s no question this is cheap theater,” Blanchard said. “This is going to get played out one way or the other, and we’re going to have the electoral college selected to vote for Joe Biden. The only question is how many days it will be.”

A fresh indication that Trump’s options are dwindling came Friday from an organization with close ties to his education secretary, Betsy DeVos. The conservative Michigan Freedom Fund, which the DeVos family funds, issued the following statement Friday: “The election is over. The results are in, and here in Michigan, they’re not going to change.”

Tom Hamburger and Kayla Ruble in Detroit and Rachael Bade, Colby Itkowitz and Paul Kane in Washington contributed to this report.

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