Trump pressure on Georgia election official puts spotlight on Pence, other top Republicans

BEN GITTLESON
·6 min read

President Donald Trump's extraordinary call this weekend in which he asked Georgia's top election official to "find" enough votes for him to overturn the state's election results has threatened to exacerbate a schism among top Republicans -- and has put a renewed focus on Vice President Mike Pence.

While the vice president has over the past couple months voiced support for the president's baseless allegations of electoral fraud -- avoiding Trump and his allies' more incendiary charges -- all that may end Wednesday.

Pence will be tasked with overseeing a joint session of Congress at which the Electoral College vote will be certified, officially and finally determining former Vice President Joe Biden to be the president-elect.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump looks on during a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Dec. 7, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: President Donald Trump looks on during a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Dec. 7, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)

Trump has pressured GOP senators and representatives to formally object to the results from key swing states, although doing so will only prolong the session -- rather than change the ultimate result.

At a Monday campaign event in Georgia for a pair of Republicans competing in runoff Senate elections, Pence steered clear of even oblique references to Trump's call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. In the hour-long call Saturday, the president pressured Raffensperger to "find 11,780 votes" for him, one more than the number Biden won the state by in November.

MORE: Trump 'just plain wrong' on fraud claims: Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger

Trump himself planned to headline at a rally in Dalton, Georgia, for the two candidates, Sen. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, Monday night. He told Raffensperger that he would discuss his debunked allegations during the campaign event.

While most GOP lawmakers remained silent, a member of House Republican leadership, Liz Cheney of Wyoming, called it "deeply troubling."

"I think everybody ought to listen to the full hour of it," Cheney said Monday. "I think that’s it’s deeply troubling, and I’m just going to leave it at that."

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said the call "represents a new low in this whole futile and sorry episode."

"I commend Republican election officials across the country who have discharged their duties with integrity over the past two months while weathering relentless pressure, disinformation, and attacks from the president and his campaign."

PHOTO: Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a visit to Rock Springs Church to campaign for GOP Senate candidates on Jan. 4, 2021, in Milner, Ga. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a visit to Rock Springs Church to campaign for GOP Senate candidates on Jan. 4, 2021, in Milner, Ga. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

While Raffensperger pushed back against Trump, the call put in stark contrast to the announcements by a dozen senators and 140 members of the House of Representatives -- all Republican -- that they would voice objections during Wednesday's congressional session.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., last week became the first senator to back the effort, and on Sunday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, announced he and 10 others would join in, too.

The U.S. Constitution calls on the vice president, who also serves as president of the Senate, to oversee the session, which Trump and his allies have increasingly put their focus on.

MORE: Trump demands Georgia secretary of state 'find' enough votes to hand him win

"We all got our doubts about the last election," Pence said during the campaign event in Milner, Georgia. "And I want to assure you, I share the concerns of millions of Americans about voting irregularities."

There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud or irregularities that would alter the November election’s outcome.

PHOTO: Brad Raffensperger, Georgia's secretary of state, speaks during a news conference at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Dec. 14, 2020. (Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Brad Raffensperger, Georgia's secretary of state, speaks during a news conference at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Dec. 14, 2020. (Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE)

A day after swearing in members of Congress, Pence expressed support -- although not at length. He spoke a day before the conclusion of the runoff elections, which will determine control of the Senate for the next two years.

"I promise you, come this Wednesday, we'll have our day in Congress," the vice president said. "We’ll hear the objections. We’ll hear the evidence. But tomorrow is Georgia's day."

Cheney on Monday sent a memorandum to colleagues urging them to not object, while in the Senate, several Republicans have forcefully criticized their colleagues for taking part in what will amount to a futile effort.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, called it "an egregious ploy" that "dangerously threatens our Democratic Republic," and Toomey said the challenge amounted to an attempt "to disenfranchise millions of voters."

On Twitter, Trump attacked a couple of those who have expressed reservations, including GOP Sens. Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, and John Thune, of South Dakota.

