‘We are underreacting to how serious this moment is’

Many Republicans in Congress are dodging the question of whether they’ll accept this year’s election results.

What’s at stake in 2024 if only one party will accept defeat?

Today, On Point: Election fraud and America’s democratic future.

Guests

Francisco Aguilar, Nevada secretary of state.

Sarah Longwell, Republican pollster and strategist. Director of the Republican Accountability Project. Founder and publisher of the center-right online publication The Bulwark. Host of the podcast “The Focus Group.”

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of history and Italian Studies at New York University. Author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” She has a newsletter on democracy around the world and in the U.S. on Substack called Lucid.

Also Featured

Jocelyn Benson, Michigan secretary of state.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti.

KRISTEN WELKER: Will you commit to accepting the election results of 2024, bottom line?

SEN. TIM SCOTT: At the end of the day, the 47th president of the United States will be President Donald Trump. (LAUGHS) And I’m excited to get back to low inflation, low unemployment —

WELKER: Wait, wait, Senator. Yes or no, yes or no: Will you accept the election results of 2024 no matter who wins?

SCOTT: That is my statement.

CHAKRABARTI: This is Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, just last month on NBC’s Meet the Press with Kristen Welker.

WELKER: But, but is it — just yes or no: Will you accept the election results of 2024?

SCOTT: I look forward to President Trump being the 47th president. Kristen, you could ask it multiple times.

WELKER: Senator, just a yes or no answer.

SCOTT: So the American people, the American people will make the decision –

WELKER: But I don’t hear you committing.

SCOTT: For President Trump. That is clear.

WELKER: I don’t hear you committing to the election results. Will you commit to accepting the election results?

SCOTT: So many — this is why so many Americans believe that NBC is an extension of the Democrat party. At the end of the day, I’ve said what I’ve said. I know that the American people, their voices will be heard, and I believe that President Trump will be our next president. It’s that simple.

CHAKRABARTI: And here’s Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio during his Meet the Press appearance also last month.

 WELKER: Will you accept the election results of 2024 no matter what happens, Senator?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: No matter what happens? No, if it’s an unfair election, I think it’s going to be contested by both sides.

WELKER: Senator, no matter who wins.

RUBIO: I think you’re asking the wrong person. The Democrats are the ones that have opposed every Republican victory since 2000. Every single one. It’s Hillary Clinton said —

WELKER: No Democrat has refused to concede. Hillary Clinton conceded. Senator, will you accept the election results?

RUBIO: Hillary Clinton said the election was stolen from her and that Trump was illegitimate. Kamala Harris agreed. We have Democrats now—

WELKER: Senator, she conceded the election.

RUBIO: She said that Joe, she said that — No, she said that Trump was illegitimate. She said that the election had been stolen. Kamala Harris agreed. By the way, there are Democrats serving in Congress today who in 2004 voted not to certify the Ohio electors, because they said those machines have been tampered with. And you have Democrats now saying they won’t certify 2024 because Trump is an insurrectionist and ineligible to hold office. So you need to ask them. I think you’ve had — have you ever asked a Democrat this question on your show? Okay. I bet you’ve never asked a Democrat that question.

CHAKRABARTI: And it’s not just Senators Rubio and Scott. Other Congressional Republicans are also dodging the question, arguably contesting the 2024 election – or at the very least, casting doubt on its integrity — before a single vote has been cast.

Can a democracy function this way?

We ask that question a lot on this show – about the health of American democracy. And I grant that that can often seem like an esoteric question that feels like it doesn’t have a lot of urgent importance to people’s daily lives and concerns.

However, the fact that the United States is at a place where such a question can, and is, legitimately and frequently asked, is having an impact on the ground, and on the governance of this country.

So today, we’re going to start the show with local evidence of the impact of repeated efforts by Donald Trump’s core Republican supporters to pre-emptively question the integrity of U.S. elections.

And we’ll begin with Francisco Aguilar. He’s the Secretary of State of Nevada, a post he was elected to and has held since 2023. Secretary Aguilar, welcome to On Point.

FRANCISCO AGUILAR: Hello, Meghna. Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, tell me, are you seeing evidence, small or large, that when congressional Republicans like we just heard are saying you have to be sure that the state level elections are free and fair, seemingly casting doubt that they might not be, is that having any kind of discernible impact already in Nevada?

AGUILAR: Oh yeah, I think, look, first of all, Nevada runs some of the most safe, secure, and accessible elections in the country. We have to realize that a national election is being decided at the local level. We have 17 clerks in the state of Nevada. 11 of those clerks are new to their position. Two of the 11 have already cycled out after six months.

