Futile effort to help Trump may help shape some lawmakers' legacies
Speaking to thousands of supporters who traveled to Washington, D.C., from all over the country, President Donald Trump thanked Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford by name Wednesday for being one of “our 13 most courageous members of the U.S. Senate.”
A short time later, two miles away at the U.S. Capitol, Lankford lodged his objection to the Electoral College votes cast by Arizona for Democrat Joe Biden.
It was Step 1 of the plan by Lankford and a group of other Republican senators to force the creation of a commission to investigate allegations of voter fraud that had been made by Trump for weeks with no evidence.
Lankford had just begun debating when he was whisked to safety as some of the people who had attended Trump's rally penetrated the Capitol in a violent takeover that lasted hours and resulted in at least five deaths.
Late that night, both houses of Congress returned to their chambers to complete their work, determined to show the country that violent mobs would not deter them from counting the electoral votes that sealed Biden’s victory over Trump.
Lankford resumed the remarks that had been interrupted by the violence and backed off his challenge to Arizona. A few minutes later, he voted not to uphold the objection he helped raise.
“I support, as I said in the speech, the facts have got to get out,” he said in an interview that night. “But I can’t in good conscience take a vote tonight that also does in any way an affirmation of what happened today at the Capitol.”
Across the Capitol building, Rep. Tom Cole voted to uphold the objections and reject Arizona’s votes, as did the other four House members from Oklahoma. Cole had announced not long before the siege that he would object to some states’ votes.
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In an interview, Cole, R-Moore, said he never considered changing course after the mobs stormed the Capitol.
Cole said, “Did it come up? Was it discussed? Yes, it was.”
But, he said, he had made a commitment that “had nothing to do with the events of the day.”
That commitment — to reject some states’ electoral votes — was based on “what I’m hearing from my constituents in overwhelming numbers, for weeks. This is emails, telephone calls, letters."
“And if you’re a representative, I think that’s what you do, particularly on an issue where there’s a consensus, or seems to be, within your district. Having laid that out, I thought it would be inappropriate — and would actually contribute to the cynicism — to reverse. You make a commitment to people, I think you keep it.”
Many people who have watched Lankford and Cole for years were surprised they joined the Trump-backed effort to challenge some states' electoral votes.
Alicia Andrews, chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, said Lankford was known as “the level-headed senator from Oklahoma.”
On Cole’s official Facebook page, a person identified as Matt Hopkins posted this message: “I have voted for you in every election you’ve entered. And I may do so again. But outrage at the outcome of sedition you indirectly encourage by lending credence to nonsense is not OK with me. This is not the Tom Cole we know.”
There are many similar posts.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jim Inhofe, a cheerleader for Trump for the past four years, was the only member of Oklahoma’s seven-person, all-Republican delegation, to announce he wouldn’t support any challenges to electors.
Inhofe put out a public statement a day before the mayhem, and he wrote a separate note to his children and their families explaining his decision, telling them “I loved them but I had to do what I considered the right thing to do. And some of my own family didn’t agree with me.”
The whole Republican effort to challenge electoral votes was futile from the outset. Lankford admitted as much when he first announced his participation, saying it was a “Hail Mary pass.”
Democrats control the House. And numerous Senate Republicans had announced they wouldn’t go along.
It's hardly unusual for lawmakers to support legislation or motions they know are doomed. They regularly do that without much analysis or angst.
This issue was different. Whether or not to back challenges to electoral votes “was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made,” Cole said. “It was not an easy call.
“I think probably the one argument (against challenging electoral votes) was that it was certainly not going to succeed. Because the Democrats were totally opposed to it, there certainly weren't the votes there to do it.”
In interviews last week, Cole and Lankford both cited the fact that former Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, had challenged the electoral votes of Ohio after the 2004 election in which then-President George W. Bush defeated then-Sen. John Kerry.
Lawmakers often seek to justify their words or deeds by saying members of the other party have done the same thing. But there is little resemblance between Boxer’s solo challenge and the Republican effort of the past week.
