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December 10, 2018

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Will GOP still flirt with autocracy?

When a national leader urges that votes be ignored or that an election result he doesn’t like might best be set aside, we label him an autocrat or an authoritarian.

When it’s President Donald Trump, we shrug. Worse, many in his party go along with baseless charges of fraud.

We are in for a difficult two years. Surviving them will require that Republican senators take seriously the pledge they make in their oath of office to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” What we have seen so far is not encouraging.

Florida brings out the worst in Republicans. They find it hard to break bad habits developed during the presidential election in 2000, when they were willing to use any means necessary (including a 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision rooted far more in partisanship than law) to prevent Democrat Al Gore from getting a recount. The contest was ultimately settled by 537 votes.

With a margin that close, a recount would have been routine in a race for agriculture commissioner. But not for the country’s most important office. The GOP stopped the recounts, and George W. Bush became president.

To its credit, Florida now requires automatic recounts when races are decided by narrow margins. And this year, Republicans shouldn’t have much to worry about. In the U.S. Senate contest, as of Wednesday, Republican Gov. Rick Scott enjoyed a 12,562-vote lead over Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. In the governor’s race, Republican Ron DeSantis led Democrat Andrew Gillum by 33,684 votes. Unless something is badly amiss — in which case a recount is imperative — such margins would typically survive close scrutiny.

But Trump would have none of it. “The Florida election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged,” he tweeted Monday. “An honest vote count is no longer possible—ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”

For starters, as The Washington Post Fact Checker noted, overseas and military ballots postmarked by Election Day are accepted as long as 10 days after the voting. So Trump, on Veterans Day, was suggesting that many of the ballots sent in by our service members not be counted at all. The Post also found no evidence for Trump’s “missing or forged” charge. And what, pray, is an “infected” ballot?

Then there was Trump’s tweet last Friday suggesting that “a new Election” might be required in Arizona as Democrat Kyrsten Sinema passed Republican Martha McSally in the vote count. McSally ignored Trump and graciously conceded to Sinema in a video. McSally is clearly thinking beyond the Trumpian present.

All this is about more than Trump’s obvious meltdown since an election that was bad for him and his party and gets worse as more votes are tallied. It is about whether Republicans are willing to contain and, when necessary, oppose a man who repeatedly demonstrates hostility to the rules, norms and constraints of constitutional democracy.

It was thus good news this week when 14 conservative and libertarian lawyers announced the formation of a new organization called Checks and Balances. Their ranks include George Conway, who happens to be the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, and former Homeland Security Secretary and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

Their organizing statement declared the group’s dedication to “the rule of law, the power of truth, the independence of the criminal justice system, the imperative of individual rights, and the necessity of civil discourse.”

Tellingly, they insisted that their commitment to these principles applied “regardless of the party or persons in power” and reflected their faith in “free speech, a free press, separation of powers and limited government.”

Up to now, conservatives opposed to Trump have had little impact on their party. Too many, especially among elected officials, have pulled their punches in the crunch and fallen silent under pressure.

The test will be whether four or five GOP senators prove willing to break with Trump’s apologists in their party’s leadership when it matters — and when it’s hard. Defending the Florida recount as legitimate and necessary would be a good start. So would supporting a bill protecting special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and insisting that his findings be made public. Lovely words about the truth and the rule of law are powerless against a president who respects neither.

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post.