So if you take a look at it, you’ll see that there’s two new ones within the last 45 days.

CHAKRABARTI: Why did those other, why did the two cycle out so soon?

AGUILAR: Because I think they realized the intensity of the election, what it took to run an election, what it meant to remain, keep integrity, to remain committed to the values of our democracy, and to really stay strong and forceful that we run safe and secure elections in Nevada.

It’s hard when you’re in your local community. And you every day have to hear from everyone in your community about the challenges or the issues, because individuals are putting false information out there or disinformation about the election. You’re constantly on defensive mode to defend the integrity of the election, and it doesn’t help that the number of lawsuits coming against us continues to increase.

It’s not the number of lawsuits. It’s also the FOIA requests. The number of requests we’re receiving for information has increased substantially. It’s taking up staff time. It’s taking up capacity for us to be able to do voter education, which is the real issue and where we should be focused is educating voters.

And again, you look at the makeup of our 17 clerks across the state. We have two that are appointed in the major urban counties, which are Washoe and Clark, 15 elected clerks in the rural counties. 13 of those 15 are Republicans. They are our community members. They are your neighbors. So it’s not like they have an agenda other than to serve their constituency and their community.

CHAKRABARTI: Secretary, so just to go back to what you said a minute ago about the lawsuits and the FOIA requests. Regarding the FOIA requests, as a member of the media, I will stand in defense of people’s rights to FOIA their state and local government, but I want to focus.

AGUILAR: When it’s done with a bad intention. Just to preoccupy you and to distract you from the real job. That’s when it becomes a challenge. I don’t mind being transparent. I don’t mind being available to the public, but it’s when it becomes used as a tool to harass or intimidate. That’s the issue, and that’s the challenge.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, so regarding FOIAs, I can’t actually speak to what, I don’t know what the intent is for the flood of FOIA requests, but I do want to actually ask you another quick follow up about the lawsuits, because I think that is something that needs a little bit more explanation.

AGUILAR: It’s the new press release.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I just, I’m seeing that the Trump campaign has now filed its third lawsuit against elections in Nevada.

AGUILAR: Yes, and it’s not just against the state, it’s against the local clerks. But again, you have to understand, there are duly elected county commissioners that oversee two of the largest urban counties, and that election clerk.

It’s not that election clerk making decisions on their own. They’re engaging their elected leaders who represent their community to make the decisions they’re making.

CHAKRABARTI: The Republican National Committee, the RNC, is claiming, and I’d like your response to this, but their claim is they say they’ve discovered that Nevada election officials routinely count non-postmark mail in ballots received after Election Day.

They have not provided any examples, though. Again, first of all, your response to that and what impact is that having on your confidence that people will believe the outcome of the 2024 election in Nevada?

AGUILAR: First of all, I can’t comment on ongoing litigation, but I can say everything we do in the office and with the clerks.

We follow statute. We follow regulation. And anytime we make a decision, we get those statutes. We get the regulations reviewed by attorneys to make sure that we are in complete compliance with what we’re doing, because we know that we are under a microscope.

CHAKRABARTI: Secretary Aguilar, I’d like to play for you a clip from Florida Congressman Byron Donalds.

He’s a Republican who’s been also floated as a potential vice-presidential pick for Donald Trump. In March of this year, he was interviewed by Axios’s Sophie Cai. And she asked if he would have certified the 2020 election if he had been in former vice president Mike Pence’s place.

REP. BYRON DONALDS: I honestly don’t know because it wasn’t my job.

SOPHIE CAI: Oh, but come on.

DONALDS: I’m serious.

CAI: Would you have rejected the votes?

DONALDS: I honestly don’t know because it wasn’t my job. You can only ask that question of Mike Pence.

CAI: But he has made the decision. Do you agree with what he did?

DONALDS: You can only ask that question of Mike Pence.

 CAI: All right, so let’s talk about 2024.

DONALDS: Sure.

CAI: Or 2028. What would you do if the person that you did not want to win?

DONALDS: Well, a couple of things. First and foremost, in 2028, it depends on what I’m doing. Is the question that I’m vice president of the United States. That’s pretty cool, by the way. Let me just give you a preview. So if that’s the question that I’m vice president in 2028, okay, a couple of things. First of all, first and foremost, what’s going on with elections in our states? Is it a situation where you have the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania changing election law around mail in ballots? Because the state Supreme Court did that, which is a violation of the United States constitution.

CAI: So as things should —

DONALDS: So here’s the best question. Here’s the best question.

