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Some Republican leaders are trying to move on from former President Donald Trump's failed attempt to overturn the 2020 election that he lost.
"While there were some irregularities, there were none of the irregularities which would have risen to the point where they would have changed the vote outcome in a single state," Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said Sunday on ABC's This Week. "The election was fair, as fair as we have seen. We simply did not win the election, as Republicans, for the presidency. And if we simply look back and tell our people don't vote because there's cheating going on, then we're going to put ourselves in a huge disadvantage."
But Trump — who has endorsed dozens of candidates for the 2022 midterm elections and still holds by far the widest influence within the GOP — is trying hard not to let them move on.
"No, I think it's an advantage, because otherwise they're going to do it again in '22 and '24, and Rounds is wrong on that. Totally wrong," Trump told NPR in an interview Tuesday, referring to his false and debunked claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
The interview was six years in the making. Trump and his team have repeatedly declined interviews with NPR until Tuesday, when he called in from his home in Florida. It was scheduled for 15 minutes, but lasted just over nine.
After being pressed about his repeated lies about the 2020 presidential election, Trump abruptly ended the interview.
The interview began with the pandemic and vaccinations.
Trump, whose administration oversaw the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, recommended that people get vaccinated but said he's firmly against mandating that they do so.
"[T]he mandate is really hurting our country," Trump claimed, adding, "A lot of Americans aren't standing for it, and it's hurting our country."
He continued, "The vaccines, I recommend taking them, but I think that has to be an individual choice. I mean, it's got to be individual, but I recommend taking them."
The opposition to mandates is popular with Republicans, and the Supreme Court is currently weighing the Biden administration's vaccine-or-test mandate for large employers. But his comments come during the record omicron surge, as the unvaccinated are far more likely to be hospitalized or die from the disease, and as Republicans are far more likely to be unvaccinated.
Epidemiologists and health experts warn that if more people don't get vaccinated and the virus continues to morph, it could prolong the pandemic — and delay any sense of getting back to normal.
The former president said he wants to see therapeutics, used to treat the virus after someone is infected, produced and distributed more widely.
Trump's firm grip on the Republican Party, but tenuous grasp on reality
Trump is not just any former president.
Even many members of his own party have blamed him for inciting the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, but since then Trump has only tightened his grip on the GOP.
He remains one of the most popular figures in the Republican Party and is considered the front-runner for the 2024 presidential nomination, if he decides to run again.
When he ran in 2016, Trump was seen as having a shoestring campaign, fighting an uphill battle with few allies among Republican elected leaders.
Today, it's a different story. Trump's political organization has become a juggernaut. Not only are most Republican elected leaders falling in line, but he has also installed allies controlling many levers of political power across the country. In state after state, Trump allies are running local Republican parties, serving as state representatives and in charge of political action committees.
It's a political army ready to be mobilized at his beck and call. What he says — what his message is to them — matters because they follow.
To secure his power, he will do whatever he can to cast aside those who don't show fealty. That includes threats, bullying and intimidation, like badgering and name-calling.
Referring to South Dakota's Rounds in a statement after he appeared on ABC, for example, Trump said Rounds "just went woke," called him a "jerk," "weak," "ineffective" and questioned whether he was "crazy or just stupid."
He also called him a RINO, an acronym for an insult some conservatives reserve for more moderate Republicans they disagree with — Republicans in name only.
In the interview with NPR, he partially blamed Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell for Rounds and other senators feeling as though they can speak out and say — correctly — that Trump lost the election.
"Because Mitch McConnell is a loser," Trump said.
Trump has called McConnell worse — and all because the Kentucky Republican has crossed Trump, blaming him for the insurrection on Jan. 6 and saying President Biden won, even if McConnell doesn't do so forcefully every day.
It's par for the course for Trump, who has demanded unflinching loyalty — and who chafes at truths he disagrees with, especially about him losing.
Trump has blasted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, all because the Kentucky Republican has crossed the former president.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Won't accept losing an election he lost
Many Republicans prefer to focus on Biden as this year's congressional elections approach. Trump is pressing candidates in a different direction.
Josh Mandel, a pro-Trump Republican from Ohio, launched his campaign for U.S. Senate just weeks after Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol last year.
"I think over time we're gonna see studies come out that [show] evidence of widespread fraud," Mandel, a former state treasurer who is angling for Trump's endorsement, told WKYC-TV.
In the year since Mandel made that prediction, the opposite has happened.
Even more evidence shows a free and fair election.
In one disputed state, Arizona, Trump allies held a widely criticized review of millions of ballots, but even Doug Logan, who led Cyber Ninjas, the firm that ran the review, couldn't find much.
"The ballots that were provided to us to count in the Coliseum very accurately correlate with the official canvass numbers," Logan said.
As he does with any information or person he doesn't like or disagrees with, Trump dismissed the findings in the NPR interview.
"Lying or delusional"
In the interview, Trump repeated a number of false claims about voting systems in the U.S., including that the discredited GOP-led ballot review in Arizona showed evidence of malfeasance — despite the fact that it also reaffirmed Biden's victory.
Republican officials in Maricopa County, however, debunked the characterizations of Trump and his allies in a 93-page rebuttal issued last week.
"The people who have spent the last year proclaiming our free and fair elections are rigged are lying or delusional," said Bill Gates, the GOP chair of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
Asked why even Republicans in the state accepted the findings, Trump reverted to an old attack.
"Because they're RINOs," he said, "and frankly, a lot of people are questioning that."
Tammy Patrick, a former Maricopa County election official and now an elections expert at Democracy Fund, was presented by NPR with a number of Trump's claims about voting and noted that in the 14 months since the election, no proof of any of his claims has come to light.
