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Why the scandal surrounding one GOP senator’s 2020 texts matters



Despite the relative homogeneity of the Senate Republican conference, there are some competing archetypes. There are the overly ambitious members incapable of shame (see Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton), the senators who try a little too hard to pretend to be folksy (John Kennedy), the knee-jerk partisans (Marco Rubio), the conservative pundits with voting privileges (Ron Johnson and Marsha Blackburn), and the members who read Ayn Rand as a teenager and never quite grew out of it (Rand Paul).

But there’s also a distinct GOP contingent made up of senators who see themselves as rising above the petty and the partisan. These senators don’t engage in silly antics in the hopes of lining up their next conservative media appearance. They don’t practice vapid one-liners to be parlayed into the next funding raising appeal.

No, these members, we’ve been led to believe, are principled intellectuals. They care about ideas and their philosophical underpinnings. These senators expect to be seen as serious people, not political clowns.

Take Sen. Mike Lee, for example.

On Jan. 6, while the likes of Cruz and Hawley thumbed their noses at democracy, Utah’s senior Republican senator publicly rejected efforts to overturn the election. He was willing to consider Team Trump’s evidence of election malfeasance, but came to realize that the “proof” was absurd. Lee had heard about the scheme to use fake electors, but according to his version of events, it was not until Jan. 2 that he even became aware of the existence of the plot.

After the insurrectionist riot, when eight of his far-right colleagues voted against certifying the results, the Utahan sided with the majority. There were plenty of political villains on Jan. 6, each of whom put our system of government in jeopardy, but Lee was not among them. He remained, the story goes, the same “constitutional conservative“ he’s always been.

As things stand, that version of events has largely unraveled.

On Friday, CNN published a report exposing text messages between the GOP senator and then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in which Lee’s behind-the-scenes efforts to help overturn the election were exposed. On the day in which the presidential race was called for Joe Biden, the Utah Republican endorsed trying to undo the results through the courts.

When that avenue closed, Lee pushed for a legal detour. As my MSNBC colleague Hayes Brown explained:

[T]he texts show Lee spent weeks trying to advocate for state legislatures to name slates of “alternate electors” that would support Trump in the Electoral College. According to his text messages, he was still pushing state legislators as late as Jan. 4, 2021: “We need something from state legislatures to make this legitimate and to have any hope of winning,” Lee texted Meadows, CNN reported. “Even if they can’t convene, it might be enough if a majority of them are willing to sign a statement indicating how they would vote.”

As we discussed on Friday, the available text messages show the Republican senator telling Meadows on Dec. 8, “If a very small handful of states were to have their legislatures appoint alternative slates of delegates, there could be a path.” On Jan. 3, Lee went on to say, “Everything changes, of course, if the swing states submit competing slates of electors pursuant to state law.” A day later, the lawmaker boasted that he’d spent time personally “calling state legislators for hours.”

Why is this important? First, the myth of Lee as the stalwart defender of the Constitution obviously now lies in tatters. The senator schemed in secret to subvert our democracy.

Indeed, he did so in a brazen way, voluntarily partnering with those who sought to hand power to a candidate who lost. Two weeks after the election was called, Lee was so eager to make Team Trump happy that he texted Meadows, “Please give me something to work with. I just need to know what I should be saying…. There are a few of us in the Senate who want to be helpful.”

At that point in the process, “helpful” referred to assisting Donald Trump maintain power he hadn’t earned, defying the will of their own country’s electorate.

Second, it’s relevant that Lee’s earlier claims about these events have been called into question. As a Washington Post analysis put it, “A Republican senator … misled the country about his participation in a plot to overturn a presidential election.”

And finally, if recent history is any guide, the Utahan’s plan to deal with these revelations is to simply wait for people to lose interest. It has, after all, happened before. Early last year, in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack, senators such as Cruz and Hawley were pariahs facing calls for their resignation. American democracy faced a historic test, which they flunked.

A year later, the duo has shrugged off their scandalous misconduct. Lee will almost certainly do the same, or at least try to.

To be sure, Lee’s efforts are qualitatively different from Cruz’s and Hawley’s. He did, after all, give up on the gambit in the end. But that doesn’t wipe the slate clean. Lee, who’s up for re-election this year, plotted in secret to undermine the post-election transfer of power, and the resulting stain should not soon fade.

Lee is on record having expressed skepticism toward democracy. It was in October 2020, for example, when the senator insisted that the United States is “not a democracy“ — which he considered a good thing. The Republican went on to accuse Democrats of embracing “rank democracy,” instead of his vision of personal “liberty.”

The comments were unsettling at the time. They’re far worse in hindsight.

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