CAI: But I get to ask the questions.

DONALDS: I know, but I’m asking you something. Here’s the best question: Are state local officials and/or state courts allowed to go around state legislative law?

CAI: But you’re not going to be a state official. So I’m asking you as vice president, would you certify the results if things had stood as they stood in 2020?

DONALDS: If you have state officials who are violating the election law in their states because of a “emergency,” without going through the legislative process, which is by constant, by our constitution and by every law in our states, then no, I would not.

CHAKRABARTI: Florida Congressman Byron Donalds in March of this year. Now, Secretary Aguilar, the reason why I wanted to play that for you is that even though Donalds says if you have state officials who are violating election laws, he uses ‘if,’ that exchange actually goes on and he does impugn the integrity or seem to impugn the integrity of local election officials.

Are you actually hearing that kind of criticism at the state and local level with, for you and your election, Nevada elections officials?

AGUILAR: Yes, I think there’s a misinterpretation of statute. Look, everything we do, my job as Secretary of State is to be a regulator. It’s my job to call balls and strikes about what it means for an election.

And when I’m calling balls and strikes, I’m doing it based on statute and the interpretation of that statute. I’m not going out there and making new laws. What I’m doing is looking at the statute and saying, here are the rules. And here’s my obligation as secretary to make the interpretation I need to make.

Yes, I’m an attorney. But I don’t make those decisions solely on my own. Again, it goes to a conversation with a group of strong, competent lawyers who understand election law and understand what Nevada has done at the legislative level to do what we need to do to ensure our elections remain secure.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Secretary, again, getting back to the concrete things that have changed with all of this election uncertainty being injected into the process by lawmakers in Washington, I just want to state clearly again that, as we mentioned in the previous segment, there have already been lawsuits filed by the Republican Party contesting aspects of Nevada election law this year in advance of the 2024 November election.

Again, to remind folks, Nevada also was the subject of several post 2020 lawsuits contesting the outcome there, everything from the software used to verify signatures on mail-in ballots to contesting the electors coming out of Nevada. In the end, though it was certified that Joe Biden did win the Nevada election in 2020 by more than 30,000 votes.

Okay, so that’s the legal background. How much effort, money, and manpower right now, Secretary, is going into defending against the current lawsuits and potentially preparing for future ones, post November Election Day?

AGUILAR: I don’t have those budget numbers at the moment, but it is significant because the amount of capacity that I have required of the Attorney General’s Office to work on these issues. But also, too, to be preemptive in what we’re doing and the decisions we’re making.

I hear what members of Congress are saying. Obviously, they are taking a very political position. But here in Nevada, we are working on a bipartisan effort to ensure that we will continue to run some of the strongest elections in the country. We have a Republican governor who I work with on a lot of these issues.

We respect each other. We understand each other’s positions on certain policy issues when it comes to elections. But in reality, it’s our job to serve Nevadans throughout this entire state. This is not a political issue, and an example of this and a great example is the work we did to pass the election protector bill, which made it a felony to harass election workers and poll workers.

That bill passed unanimously. Out of the Nevada legislature and immediately supported by our Republican governor. That’s working together to ensure we’re doing what we need to do for our citizens here in Nevada.

CHAKRABARTI: And just as you said before, 13 of your 15 clerks are Republicans in Nevada. Regarding keeping, protecting polling places and polling workers and elections officials, are you concerned for their safety?

AGUILAR: Every day I’m concerned for their safety. But I know that we have the support from our local law enforcement to ensure that they remain safe and that they will have the support they need. Those required engagement, those required conversations, those required trust, and we did that prior to the start of the election.

We’ve gone out there and been creative about how we recruit poll workers. We partnered with Vet the Vote. Because we understand that veterans are significant members of our community and understand what it means to serve in a time of need. We’ve gone out and recruited high school students to work the polls.

And it’s amazing when you talk to those high school students, and you talk to them about voting and what they can do and how they can be a part of it. It’s pretty incredible. And it serves three purposes. One, it gets them engaged in the process they don’t know exists. They see something firsthand. They then are encouraging their family members to get out to vote.

But not only that, they’re serving in the communities where they live and they’re being able to provide language access to the polling sites that may not have had it in the past. And it’s been a great thing to see.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Secretary also, we’re talking about the race at the top of the ballot, of course, the presidential race, but a ballot contains state and local races and issues as well.

And so it’s hard to imagine that uncertainty about the election wouldn’t have an impact on just governance within the state of Nevada.

AGUILAR: It doesn’t, when it comes to elections, at the local level, I think people understand how hard the county clerks are working to ensure, and people understand that our elections are decentralized for a purpose.