Pence has not explicitly said whether he will actually fulfill his role and preside over the session; he could skip it and pass the duty to the most senior member of the Senate’s majority.

PHOTO: Vice President Mike Pence wears a face mask as he waits to participate in mock swearing-in ceremonies for Senators in the Old Senate Chambers at the U.S. Capitol Building, Jan. 3, 2021, in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Vice President Mike Pence wears a face mask as he waits to participate in mock swearing-in ceremonies for Senators in the Old Senate Chambers at the U.S. Capitol Building, Jan. 3, 2021, in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via Getty Images)

On Monday, he avoided reporters' questions about the phone call and Wednesday's session.

His chief of staff, Marc Short, on Sunday said in a statement that "Vice President Pence shares the concerns of millions of Americans about voter fraud and irregularities in the last election" and that he "welcomes the efforts of members of the House and Senate to use the authority they have under the law to raise objections and bring forward evidence before the Congress and the American people on January 6th."

The president said Sunday he would attend a Wednesday rally in Washington protesting the election. His supporters and far-right groups plan to gather to back the president, who is set to leave office just two weeks later.

Trump and his allies have thus far failed to overturn the election in his favor -- they lost around 50 court cases challenging the vote -- and the president has grown increasingly desperate in recent weeks.

MORE: Georgia runoff campaigns ending as Trump, GOP continue to contest November's outcome

After audio of Trump's call with Raffensperger, which was first obtained by The Washington Post but also independently obtained by ABC News, Democrats raised questions about whether the president may have committed any crimes.

PHOTO: Senator Ted Cruz holds a press conference after a rally in Sugar Hill, Ga., Jan. 3, 2021. (Nathan Posner/Shutterstock)
PHOTO: Senator Ted Cruz holds a press conference after a rally in Sugar Hill, Ga., Jan. 3, 2021. (Nathan Posner/Shutterstock)

Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu, of California, and Kathleen Rice, of New York, said Monday they had sent a criminal referral to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“The evidence of election fraud by Mr. Trump," they said in a statement, is now in broad daylight."

The White House declined to comment on reports about the call, which took place three days before the end of two Senate runoff races in Georgia that, if Democrats win, will flip control of the Senate.

While Trump planned to travel to Georgia Monday in support of the Republican candidates, his months of questions about the validity of elections there and in other states raised fears among Republicans that their supporters would turn out in lower numbers.

On Friday, the president went so far as to tweet that the races were "illegal and invalid."

Pence's trip to Georgia on Monday marked his fifth visit to the Peach State since Election Day and his sixth rally on behalf of Perdue and Loeffler.

The vice president was recently the target of a lawsuit brought by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and Republicans from Arizona that sought to force Pence – in his role at Wednesday’s session – to recognize a group of Republicans as Arizona’s electors even though Biden won the state. A judge threw out that suit on Friday.

PHOTO: Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a visit to Rock Springs Church to campaign for GOP Senate candidates on Jan. 4, 2021, in Milner, Ga. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a visit to Rock Springs Church to campaign for GOP Senate candidates on Jan. 4, 2021, in Milner, Ga. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Pence had previously rallied behind long-shot Republican efforts to overturn the election results, most recently supporting a Texas-led lawsuit that was ultimately dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“So far, just in the last few days, 18 states have joined the Lone Star State to defend the integrity of our elections before the highest court in the land,” Pence said at the time, at a rally in Augusta, Georgia, on Dec. 10. “President Donald Trump deserves his day in court, the Supreme Court. And all I can say is, God bless Texas.”

Pence spent the Christmas and New Year's holidays vacationing in Vail, Colorado, the ski resort town, according to local media.

ABC News' John Parkinson, Quinn Scanlan, Justin Gomez, Elizabeth Thomas, Meg Cunningham and Mariam Khan contributed to this report.

Trump pressure on Georgia election official puts spotlight on Pence, other top Republicans originally appeared on abcnews.go.com