Kerry didn’t spend weeks claiming he had been cheated out of the presidency, badgering state election officials and demanding that Congress do something about it.
Most people probably didn’t even remember Boxer had challenged Ohio; her objection received one vote in the Senate — her own.
But Trump and his followers, with the help of social media, turned the routine requirement that Congress count the electoral votes into another test of loyalty for Republicans, who have spent the last four years getting blasted for even small breaks with the president.
Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, who was a Republican state senator before becoming mayor and was never a Trump supporter, wrote a column last week for the online publication Bulwark in which he called on elected officials to tell the public the truth.
Holt wrote, “Here is the truth: President Donald Trump did not win the 2020 election. It wasn’t even particularly close.”
He said the statement by Lankford and other Republican senators about challenging the electoral votes was another example of politicians telling people what they wanted to hear.
“The senators did not present evidence of any widespread fraud, they merely cited ‘allegations’ that are ‘widespread,’ and then offered polling numbers as evidence of voter distrust,” the mayor wrote.
Trump won every county in Oklahoma, twice. And a poll last month by Amber Integrated of Oklahoma City showed 79% of registered Oklahoma Republican voters believe there was election fraud, and 80% of them approve of Trump’s election challenges.
Six of the seven members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation are up for reelection in two years — Inhofe is the only one who is not — and none is probably worried about a Democratic challenger. As Republican primaries in 2018 and 2020 showed, fidelity to Trump has been required for GOP candidates in Oklahoma.
Cole has been involved in Oklahoma politics for more than 40 years: as a campaign worker, as chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party, as a state senator, as secretary of state and as a political consultant who recruited candidates like J.C. Watts Jr., Steve Largent, Tom Coburn and Frank Lucas.
He has been in Congress since 2003 and is a leading member of Appropriations and Rules committees, where he has forged strong bipartisan relationships. His district includes all or part of 15 counties, running from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma County to Norman, Chickasha, Lawton, Ardmore, Duncan, Ada, Waurika and Moore, the town where he grew up and still lives.
Asked whether his position on the electoral votes would be part of his legacy, he said, "I don’t know. That’s up to people. Certainly some people, it may, and I recognize that, and they’re free to draw their opinions.
“On the other hand, as I said, and I think I said it pretty directly in my statement, this is what the opinion in my district is. ... I feel like I owed it to my constituents to be their voice on this, to be their vote on this.”
Lankford has been in the Senate since 2015 and was in the House for four years before that.
Asked whether the challenges would be part of his legacy, he said, “If I’m known for standing up for voting rights? I hope I am. That’s what I fought for in 2017, '18 and '19 — trying to be able to fix all the issues with the Secure Elections Act that I was working with (Minnesota Sen.) Amy Klobuchar on for three years. We dramatically increased the number of paper ballots across the country in that three-year time period.
“Obviously, everyone’s going to have their own twist as they write about this, as they talk about it, as they put it out on social media, their own bitter diatribes, whatever it may be, one direction or the other.
“But I have stood for election security for years. This is part of standing for election security.”
Inhofe, who has been in Congress since 1987, first as a House member, then as a senator beginning in late 1994, has made thousands of votes, many of great consequence, including authorizing the use of force in the Middle East.
He said he has lost friends over his refusal to back Trump’s effort to overturn electoral votes. He opposed the effort, he said, in order to uphold his oath to the U.S. Constitution.
“The states are supposed to do all this stuff in qualifying people to be electors for president of the United States,” Inhofe said. “They’re supposed to do it. Liberals have historically wanted to federalize what the states are supposed to do. That’s just contrary to what Republicans believe.
“What (Republicans supporting the challenges) are doing is — they kind of turned it around and said, ‘We need to be doing this, Congress needs to step in because the states didn’t do it right.’ That’s something that bothers me. The Constitution is the Constitution. It doesn’t change because there’s a decision you didn’t like.”