The clerks are executing the elections. All I’m doing is acting as a regulator and ensuring the process is working for the benefit of Nevadans as a whole. And when you talk about that decentralization and how hard these local clerks are working, I think people running for office understand the work of the clerks and understand what they’re doing to ensure that they, again, the elections are about people, it’s mainly about the voters, it’s about the candidate, and it’s about the election workers.

And I think we have to get back to a point where there’s a sense of decency. And I like to believe that Nevada has the decency to respect the entire process and to respect the people that are involved in the process.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Francisco Aguilar. He is the Secretary of State of Nevada and he joined us from Carson City, Nevada today.

Secretary, thank you so much.

AGUILAR: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

CHAKRABARTI: You heard there clearly how hard the Secretary feels like he has to work in order to assure people of the integrity of the elections process in Nevada. And part of the reason why, again, comes from the fact that at the national level, an endless number of Republican officials are saying the exact opposite about their faith in American elections.

Here’s Ohio Republican Senator J.D. Vance in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, May of 2024.

DANA BASH:  Will you commit to accepting the results of this year’s election?

SEN. JD VANCE: Look, Dana, I totally plan to accept the results of 2024. I think that Donald Trump will be the victory. And if it’s a free and fair election, Dana, I think every Republican will enthusiastically accept the results. And again, I think those results will show that Donald Trump has been elected president, reelected president. I think that this question though, it’s interesting, Dana.

Because we have to be willing, as Democrats did in 2000, as Democrats have done in the past, and certainly as Republicans did in 2020, is if you think there were problems, you have to be willing to pursue those problems and try to prosecute your case. And certainly, if we have a free and fair election, I’ll accept the results.

BASH: Even if Joe Biden wins?

VANCE: Sure. If it’s a free and fair election, I will accept the results, Dana, whoever wins.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Ohio Senator J.D. Vance last month. And here’s Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, also on CNN last month with Kaitlan Collins.

KAITLAN COLLINS: Will you accept the results regardless of who wins?

SEN. TED CRUZ: Look, if the Democrats win, I will accept the result, but I’m not going to ignore fraud regardless of what happens.

COLLINS: But was there fraud in 2020?

CRUZ: Of course there was fraud.

COLLINS: No, there wasn’t. And you still objected.

CRUZ: Oh, you know for a fact, there was zero voter fraud? Really? What’s your basis for that? Show me your evidence.

COLLINS: We’ve spoken with Governor Kemp. They did three hand recounts in the state of Georgia. The director of CISA said that it was the safest, most legitimate election.

CRUZ: But you’re saying zero voter fraud occurred. That’s what you just said.

COLLINS: Nothing that would have changed the outcome.

CRUZ: Okay. But that’s a different statement.

CHAKRABARTI: The exchange went on for several more minutes and it heated back and forth over whether there was widespread or zero fraud in 2020. Senator Cruz still claims there was widespread fraud in 2020. There still remains no evidence of that. So joining us now is Ruth Ben-Ghiat, she’s a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University.

Author of the book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present. She also writes a sub stack newsletter on threats to democracy called Lucid. Professor Ben-Ghiat, welcome back to On Point.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Thank you, Meghna. I’m glad to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: And Sarah Longwell also joins us now. She’s a Republican pollster and strategist and director of the Republican Accountability Project, founder and publisher of the center right publication The Bulwark, and host of The Focus Group podcast.

Sarah, it’s great to have you back as well.

SARAH LONGWELL: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So first of all, Sarah, parse the things that you heard Vance and Cruz just saying there. Because look, in all of these statements, there is a nugget of truth, right? Okay, if we have a free and fair election, they’ll accept the results.

But then you heard Vance say, if we have a free and fair election, that means that he believes Donald Trump would be the winner, implying that if Biden wins, it wasn’t free or fair. Help us understand the internal logic that these senators are using.

LONGWELL: It’s less internal logic and more everybody that you are hearing so far in these clips are all auditioning to be Donald Trump’s vice president, and there is a key litmus test to being Donald Trump’s vice president, and that is that you do not act like Mike Pence did and certify an election. And so every single one of them is hedging on a very clear question of you certify. And so what they’re saying when they say if it’s a free and fair election, obviously, that gives them all the room in the world when they decide to object to say it wasn’t free and fair.

And I thought that Kaitlan Collins in that interview with Ted Cruz did a very good job trying to nail him down. But he, of course, and you just pointed this out, he is trying to say that there was widespread fraud, of which there is no evidence. And so he’s trying to pin her down on the idea that there is no evidence.

