A tale of two Sunday shows
Unpacking Steve Scalise's latest effort to undermine elections and Adam Schiff's remarkable response to it.
In recent years I’ve gotten in the habit of watching the Sunday morning news shows and tweeting out clips of the most interesting bits. Rarely are two compelling segments from different programs in dialogue with each other. But that was the case on Sunday.
Hours after former President Donald Trump held a rally in Iowa and indicated how central lies about the 2020 election are to his political identity (read my coverage of Trump’s rally here), Rep. Steve Scalise’s (R-LA) joined Fox News Sunday and refused to disavow those lies. A short time later on Face the Nation, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) cited Scalise’s comments and the broader Republican effort to undermine elections as reasons American democracy is “hanging by a thread right now.”
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Fox News obviously is not known for conducting hard-hitting interviews of Republicans, but Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace is at least willing to ask probing questions. On Sunday, Wallace wrapped up an interview with Scalise that was mostly about criticizing President Joe Biden by asking the second-ranking House Republican to do the bare minimum — acknowledge that the 2020 election was not stolen from former President Donald Trump.
Remarkably, Scalise wouldn’t do it. Instead, he hemmed and hawed about how “a number of states” didn’t follow “their state-passed laws that govern the election for president” — a scenario Scalise misleadingly insisted isn’t in accordance with “what the Constitution says.”
Though Scalise has said the same thing during other TV interviews this year, his comments to Wallace generated a lot of attention. A Twitter clip of the exchange was viewed more than a million times on Sunday. Watch it for yourself:
It’s good that Wallace asked Scalise to disavow the big lie and kept following up when he refused to do so, but he should’ve led with that question instead of closing with it. Because if a politician’s relationship with the truth is so frayed that he can’t acknowledge Biden’s victory was fair, then he really shouldn’t be taken seriously on other topics.
The big problem is that Scalise isn’t an outlier.
The big lie has become GOP orthodoxy
While there are different flavors of the big lie — the false idea that the presidency was stolen from Trump — there is little room in the Republican Party for people who don’t at least pay lip service to it like Scalise did on Sunday.
It’s worth remembering that the lies pushed by Trump supporters about the 2020 election began with fantastical claims about rigged voting machines and fake ballots. Trump still nods toward these extreme conspiracy theories at his rallies, but no evidence ever emerged to back them up, so Republicans like Scalise who aren’t as deep in the fever swamp moved on to technical claims of the sort he made to Wallace. This allows them to stay in Trump’s good graces by not explicitly denouncing the big lie while also not sounding like complete lunatics.
Wallace, unfortunately, was unable or unwilling to push back on Scalise’s comments with facts, and viewers of his show may have been left with the impression that Scalise has a point. But he doesn’t.
The specific claim Scalise is making — that election laws are the exclusive business of state legislatures — was rejected by the Supreme Court last December in the context of Texas’s ill-fated lawsuit to overturn the election. Supreme Court precedent holds that courts and governors can shape election laws by, for instance, expanding mail voting during a pandemic due to the dangers of crowding into physical polling places. So as a factual matter Scalise is wrong when he suggests Trump was robbed because states Biden won violated federal law.
Sanjana Karanth provided a succinct debunk of Scalise’s legal argument for HuffPost:
Some state courts allowed more voters more means ― such as mail-in ballots ― and time to vote, regardless of party affiliation. These adjustments fell in line with the state constitutions and were in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has now killed over 700,000 Americans. Every investigation into the election ― including by the Justice Department ― has confirmed the legitimacy of the results, and proven how rare voter fraud is.
But the law is not Scalise’s concern. What he’s really up to — and he’s far from the only House Republican doing it — is providing a political justification for Republican efforts to tip the scales in future elections by giving them the power to set the rules and, as a last resort, to control how the votes are counted.
That’s very bad news for democracy, and Schiff wasted no time calling it out.
Adam Schiff’s response to Scalise: “It’s these personal capitulations that are putting our country at risk.”
Shortly after Fox News Sunday ended, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) went on Face the Nation and addressed Scalise’s comments as well as comments Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) made on Saturday claiming that Trump is actually a victim of the January 6 committee because he never intended to overturn the election (never mind that tape of Trump pressuring a Georgia official to “find” votes for him).
“We saw Grassley in Iowa yesterday unable to condemn the president’s effort to get the Justice Department to overturn the election. Scalise, this morning, another Republican leader, unable to acknowledge that the presidency wasn’t stolen,” Schiff said. “It’s these personal capitulations that are putting our country at risk.”
Schiff did not mince words when talking about the broader state of the GOP.
"We have a Republican Party that is now an autocratic cult around Donald Trump,” he said. “It is not interested in governing. It is not interested in even maintaining the solvency and creditworthiness of the country."
Watching Fox News Sunday and Face the Nation back-to-back, the juxtaposition between Scalise’s evasiveness and Schiff’s directness was striking. So was the uncomfortable truth that Schiff articulated so clearly. With very few exceptions, Republicans have sold out for Trump — and no lie is too poisonous as long as it helps them retake power.
But you don’t have to take it from me. Take it from two of the GOP exceptions, Reps. Adam Kinzinger (IL) and Liz Cheney (WY).
Kinzinger responded to Scalise’s Fox News Sunday appearance by linking his lies with polling showing their corrosive impact among Republican voters.
“If top GOP leaders won’t tell the truth, aggressively, it’s not a surprise that 70 percent of Republicans believe the lies and conspiracies,” he tweeted. “This is unacceptable.”
Cheney echoed Kinzinger’s point.
“Millions of Americans have been sold a fraud that the election was stolen,” she tweeted. “Republicans have a duty to tell the American people that this is not true. Perpetuating the Big Lie is an attack on the core of our constitutional republic.”