"It hasn't been presented in any of the courts. It hasn't been surfaced in any official election audits, not by the Department of Justice, not by the FBI," Patrick said. "Allegations of fraud hinge upon being able to produce actual instances of fraud — not merely thoughts, feelings or beliefs about it."
To Republicans who know how elections work, the election has always been obvious.
"The facts show that it was President Biden who won fair and square," said Trey Grayson, who used to run elections as the Republican secretary of state in Kentucky. "It wasn't rigged."
He's thinking about those Republican T-shirts that said, "F*** your feelings."
"And here we are looking at the 2020 election," Grayson said, "and we are the ones who are basing it on feelings, not on facts, not on the law."
The Pennsylvania example
Most Republican voters now say they feel the election was stolen, according to surveys. That gives Trump leverage with Republican candidates who want to win primaries this year.
In Pennsylvania, numerous Republicans are running for governor and senator. They've made lots of moves to prove their fealty to the former president. One candidate for governor is Bill McSwain, who happened to be a U.S. attorney during the 2020 election.
Former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, a Republican running for Pennsylvania governor, has appealed for Trump's support.
"Bill McSwain left office without announcing any investigations or outcome of investigations for the 2020 election in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania," said Chris Brennan of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who has covered his story.
But then McSwain prepared to run for office. Last summer, he produced a letter for Trump, appealing for his support — and implying that he was blocked somehow from investigating unspecified claims of fraud.
"But it doesn't actually say that," Brennan said. "So even he, when you carefully read it, does not claim that he was blocked from investigating fraud."
Trump nonetheless made the letter public and gave his own interpretation at multiple rallies.
"We have a U.S. attorney in Philadelphia that says he wasn't allowed to go and check," Trump said at a rally in Florida.
Grayson has watched similar stories unfold in multiple states.
"I think he's been really active in moving 2022 candidates toward his point of view," Grayson said. "The way I look at it is, I can't imagine that the party on its own would be pushing this narrative if he weren't pushing it."
Repeatedly in the interview, Trump presses his party to adhere to his point of view and false claims, and he adapts his arguments to account for more and more proof that he lost. That's a typical strategy among purveyors of disinformation and misinformation.
Trump did correctly note in the interview that he received more votes than any sitting president ever. But his broader point that that is somehow evidence that he won in 2020 is nonsensical, said Patrick, seeing as the election saw record turnout.
"Each election compares those candidates facing off in that election — it doesn't matter how the numbers compare to the last election," Patrick said. "It doesn't matter how many points a team scored the last game or how many times Alabama has won the national championship. What matters is who has the most points or votes at the end of the game."
For the record, the University of Georgia won the college football national championship Monday, defeating Alabama, 33-18. And Biden got 7 million more votes than Trump in the popular vote in 2020 and got 306 electoral votes to Trump's 232.
Repeated losses in the independent judiciary
Trump doesn't have a case of widespread fraud.
He and his lawyers tried to prove that he did — and they failed. Many judges, including some appointed by him, ruled that way in dozens of cases.
Here's a section of the interview on this:
NPR'S STEVE INSKEEP: Let me read you some short quotes. The first is by one of the judges, one of the 10 judges you appointed, who ruled on this. And there were many judges, but 10 who you appointed. Brett Ludwig, U.S. District Court in Wisconsin, who was nominated by you in 2020. He's on the bench and he says, quote, "This court allowed the plaintiff the chance to make his case, and he has lost on the merits."
Another quote, Kory Langhofer, your own campaign attorney in Arizona, Nov. 12, 2020, quote, "We are not alleging fraud in this lawsuit. We are not alleging anyone stealing the election." And also Rudy Giuliani, your lawyer, Nov. 18, 2020, in Pennsylvania, quote, "This is not a fraud case." Your own lawyers had no evidence of fraud. They said in court they had no evidence of fraud. And the judges ruled against you every time on the merits.
TRUMP: It was too early to ask for fraud and to talk about fraud. Rudy said that, because of the fact it was very early with the — because that was obviously at a very, very — that was a long time ago. The things that have found out have more than bore out what people thought and what people felt and what people found.
When you look at Langhofer, I disagree with him as an attorney. I did not think he was a good attorney to hire. I don't know what his game is, but I will just say this: You look at the findings. You look at the number of votes. Go into Detroit and just ask yourself, is it true that there are more votes than there are voters? Look at Pennsylvania. Look at Philadelphia. Is it true that there were far more votes than there were voters?
INSKEEP: It is not true that there were far more votes than voters. There was an early count. I've noticed you've talked about this in rallies and you've said, reportedly, this is true. I think even you know that that was an early report that was corrected later.
TRUMP: Well, you take a look at it. You take a look at Detroit. In fact, they even had a hard time getting people to sign off on it because it was so out of balance. They called it out of balance. So you take a look at it. You know the real truth, Steve, and this election was a rigged election.
When pressed, it was excuse after excuse — it was "too early" to claim fraud, his attorney was no good, things just seem suspicious.
But it all comes back to the same place: He has no evidence of widespread fraud that caused him to lose the election.
The tone of the interview changed. Trump then hurried off the phone as he was starting to be asked about the attack on the Capitol, inspired by election lies.
A judge is considering whether Trump can be held liable for his actions in court.
If he can be, then Trump or his lawyers would someday have to answer the questions he didn't answer before he cut short his conversation with NPR.
Audio for this story was produced and edited by Taylor Haney, Lilly Quiroz, Amra Pasic and H.J. Mai.