Zero fraud. And I watched Republicans do this after 2020 in a way to justify Trump’s claims, which is that there is always some people who send in a ballot here or there, or, when they’re in the curing process. But in the states that were contested, there were recounts all over the place, they recounted, there were cyber ninjas in Arizona and there was no evidence of fraud beyond, a little bit here and there or even just like little mistakes.

And so that’s what Ted Cruz is trying to pin her down on. But the fact is our election system works incredibly well, has lots of  curing mechanisms for those little mistakes. And those recounts showed over and over again that Donald Trump lost, but they all live in this fiction, right? There’s this, I think a lot about the emperor having no clothes, right? That story we all learned, because this is what Republicans have. They have constructed their own reality. And in order to be considered for Donald Trump’s vice president, you have to live in his reality where 2020 was rigged and he didn’t lose.

And to be his vice president, you have to make sure that you do not commit in any way to certifying the election. That’s what’s happening there.

CHAKRABARTI: So Professor Ben-Ghiat, let me pick up on that thought because I think Sarah is exactly right on this. Unfortunately, the problem is that these people, these elected officials are not saying what they’re saying just in a private room with Donald Trump, to him directly.

They’re saying it on national television. They’re saying it on radio. They’re saying it in every medium they can possibly get a chance to say it on. So therefore, this alternate reality that Sarah very correctly describes, the rest of the American people are being smothered in it as well. And that has to have an impact.

We know it has an impact on people. The polling shows, and Sarah’s actual, her focus groups, her constant focus groups with Republican voters show that many people believe it. They still believe that 2020 wasn’t a free and fair election. They believe that fraud is going to happen in 2024.

So Professor Ben-Ghiat, with that in mind, how do you rate the health of American democracy, when one party is consistently and seemingly in an organized fashion, trying to sow doubt about the upcoming election.

BEN-GHIAT: Yeah, if you study propaganda, I teach classes on propaganda and one of the mainstays is if you repeat a lie often enough, it can become the truth for many.

And when trusted officials at the state and local level are all organized around a party line, because the GOP, in my estimation, is now an autocratic party, and autocratic parties have party lines. And if all from top to bottom, if everybody’s repeating the same thing over time, then it does have an impact, and that’s why the polling shows that.

But the reason this is so devastating for democracy is it’s part of a massive and very organized attempt to delegitimize all of our democratic institutions. The ones they care about the most. Because they need to get to power and stay there, are elections and the judiciary. These of course can be related, because as happened to Donald Trump after 2020, you had over 60 judges, many of them appointed by him, who had not yet been purged and cleansed the way Project 2025 plans to do.

And so they followed the rule of law versus Trump loyalty code. So this is part of a very organized plan to make Americans feel that elections can never be free and fair, that they’re so corrupt that, to quote Tommy Tuberville, the kind of MAGA loyalist, he said elections are so corrupt.

We just shouldn’t have them anymore. So that’s one end game of this, and it goes with Trump saying he’s going to be a dictator. And the party accepting that, indeed, the more extreme he gets, the more authoritarian he gets, the more they rally around him. So elections are the node of all of this.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So let’s listen to a little bit more of the arguments that key Trump supporters are making along these lines. Here’s New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik. She was interviewed by NBC’s Kristen Welker. This was back on January 6th of this year. So on the anniversary of the attack on Congress. But in 2024 on Meet the Press.

WELKER: Would you vote to certify, and will you vote to certify the results of the 2024 election, no matter what they show?

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: Well, I voted not to certify the state of Pennsylvania because, as we saw in Pennsylvania and other states across the country, that there was unconstitutional acts circumventing the state legislature and unilaterally changing election law.

WELKER: What about 2024? What about 2024, Congresswoman?

STEFANIK: We will see if this is a legal and valid election. What we’re seeing so far is that, Democrats are so desperate, they’re trying to remove President Trump from the ballot. That is a suppression of the American people, and the Supreme Court is taking that case up in February. That should be a 9-0 to allow President Trump to appear on the ballot, because that’s the American people’s decision to make this November.

WELKER: And the matter’s, of course, halted pending that appeal, as you say. But just to be very clear, I don’t hear you committed to certifying the election results. Will you only commit to certify the results if former President Trump wins?

STEFANIK: If they’re constitutional.

WELKER: Does that mean if former President Trump wins?

