As Joe Biden’s margin of victory has increased with vote counting drawing to a close, Republicans have grown more assertive in giving cover to Donald Trump’s false claims that the US presidential election was stolen from him.
Mr Trump has refused to acknowledge his defeat, instead filing lawsuits and alleging, without any real evidence, that there was a widespread conspiracy by the Democrats to falsify ballots and rig the election in their favour, despite underwhelming results for Democrats in Congress.
Though the president’s claims have been largely rejected in the courts, Republicans have continued to stand by Mr Trump and lent credence to his claims even as the Trump campaign has failed to produce proof of significant irregularities.
William Barr, the US attorney-general, on Monday issued a memo that changed Department of Justice policy to allow voter fraud investigations before the election is settled. The move triggered the resignation of the official who oversaw such cases.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, has declined to say that Mr Biden has won the election, telling reporters on Tuesday that “anyone who’s running for office can exhaust concerns about counting in any court of appropriate jurisdiction”.
“Not unusual. Should not be alarming. The electoral college will determine the winner. And that person will be sworn in on January 20. No reason for alarm,” he added.
And Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, on Wednesday said “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration”, even as several world leaders telephoned Mr Biden to congratulate him on winning the election.
“I’m very confident that we will count, and we must count, every legal vote,” he said, adding it was “ridiculous” to suggest Mr Trump’s refusal to concede the election would hamper his department’s efforts to convince losers of elections elsewhere in the world to concede.
Meanwhile, 10 Republican state attorneys-general have thrown their weight behind a Supreme Court challenge to mail ballots in Pennsylvania that arrived after polling day. Such ballots are likely too few to alter the result in a state where Mr Biden leads by about 45,000 votes and counting.
“This tells us quite a bit about the sad state of our politics across the board,” said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“We used to assume that politicians were more concerned with their own careers than the fate of the nation, now we have verifiable proof.”
Mr Barr’s memo, which authorised investigations into “substantial” allegations of voter fraud, raised the prospect of the Department of Justice taking public actions in the coming weeks that Mr Trump could seize on to bolster his claims.
Previously, prosecutors would delay pursuing such investigations until after the results of an election were certified. Mr Barr in his memo criticised that “passive and delayed” approach, suggesting there were cases where electoral fraud would change the outcome of an election.
Richard Pilger, a career prosecutor who had overseen voter fraud cases, resigned from that supervisory role after “having familiarised myself with the new policy and its ramifications”, he told colleagues in an email on Monday.
Mr Trump has already shared Mr Barr’s memo with his tens of millions of Twitter followers.
The manoeuvres have caused alarm among Democrats, though they have continued to express confidence that Mr Trump has no route to undo Mr Biden’s victory, largely because he has a significant margin in several states that give him a buffer to any challenge.
“I don’t think it’s adding up to anything serious in terms of preventing Joe Biden from becoming president,” said Matthew Miller, a former justice department spokesman in the Obama administration.
“I do think it adds up to something serious in terms of the public’s confidence in the election,” he added. A recent Politico poll suggested that 70 per cent of Republicans now think the election was not free and fair, a significant rise from around a third before the election.
Mr Trump’s refusal to concede is already having an impact on the possibility of a smooth handover, with the General Services Administration declining to start the formal transition process.
The willingness of Republicans to go along with Mr Trump even after his defeat has reflected the tight grip Mr Trump continues to hold over core Republican voters. Two of his sons, Donald Trump Jr and Eric, have issued warnings on Twitter to Republican officials who did not speak out in support of the president.
“The Trump family has made it extremely clear that they are taking a list of names and they’re going to remember who did not back them,” Mr Engel said.
Only four Republican senators have accepted the result of the election, including Mitt Romney from Utah and Ben Sasse from Nebraska, both of whom have criticised Mr Trump in the past.
Others need to avoid angering Mr Trump’s base ahead of their 2022 re-election campaigns, such as Roy Blunt of Missouri, who told reporters on Tuesday: “The president wasn’t defeated by large numbers. In fact he may not have been defeated at all.”
Such concerns about the Republican base are amplified for senators who are considering running for president in 2024, such as Texas’s Ted Cruz and Missouri’s Josh Hawley. Mr Pompeo is also thought to harbour hopes of running in four years.
In Georgia, where Mr Biden appears to have won a narrow victory, a run-off election to determine the state’s two senators is set for January. The outcome in that race will determine which party controls the Senate.
The two Republican incumbent senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, have attacked Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensberger, claiming he had “failed to deliver honest and transparent elections” and calling for his resignation.
Mr Raffensberger rejected the claims, and noted that it was “unlikely” that there was any voter fraud that would change the reality that Mr Biden carried the state.
Some observers said Republicans were treading a fine line, neither rejecting Mr Trump’s claims nor wholly endorsing them.
“The thing to remember about Mitch McConnell is that he chooses his language very precisely,” said Doug Heye, a former top Republican national committee spokesperson. “He is not saying Donald Trump is right.”
Mr Heye said Mr McConnell was trying to keep the Republican conference united. He noted the “torrent of abuse that would come if [Mr McConnell] were to very boldly state the obvious” in saying that Mr Biden had won.