The conservative legal establishment lays down a red line for Donald Trump

The conservative legal establishment lays down a red line for Donald Trump
Des Moines, Iowa, United States : An ardent supporter of Donald Trump put up his own billboard at his home in West Des Moines, Iowa. December 10, 2015 Shutterstock/ Michael F. Hiatt

When Steven Calabresi, the influential and very conservative co-founder of the Federalist Society, argued that Donald Trump's clunky trial balloon about possibly postponing the election was "fascistic" and "grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment again by the House of Representatives and his removal from office by the Senate," he was ostensibly telling Trump to back off. But while he was sending a message to Trump, and his Republican allies on The Hill, a more important audience for his op-ed may have been the sprawling conservative legal community. Calabresi, a godfather of sorts to the movement, signaled to conservative lawyers and legal advocacy groups that while they may mire the count with ballot challenges and other litigation, they must not back Trump's play if he veers outside the lines delineated by the Constitution.

Ultimately, that may not amount to much. Congressional Republicans quickly shot down Trump's fever dream about delaying the vote. Some dismissed it as a joke.

But given the potential tumult that awaits us if Trump loses and rejects the results, it could be significant. And it comes at a point when we're finally starting to see some cracks Trump's Congressional firewall. Senate Republicans were publicly dismissive of several items on the White House's wishlist for a Covid relief bill, including money for a new FBI headquarters that Trump has long sought. And this week, a confirmation hearing for retired general Anthony Tata, a wingnut conspiracy theorist Trump nominated to a key Pentagon job, was cancelled at the last minute because Tata lacked Republican votes to push him through. According to The Washington Post, Trump had "pressed the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), for a hearing, despite rising objections to Tata’s background," but to no avail.

It would be generous to say that Republicans are finally starting to peel off from Trump out of principle but nothing in the past three-and-a-half years suggests that's the case. Trump is trailing Joe Biden nationally by eight points and in each of the six key battleground states by between three and eight points. It isn't surprising to see some Republicans abandon ship given the numbers, and given the public's low opinion of Trump's bungling of the pandemic. If current trends persist, Republican electeds will worry about losing a generation of voters more than they fear Trump and his perpetually pissed-off base.

All of this could matter a lot if Trump loses. We know that he would reject the results because he didn't accept them when he won in 2016. There's been a lot of talk about what would happen if he does so, but ultimately it won't matter if his outlandish claims about the election being rigged aren't embraced the Republican establishment. They have so far been meek and obeisant, but at least some of them are making it clear there are lines Trump can't cross, and that may be a modest cause for optimism.

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