STEFANIK: No, it means if they are constitutional. What we saw in 2020 was unconstitutional circumventing of the constitution, not going through state legislatures when it comes to changing election law. And we’re seeing this in my home state of New York, Kristen.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Congresswoman Elise Stefanik in January of this year. And by the way, that Supreme Court case she mentioned, which is Trump v. Anderson, was decide, decided later this year by the Supreme Court. It wasn’t 9-0. It was 4-3. But the court did rule that states could not remove President, former President Donald Trump from the ballot. Sarah, we’ve got about a minute and a half before our next break here, but I want you to help us understand how this language of saying our position of being skeptical of elections is the constitutional one.

How does that play with the people that you’ve talked to over time in your focus groups?

LONGWELL: When you listen to voters, this stuff has had a massive impact. When Republicans turn these things upside down, they are able to create their own echo chamber, which allows them to say we have the moral high ground here, but I just want to pick up on something Ruth said about how what Republicans have done. Is they are turning any institution that seeks accountability against Trump.

They are undermining that institution. If it’s the press, they’re fake news. If it’s the civil service, the FBI, it’s the deep state. If it’s an election, it’s rigged. If it’s the House January 6th committee, it’s a bunch of rhinos. If it’s independent counsels, they’re corrupt. If it’s law enforcement for prosecuting the January 6th insurrectionists, they’re corrupt.

And now it’s the courts, right? The courts seek accountability for Trump, and they too are rigged. And this is what Republicans have done. They have said any institution that tries to hold Trump accountable or operate in the way that it’s supposed to in a democracy, they seek to undermine it and undermine its validity.

And that is having an enormous impact on voters. Voters no longer trust these institutions, and that’s where the democracy starts to crumble, because democracy is only a series of institutions that protect it.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: We’re listening to the numerous times this year that leading lights in the Republican party and also some of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters have been asked whether or not they will accept the results of the 2024 elections and their vigorous attempts to not answer that question.

Here’s another example. This is North Dakota, Republican governor, Doug Burgum. He was interviewed last month on CNN with Jake Tapper and Burgum’s name has been floated again as one of the possible Trump vice president picks. And Tapper asked the North Dakota governor about his thoughts on Donald Trump’s very tight embrace of the people who attacked the Capitol and threatened members of Congress on January 6, 2021.

JAKE TAPPER: And those criminals, by the way, include those who have been convicted in an American court of violently attacking police. He’s talking about pardoning them, and he seems to be leaving the door open to potential violence if he loses again. Based on comments you’ve made in the past, that must concern you.

GOV. DOUG BURGUM: Well, I think the bigger context here, Jake, is really about elections in America. I mean, you go back in my lifetime, when 1960, it came down to one county. We talk about an election like it’s one thing in our country, but elections are still run at the state, the county and the precinct level. And in Cook County, it was very close between Kennedy and Nixon and Nixon conceded. In 2000, you know, they’ve made movies about it.

And that election was contested for two months in the courts afterwards and, you know, it came down to Broward County and some hanging chads. In 2016, this network and many others challenged the results of the 26, you know, falsely claiming that there was Russian interference.

TAPPER: We never challenged the results of the election.

BURGUM: Well, there’s plenty of stories supporting, supporting that.

TAPPER: I’m talking about the violent interaction that you yourself have, have decried.

BURGUM: Yes, well, you know, I’m looking forward to next January when Vice President Harris certifies the election for Donald Trump.

CHAKRABARTI: North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum on CNN last month. So this question of violence and American elections does loom large in the minds of low state level secretaries of state. We heard from Nevada at the top of the show. Let’s now listen to Jocelyn Benson, who is Michigan’s Secretary of State.

I was simply working to put Christmas tree decorations up on our tree with my son when we started to hear the “Stop the Steal” chant outside our windows. It was around nine o’clock. And we called 911. It took 45 minutes for any law enforcement to show up to break up the gathering. In that 45-minute window, it was never lost on me that all that stood between my family and this growing crowd of armed protesters was one neighborhood security guard standing on our front porch.

This was December 2020, a month after the election. Benson’s son was four years old at the time.

JOCELYN BENSON: For me, that night in December wasn’t the first or the last time someone or a group of people came to my home or threatened me or my staff, or many of the hundreds of local election officials in our state. And it has created this omnipresent feeling of anxiety and dread that permeates our daily lives and our families’ lives. Not long ago, my son was standing in our driveway, and he picked up a stick and he turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, Mom. If the bad guys come again, I’m going to get them with this.”

CHAKRABARTI: Benson says four years later her neighbors are still hypervigilant. They watch out for suspicious activity or unfamiliar cars on the block. And Benson says the police are quicker to respond now, too. But she and other Michigan elections officials remain deeply concerned that 2024 could be even worse.

