WASHINGTON – The White House was hoping to find a “James Baker-like” figure to lead its post-election campaign in order to somehow find a way to win a second term. But the original James Baker says the White House should stop trying to prevent the vote count.
Mr Baker, the former secretary of state who led the legal and political team during the epic recount battle in Florida in 2000 that secured the presidency for George W. Bush, said in an interview Thursday that President Trump may have legitimate problems pursuing . However, they should not be used to justify halting the initial collection of ballots.
“We never said you didn’t count the votes,” said Mr. Baker, a Republican who voted for Mr. Trump. “It’s a very difficult decision to make to defend yourself in a democracy.”
The argument since Tuesday has brought back many memories and quite a few post-traumatic stress flashbacks from the Florida showdown that fascinated the world. Personalities like Mr. Baker, who is now retired and spends much of his time on his Texas ranch after recovering from the coronavirus, have been used as proxies for the current debate. But the comparisons only go so far.
In the 2000 episode, Republican nominee Bush and Democrat Al Gore only began litigation after the Florida votes had been counted. Mr Bush ended election night 1,784 votes ahead of roughly six million votes cast in the state that would ultimately determine which candidate would win the electoral college. Because the margin was so small, an automatic machine count was then run to keep Mr. Bush in control.
On the grounds that some ballots were improperly disqualified or otherwise not counted, Mr. Gore’s team went to court asking for handcounts in four heavily Democratic districts, while Mr. Baker argued that the votes did not need to be counted again. By the time the Supreme Court halted the trial more than a month later on the grounds that different counties had different standards, Bush’s lead had been reduced to 537, still enough to win.
In comparison, Mr. Trump has tried to prevent the first counting round and to exclude whole stacks of postal ballot papers. In a nightly appearance after the elections were over, the president described the routine vote count as an attempt to steal the election without evidence. “STOP THE COUNT!” He wrote on Twitter Thursday when his lawyers tried unsuccessfully to do just that. While Mr. Bush was trying to keep his victory, Mr. Trump is trying to overthrow what his opponent might be.
“There are big differences,” Baker said of the battle in Florida and the brewing battles for the election this week. “For one thing, our whole argument was that the votes were counted and they were counted and they were counted and it is time to end the process. That’s not exactly the message I heard on election night. I think it is is pretty hard to be against the vote counting. “
As an example, he criticized Republican efforts to cast 127,000 votes in Harris County, including his hometown of Houston, for being cast through a drive-through system that the party had objected to. “I didn’t think this was a particularly smart thing, and it turns out it wasn’t legally smart because they lost in a state court and a federal court,” he said.
This, in some ways, mirrored one of the side battles in the Florida battle when the Democrats asked the courts to cast 25,000 postal ballots in two other counties for “irregularities” in handling ballot requests. Two Florida judges dismissed the effort, ruling that procedural issues by local authorities did not justify preventing voters from having their ballots counted.
One of the attorneys speaking out against the efforts of the Republicans in Texas this week was Benjamin L. Ginsberg, one of the top Republican electoral lawyers in the country and part of Mr. Baker’s recount team in 2000. In a friend of the federal court, Mr. Ginsberg likened the Texas Republicans’ offer to exclude the drive-through votes to the battle for the 25,000 ballots in Florida.
In an interview, Mr Ginsberg said Mr Trump’s efforts to stop the wholesale counting were dangerous. “It includes tearing down the core democratic institution of free elections by saying that they are being manipulated without providing any real evidence,” he said.
Mr. Ginsberg was part of the Republican All-Star Legal Team that Mr. Baker assembled on the fly in Florida. Among them were three future Supreme Court members, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, and a future Senator, Ted Cruz of Texas; a future national security advisor, John R. Bolton; and prominent lawyers like Theodore Olson and Michael Carvin.
For his part, Mr Trump was unlucky to attract something like high-ranking Republican legal force this week, relying on Rudolph W. Giuliani, his personal attorney, and his sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump others to carry his message.
Mr Baker, who ran five Republican presidential campaigns, was at times sharply critical of Mr Trump and refused to publicly support him, but voted for him this fall, citing fears of a “far left” agenda if Democrats were led by former members Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. should take over.
Mr Baker said Mr Trump has every right to pursue legitimate challenges after the votes are counted. “You have the right to challenge or question the results of elections in any state until you are satisfied that they were conducted fairly and openly,” he said. “This is not a failure to accept a peaceful change of power.”
Mr. Baker agreed that Mr. Trump should find someone like Mr. Baker to be Field Marshal. “Communication discipline,” he said, “is especially important in something like this.”
But at 90 he’s ready to be someone else.