A few good Republicans stopped Trump – but his threat to democracy isn’t over

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<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

Rusty Bowers, the speaker of the Arizona house of representatives, wanted Donald Trump to win the 2020 election. He worked hard to elect him and, when the time came, cast his ballot for the president.

What he wasn’t willing to do was cheat for him.

In searing and at turns emotional testimony, Bowers, a rock-ribbed conservative from battleground Arizona, recounted for the House select committee investigating the January 6 assault how he resisted a relentless campaign by the then president of the United States and his allies to do just that.

“You are asking me to do something against my oath and I will not break my oath,” Bowers said he responded, when pressured repeatedly by Trump and his allies to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the state.

Bowers’ comments helped reveal how much of a threat to American democracy Trump’s attempt to block Joe Biden’s win was – and how it was defeated by the actions of officials like Bowers. But, amid a continuing attempt by Trump and his Republican allies to peddle lies and control election races in 2024 battleground states, it also revealed the threat to the US is not over.

“The president’s lie was and is a dangerous cancer on the body politic,” said the California congressman Adam Schiff, who led the hearing. “If you can convince Americans that they cannot trust their own elections, that anytime they lose, it is somehow illegitimate, then what is left but violence to determine who should govern.”

Trump lost the state of Arizona by less than 11,000 votes – votes that were legally cast and fairly counted, Bowers said. But Trump refused to accept his loss and in his denial concocted a plot to try to stop the state from certifying the election results based on groundless conspiracies that Bowers likened to a “tragic parody”.

In perhaps his most damning disclosure, Bowers recalled a conversation in which Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani told him: “We’ve got lots of theories. We just don’t have the evidence.”

Bowers said the comment was so absurd that he and his staff wondered if it was a “gaffe” and laughed about it. But he found little reason for levity during Tuesday’s hearing.

Bowers was joined in the cavernous Cannon Caucus Room by the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, and his deputy, Gabe Sterling, also a Republican, who testified about the pressure Trump and his legal team put on elections officials in their state.

In a phone call after the November election, Trump asked Raffensperger to “find 11,780” votes – just enough to flip Biden’s election victory in the state.

Their refusal to obey Trump’s demands was met with a barrage of online harassment and intimidation. Raffensperger said all of his personal information was made public. His wife began receiving sexually explicit threats and someone broke into the home of his daughter-in-law, a widow with two children. Bowers at the time was caring for his dying daughter who he said was troubled by the menacing crowd that gathered outside his home, pelting taunts and threats. During the hearing, Bowers read a passage from his journal.

“It is painful to have friends who have been such a help to me turn on me with such rancor,” he wrote in December. “I do not want to be a winner by cheating. I will not play with laws I swore allegiance to.”

Sterling became a standout figure when he called on Trump to stop riling up his supporters during a televised press conference held in the tumultuous post-election period while Georgia carried out a series of recounts. “Death threats, physical threats, intimidation – it’s too much, it’s not right,” Sterling said in his remarks, parts of which the committee showed during the hearing. He told his committee he “lost it” that day after being told that a young election contractor with Dominion Systems was receiving death threats from purveyors of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

“I tend to turn red from here up when that happens. And that happened at that time,” he said.

Lives and livelihoods were disrupted and destroyed as a result of Trump’s lies, the committee heard. Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, a former Georgia election worker, testified on Tuesday that she no longer felt safe, secure or confident since becoming the subject of one of Trump’s most pernicious fraud claims – one involving suitcases that both federal and state officials said was baseless.

Tuesday’s witnesses were all that stood between what the chairman of the committee, Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, described as a “close call” and a “catastrophe” for American democracy, during its fourth public hearing. It also revealed new details in the brazen, if ill-conceived, scheme to put forward “fake” slates of electors in seven states as part of a last-gasp attempt to keep Trump in power.

Again and again the committee has sought to show that the violent insurrection on 6 January, horrible as it was, isn’t the whole story. Nor is it the end of the story. It’s part of a coordinated and continuing plot by the former president and his allies to remain in power by any means possible.

“Focus on the evidence the committee will present. Don’t be distracted by politics,” the committee’s vice-chair, the Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming, urged viewers. “This is serious. We cannot let America become a nation of conspiracy theories and thug violence.”

Trump’s “big lie”, the committee said, was a “dangerous precursor” to the deadly insurrection on 6 January. But it remains an urgent threat to democracy.

Trump continues to claim that he won the 2020 election and polls suggest millions of Republicans believe him. Indeed, before the hearing he claimed Bowers had said the Arizona election was rigged and he actually won the state. Under oath, Bowers said Trump’s recollection of their conversation was categorically false.

Nevertheless, embracing the lie has become a requisite for his endorsement, which has delivered mixed results in Republican primaries. In Georgia, Raffensperger overcame a Trump-backed challenger to win re-election as the state’s attorney general.

But elsewhere, election deniers are winning primaries in an attempt to seize control of elections administration in key states across the country. In Pennsylvania, where the governor appoints the secretary of state, Republicans chose a nominee who helped organize the rally that preceded the attack on 6 January and has openly mused about fraud in future elections.

And across the country, election workers like Moss are being driven out by threats of violence and intimidation. In some instances, election watchdogs have warned, they are being replaced by partisans and conspiracy theorists.

Look no further than New Mexico, Thompson said on Tuesday, where a Republican commission refused to certify the results of the state’s primary election, citing unfounded claims about the security of the voting machines. The commission ultimately bowed to an order by the state’s supreme court and certified the election but the committee said it was a blinking red warning sign ahead of the 2022 and 2024 elections.

“The system held, but barely,” Schiff said. “And the question remains, will it hold again.”