BENSON: We are all aware that everything we experienced in the past will not just potentially happen again, but we will be facing potentially a more sophisticated, more coordinated, and better funded foe this time around. And so I and election officials all across our state are determined that we will not allow fear or threats to deter us from protecting our elections. We’ve passed laws in Michigan now to make it a clear crime to threaten or harass an election official in the line of duty. We’ve already had threats emerge since that bill was signed into law 6 or 7 months ago.

CHAKRABARTI: Michigan’s also taken other steps to protect its elections. Benson says the state is working on a rapid response system so clerks and poll workers can text an emergency number if something goes wrong on election day.

And the threat of violence is so serious, Benson’s office is running what’s known as tabletop exercises with police and first responders. These are sessions where they all practice specifically what they would do in the event of an attack on any Michigan elections facility or location.

BENSON: I’m hesitant to go into too much detail because we don’t want to give ideas to people. You know, someone shows up to a polling place armed with an intention to disrupt the process. What do you do? Someone breaks into, let’s say, a place where people are counting ballots after the polls close, what do you do? Who do you call?

CHAKRABARTI: Given the personal and professional threats Benson and her staff have faced in Michigan, we asked for her response to the numerous times Republican lawmakers avoid answering the question of whether they’ll accept the 2024 election results.

BENSON: It’s gut-wrenching and it’s infuriating. What any public official should easily be able to say is that I will always stand by the will of the people. I will always, even if I don’t agree with it, stand by it because that’s who we are as Americans. And that’s what democracy is all about. It’s an easy answer. It’s the right answer. And for politicians to refuse to say that and instead dance around these false claims of irregularities and suggest that they won’t certify elections for any reason is really an abdication of their actual responsibility as lawmakers and as public officials in our country.

CHAKRABARTI: Benson says she tries to remind herself daily that there are still people who believe in American democracy.

BENSON: In the darkest days following the 2020 election, there were moments where you just feel like – and you’re up against at that point, the president of the United States who’s trying to disrupt the process. And it can feel, you can feel really small, and you can feel — it’s easy to lose hope. But what always enabled us to hold on to our faith that democracy would prevail was the fact that the truth and the law were on our side. And that the vast majority of American people were on the side of believing that people choose elected officials, that citizens vote and that vote is what determines who’s president.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s Secretary of State. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, in all we’ve just heard, if you removed the words United States, what country and what year do you think, could you imagine we’d be talking about?

BEN-GHIAT: It could be any authoritarian regime, but fascism started this way at the local level and the police didn’t respond. I want to say that Jocelyn Benson is a democratic hero. So is Secretary Aguilar. They’re trying to do their jobs in an atmosphere of enormous threat. And ultimately, Donald Trump has been working since 2015 to change the perception of violence among his followers.

That’s what fascists did. That’s what you have to do to install autocracy. You have to present violence as something patriotic, necessary to save the nation and save the beloved leader. And that connects to him calling himself a political prisoner, but also the January 6th thugs who have been sentenced as political prisoners.

And ultimately, violence becomes the way you move history forward. Not elections. It becomes a way of doing politics. And Matt Gaetz, the MAGA loyalist from Florida, he showed up at the Iowa state fair in August 2023 at a Trump campaign rally. And he said, only force can bring change to a corrupt town like Washington, D.C.

And he sounded just like Mussolini in 1923.

CHAKRABARTI: He sounded just like Mussolini. Like really, all that was changed was the country and time, but the context of what was being said was fairly identical.

BEN-GHIAT: Yeah. Mussolini wrote, I have a lucid essay about this. Mussolini wrote a piece in 1923. He was prime minister of a democracy, and he was figuring out how to get rid of the people’s will.

He was worried he’d be outvoted, and it was called force and consent. And he said, basically when consent isn’t going to go on your side, when the people might not support you, and the only solution is force. And then he declared a dictatorship in 1925.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. With that in mind, I want to understand more deeply how, again, this language that we’re hearing coming in from really key Republican lawmakers, how it works and what echoes, Ruth, we can hear throughout history. So first of all, in recent times, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has said he would accept the outcome of the 2024 election if there’s no massive cheating. Now, he did accept 2020. We’re going to hear that in just a second. But he also says again, this time around, if there’s no massive cheating, he would accept the election, but he thinks that would only happen if Donald Trump wins.

