The hour-long recording of the President of the United States, defeated and desperate, begging Georgia’s secretary of state over the phone to “find” him enough votes to overturn the election results there was appalling.
After four years of Donald Trump’s blatant assault on democratic institutions rules, norms and laws, anyone who is shocked by this latest outrage simply hasn’t been paying attention. It was only a year ago that Trump was impeached for a similar attempt to strong-arm the president of Ukraine.
No, what was remarkable about the whole, surreal and sordid conversation was not Trump’s recycling of debunked conspiracy theories nor his insistent claim, against all evidence, that he had won the state by “hundreds of thousands of votes.”
It wasn’t hearing the President sounding like a mafia don.
It was the calm and steadfast way Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his attorney, Ryan Germany, firmly rebuffed him.
After patiently listening to and rebutting each of Trump’s bizarre diatribes about supposedly rigged machines, dead voters, shredded ballots and other social media-driven drivel, Raffensperger cut to the chase:
“Well, Mr. President,” he said, in even tones, “the challenge that you have is, the data you have is wrong.”
It’s a safe bet that Raffensperger, a Republican who supported Trump, would have much preferred that Joe Biden had lost Georgia. Raffensperger might then have avoided Trump’s wrath and the political and personal threats he has endured.
Given the enormous sway Trump holds with Republican voters, Raffensperger knows that by placing his oath above the President’s pleasure, he may well have doomed his own political future. And Trump was none too subtle in reminding him of that during their call on Saturday.
If the secretary of state didn’t reverse himself, the President predicted, his supporters would punish Republican candidates in Georgia’s crucial senate runoff elections Tuesday and beyond.
“They don’t want to vote,” Trump told Raffensperger, who will be up for reelection in 2022. “They hate the state, they hate the governor, and they hate the secretary of state. I will tell you that right now. The only people that like you are people that will never vote for you. You know that, Brad, right?”
Trump also menaced the Georgians with threats of prosecution for allegedly ignoring subterfuge by Democratic operatives in their state.
“It is more illegal for you than it is for them because, you know, what they did and you’re not reporting it,” the President said. “That’s a criminal, that’s a criminal offense. And you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer…that’s a big risk.”
As Raffensperger and Germany know, there is as little to that as there is most of the rest of Trump’s fulminations.
But the political threat is real, and Raffensperger knows that too, which is what has made his admirable stand so noteworthy.
In his book “Profiles in Courage,” former President John F. Kennedy described rare acts of political courage, in which politicians placed duty and conscience ahead of public opinion or their own political well-being.
The essence of Trump is his belief that such courage is for suckers; that, regardless of duty, you do what is in your own best interest first, last and always — even when it means undermining the most fundamental tenets of our democracy. It’s been dismaying to see how many fearful Republican politicians have heeled to his craven view.
Many of them will be on display in Congress on Wednesday, giving lift to Trump’s well-litigated and thoroughly debunked charges of election fraud by challenging the vote of the Electoral College that will make Biden the 46th president.
By standing up for the integrity of the election despite Trump’s shameless pressure, Raffensperger has proven himself, in America’s moment of trial, to be an admirable exception. He has shown courage.
Voters may not reward him for it, but history will.