Joe Biden won a decisive victory in the US presidential election. The size of the Democrat’s winning margin did a lot to calm immediate fears for the future of American democracy. It was depressingly predictable that Donald Trump would seek to overturn the result, by any means available. But in the two months since the vote, US institutions have demonstrated their robustness. Courts at every level have rejected Mr Trump’s meritless efforts to overturn the election. Public officials — many of them members of Mr Trump’s Republican party — have done their jobs, supporting democracy and the rule of law.
So far, so good. But American democracy is not safe yet. As Mr Biden’s inauguration on January 20 approaches, Mr Trump’s efforts to subvert the poll are becoming ever more desperate, and dangerous. The depths to which the president has sunk became even more apparent with the release of a taped conversation between Mr Trump and Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state. The president is heard clearly attempting to reverse Georgia’s election, clutching at spurious arguments and conspiracy theories.
Many lawyers believe that the Raffensperger tape gives grounds for Mr Trump’s prosecution. The immediate priority, however, is to safeguard the transition to the Biden presidency.
A crucial moment will take place on January 6 when Congress meets to certify the election results. Normally, this process is a formality. Disgracefully, more than two-thirds of Republican members of the House of Representatives — and a significant number of senators — have said that they will refuse to certify the results. To succeed, this move would require a majority in both houses of Congress, and it seems certain to fall well short. Yet the role of Mike Pence, the vice-president, who must announce the result, remains disturbingly ambiguous. It is possible that he will attempt some sort of procedural trick to keep Mr Trump’s hopes alive. This would prolong the agony. There is no legal or constitutional path for Mr Trump that does not ultimately lead into a dead end.
Another alarming possibility lies in the suggestion made by some Trump loyalists — including Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser — that the president should declare martial law. In response to such threats, every living former defence secretary has signed a joint letter saying that the time to question the results has passed and that the US military should play no part in changing the result.
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This letter is both reassuring and alarming. The display of bipartisan unity is welcome — particularly since the letter is signed by such famously hawkish Republicans as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. But it is still worrying that senior figures of this sort should feel the need to speak out. It clearly raises the question of what may be going on behind the scenes.
Also disturbing is the prospect that Mr Trump may embrace some sort of overseas military crisis, in a bid to create an atmosphere of emergency that might allow him to delay or prevent the handover of power. Iran has just ramped up its uranium enrichment to 20 per cent and seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in Gulf waters, stoking tensions with the US. Even so, a foreign policy emergency would be highly unlikely to deliver the suspension of the democratic process that Mr Trump seeks.
Extraordinary as it may seem, what amounts to an undeclared coup d’état is being attempted in the US. It will almost certainly fail. But the next two weeks will severely test the strength of America’s institutions — and the courage of its public officials.