Okay. With that in mind, I want to go back to January 6th of 2021. This was after Congress was allowed to reconvene its session when the Capitol building had been cleared of the rioters. And indeed, then on that day, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham did vote to certify the elections. And here’s what he said on the Senate floor.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: Trump and I, we’ve had a hell of a journey. I hate it being this way. Oh my God, I hate it. From my point of view, he’s been a consequential president. But today, all I can say is count me out. Enough is enough. I’ve tried to be helpful, but when this Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4-3, that they didn’t violate the Supreme, the constitution of Wisconsin. I agree with the three, but I accept the four. If Al Gore could accept 5-4 he’s not president. I can accept Wisconsin four to three. Does that say there’s, there’s problems in every election? I don’t buy this. Enough’s enough. We got to end it.

CHAKRABARTI: So back then, on January 6th, 2021, Lindsey Graham also said he accepted the court rulings that came out of Pennsylvania. He accepted the rulings that came out of Georgia.

Essentially saying he would follow the rule of law. So this question of the rule of law now seems to have been turned on its head. Because listen once again to Florida Republican Congressman Byron Donalds, again, he was interviewed back in March by Axios’s Sophie Cai.

REP. BYRON DONALDS:  If the law does not stand, then what do we have? We can’t be a society that chooses to just try to get our outcomes regardless of how we feel about the person running or not running. We have to follow the law. And every elected official has a responsibility to uphold the law, despite popular opinion. That is the reality. And that is the responsibility of an elected —

SOPHIE CAI: So in your mind, no, you would not have certified the elections.

DONALDS: As long as procedures in the States are being followed. So the law that was outlined by the legislature and signed by governors, and it was followed those procedures. And of course you do. but if you have evidence that the procedures were not followed —

CAI: And what you’re saying is that you don’t believe, you don’t believe that they were followed in 2020.

DONALDS: Then you have a responsibility — Oh I already know they weren’t followed in 2020.

CHAKRABARTI: Sarah Longwell, respond to that.

LONGWELL: Look I want to talk about how deeply pernicious and shameful it is when Republicans talk about this.

Because here’s the thing. They all know better. We know they know better because they all said it in the wake of January 6th. Whenever I go back and listen to Mitch McConnell, who said that Trump was morally and temperamentally responsible for the events of the day. If you go back and play side by side what people, what Republicans said on January 6th, and then hear what they say now, it is stomach churning.

And the reason is that these Republicans, they know the difference between right and wrong, and they’ve chosen wrong for political expediency, and then by doing so, they have poured poison into the minds of voters. They are doing deep damage to our democracy and its institutions.

Every time they say if it’s fair, what they mean, what they’re saying is, yeah, because a lot of times it’s not fair, right? They are, and I already went through that list of institutions that they’re trying to undermine. Every day they weaken these things and it’s not that they’re doing it because they really believe it.

And they hide behind this language of the Constitution, they wrap themselves in the flag as they do it, but they do know better, because they’ve told us you can find soundbites from every single one of these people, Nikki Haley telling you how significant January 6th was, how wrong it was, how much Donald Trump was wrong that he was lying about the election being stolen, only to come around and say because and the reason why it operates like a cult where they ostracize people, right?

Larry Hogan is running for Senate, Maryland Republican said before the verdict came down, when Trump’s hush money trial, he said, we should respect the results and the ruling of the jury. It’s a very normal thing to say, right? We’re just going to respect the ruling of this jury. And the Trump team came back and said, you just lost your election.

You’re out. And this is what they do. If you’re Liz Cheney, if you speak up, you are ostracized. You are out, right? And the menace that hangs over it, if you are trying to certify the election, if you are Mike Pence, you’re just trying to do your job. They erect a noose. We are underreacting to how serious this moment is, and we are acting like what Marco Rubio is doing is just normal politics. It is not normal politics to say that you won’t certify an election and to sow doubt among the entire electorate in American elections. It just is so galling.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, I’m afraid we only have one minute left, but again, relying on your historical analysis here, have other nations that have fallen into authoritarian or even fascist rule in the past, gone down this path of parties saying the rule of law is, the natural outcome of the rule of law is this authoritarian and fascist government, which is essentially, in a sense, what we’re hearing here, insert Trumpism for authoritarianism.

BEN-GHIAT: Yeah, because it’s part of the Chile playbook in 1973, where a democratically elected leader Allende was called a dictator, including by Henry Kissinger behind the scenes, egging Nixon on, to move ahead. With supporting the coup, but authoritarianism is replacing rule of law with rule by the lawless.

Yes. And that’s the underpinning of all that we’re seeing now. Definitely not underreacting to the legitimate concerns around the safety and health of the 2024 elections here.


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