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Mike Pence said to have told Donald Trump he lacks power to change US election result

Mike Pence's message came hours after President Donald Trump further turned up the public pressure on the vice president to do his bidding when Congress convenes Wednesday to ratify Biden’s Electoral College win.

By: New York Times | January 6, 2021 8:56:19 am
Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a campaign event on Jan. 4, 2021. (The New York Times: Nicole Craine)

Written by Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni

Vice President Mike Pence told President Donald Trump on Tuesday that he did not believe he had the power to block congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election despite Trump’s baseless insistence that he did, people briefed on the conversation said.

Pence’s message, delivered during his weekly lunch with the president, came hours after Trump further turned up the public pressure on the vice president to do his bidding when Congress convenes Wednesday in a joint session to ratify Biden’s Electoral College win.

“The Vice President has the power to reject fraudulently chosen electors,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Tuesday morning, an inaccurate assertion that mischaracterized Pence’s largely formal and constitutionally prescribed role of presiding over the House and Senate as they receive and certify the electoral votes conveyed by the states and announcing the outcome.

Pence does not have the unilateral power to alter the results sent by the states to Congress.

More Republican senators came out Tuesday against attempts to undermine the results, including Tim Scott of South Carolina and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who said he viewed challenging any state’s certification as “a violation of my oath of office.”

In a process that is likely to go on for many hours, Pence will preside on Wednesday over a roll call of the states. If at least one senator and one House member object to the results from a state, they can force a debate of up to two hours about those results. Each chamber will then vote separately on whether to certify that state’s results.

For results to be overturned, both the House and the Senate would have to agree to do so. Because the House is controlled by the Democrats, there is no realistic possibility of any state’s outcome being rejected. In addition, many if not most Senate Republicans appear likely to join all Democrats in rejecting challenges to the results.

The House and Senate are expected to debate objections to the results in at least three states — Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania, all of which went to Biden — but ultimately to certify Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College victory.

Lawmakers anticipated possible objections for up to three more states — Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin — although it was not clear whether they would draw the required backing from a member of both the House and the Senate.

When the results from all of the states have been considered, Pence, who as vice president also serves as presiding officer of the Senate, will be called on to read out the Electoral College votes for each candidate, formalizing Biden’s victory.

Pence has spent the past several days in a delicate dance, seeking at once to convey to the president that he does not have the authority to overturn the results of the election, while also placating the president to avoid a rift that could torpedo any hopes Pence has of running in 2024 as Trump’s loyal heir.

Even as he sought to make clear that he does not have the power Trump seems to think he has, Pence also indicated to the president that he would keep studying the issue up until the final hours before the joint session of Congress begins at 1 p.m. Wednesday, according to the people briefed on their conversation.

One option being considered, according to a person close to Trump, was having Pence acknowledge the president’s claims about election fraud in some form during one or more of the Senate debates about the results from particular states before the certification. Pence will preside over those debates.

Trump has been cajoling Pence in public and private to find a way to use his role on Wednesday to give credence to his unfounded claims — rejected by the states and in scores of court cases and backed by no evidence — that the election was stolen from him through widespread fraud.

The president has told several people privately that he would rather lose with people thinking it was stolen from him than that he simply lost, according to people familiar with his remarks.

How much leeway Pence could have to interject his views or to stage manage the proceedings is a subject of debate among experts.

“The way Trump is phrasing it, there’s no merit,” said Edward B. Foley, director of the election law program at Ohio State University. “What Trump is asking for is control of the outcome that will lead to him being declared the president. That is definitely not within Pence’s power.”

But Foley said Pence would be able to add some “drama to the theater,” if he so chooses. As an example, Foley said the vice president could present “rival” packages of electoral votes for some states and force Congress to debate both simultaneously.

“We know the end result,” he said, “we just don’t know when we will get there or what procedure we will take to get there.”

In the days immediately after the election on Nov. 3, Trump was in shock but understood that he had lost, advisers said. But the more time that has passed, and the more that he has been enabled by a small group of people who have fed his belief that there is a mechanism to wipe away Biden’s win, the more invested in trying to reverse the outcome Trump has become.

Several allies of Pence said the vice president was getting mixed advice on what to do, and was desperate to find some middle ground.

One ally said that Pence would follow the rule of law, but that he was looking for a way to “thread the needle” so that his words were not played back on social media and used to ding Trump.

Another said that his advisers were being “realistic” about his options.

But some conceded that he would have benefited from telegraphing more aggressively over the past few days that he was not going to be able to rescue the president from defeat, rather than allowing suspense to build while attracting more attention to what they see as a no-win situation.

They said he could have also better explained to the public the ceremonial nature of the role rather than giving hope to Trump supporters like he did Monday in Georgia when he said that “we will have our day come Wednesday.”

“He’s not going to unilaterally step in and make a decision,” said David McIntosh, the president of the anti-tax Club for Growth and a friend of Pence’s. “He’ll let the Senate consider it, and if they certify it, there’s no way he as the president of the Senate is going to change that decision.”

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