The White House says it wants a “James Baker-like” figure to lead its postelection battle to somehow find a way to win a second term. But the real James Baker says the White House should stop trying to stop the votes from being counted.
Mr. Baker, the former secretary of state who led the legal and political team during the Florida recount battle in 2000 that secured the presidency for George W. Bush, said in an interview on Thursday that President Trump may have legitimate issues to pursue but they should not be used to justify a halt to the initial tabulation of ballots.
“We never said don’t count the votes,” Mr. Baker said. “That’s a very hard decision to defend in a democracy.”
Mr. Baker’s comments came shortly after Mr. Trump posted a message on Twitter demanding “STOP THE COUNT,” in keeping with his assault on the election results before they were even in. The president went before television cameras early on Wednesday morning to characterize the routine counting of votes as somehow an effort to steal the election.
In 2000 Mr. Bush and Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, only started their legal fight after the votes in Florida were initially counted. Mr. Bush finished election night with a lead of 1,784 votes out of some 6 million cast in the state that would determine which candidate would win the Electoral College. Because the margin was so small, an automatic machine recount was then conducted, upholding Mr. Bush’s lead. After signs that some valid votes had not been counted, Mr. Gore’s team went to court asking for hand recounts in four heavily Democratic counties while Mr. Baker argued that the votes did not need to be counted again.
By the time the Supreme Court halted any further recounts more than a month later, on the grounds that different counties were applying different standards in determining which ballots should be deemed valid, Mr. Bush’s lead had been pared to just 537, still enough to hold onto Florida’s electoral votes.
“There are huge differences,” Mr. Baker said of the Florida battle and the brewing fights over this week’s election. “For one thing, our whole argument was that the votes have been counted and they’ve been counted and they’ve been counted and it’s time to end the process. That’s not exactly the message that I heard on election night. And so I think it’s pretty hard to be against counting the votes.”
As an example, he disapproved of the Republican effort to throw out 127,000 votes in his hometown, Houston, because they were cast through a drive-by system that the party objected to. “I didn’t think that was a particularly wise thing to do and as it turns out it wasn’t wise legally because they’ve lost in state court and in federal court,” he said.
Mr. Baker, who has not publicly endorsed Mr. Trump and has been sharply critical at times but personally voted for him, said the president had every right to challenge results after they have been counted if there are legitimate grounds to question their validity.
Mr. Baker does agree that Mr. Trump should find someone like Mr. Baker to serve as a field marshal. “Message discipline,” he said, “is particularly important in something like this.” But at age 90, he is ready for it to be someone else.