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Trump’s efforts to flip Michigan election results raise significant legal, ethical questions: Experts

Trump will meet with Michigan state lawmakers on Friday afternoon.

November 20, 2020, 2:23 PM

As President Trump focuses his efforts to overturn the results of the election on Michigan, election law experts say his contacts with Wolverine State Republicans raise serious ethical and legal concerns.

In recent days, Trump has reached out to Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers who had, after initially resisting, voted to certify the county’s election results. Those members, after speaking with Trump, would later sign an affidavit in an attempt to rescind their votes.

The president also extended an invitation to Michigan lawmakers to come to the White House on Friday. One of those lawmakers, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mikey Shirkey, greeted by demonstrators when he arrived in Washington Friday morning, declined to respond to questions from reporters.

These efforts by the president raise thorny ethical and legal questions, legal experts say.

“From a moral and from an ethical perspective it's obviously profoundly troubling and in many respects, we haven't seen anything like this in the modern era -- a sitting president, trying to basically subvert the election.” Daniel Weiner, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program told ABC News.

“But also it's troubling and concerning from a legal perspective, and folks who are taking part in these meetings should think long and hard about it. Offering, pressuring government officials to take official acts in exchange for benefits tangible or intangible is a federal crime,” Weiner added.

It's not clear whether either lawmaker was offered anything of value in exchange for taking the meeting with Trump, or whether Trump has plans to make any such offer when he meets with both men Friday afternoon, but during a press briefing Friday White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters the sit-down "is not an advocacy meeting."

"There will be no one from the campaign there," McEnany said. "He routinely meets with lawmakers from all across the country."

The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, is so far the only GOP lawmaker on Capitol Hill to issue a public statement directly condemning the president's outreach to Republican state officials in states where President-elect Joe Biden won.

"Having failed to make even a plausible case of widespread fraud or conspiracy before any court of law, the President has now resorted to overt pressure on state and local officials to subvert the will of the people and overturn the election," Romney said Thursday evening. "It is difficult to image a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American President."

By contrast, the Republican National Committee hosted a press conference at its headquarters Thursday where lawyers for the president, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, spread a series of unsubstantiated and conspiratorial claims as they sought to bolster an ongoing legal effort to overturn the election that has suffered repeated defeats in the courts.

Stephen Saltzburg, who served in the Justice Department during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations says what’s happening is a scandal. “If any other president were to have ever attempted what this president has been doing, people would begin to look at conspiracy to violate election laws,” Saltzburg, who is a professor at the George Washington University School of Law, said in an interview.

According to Justice Department policy, it would be difficult to charge a sitting president, but he could potentially face charges once leaving office. And experts say if would be more difficult to craft a defense that he was exercising presidential powers because his actions will likely be viewed as taken in his capacity as a candidate.

But legal experts ABC News spoke with say that’s beside the point.

“The point is not to inflict punishment. The point is not that the President of the United States shouldn't interfere in democratic processes because he is afraid of being convicted of a felony. He shouldn't interfere in democratic processes because he is the president, because he respects the law, because he respects the process,” University of Buffalo Law School professor James Gardner told ABC News.

This effort by the president, legal experts say, goes way beyond the bounds of political norms. “This is not the rough and tumble of politics, this is corruption,” Saltzburg said.

“There's a there's a fine line between political horse trading and bribery. But when you're dealing with something that is essentially nefarious he's essentially seeking to have them take actions that are deeply at least irregular and probably illegal, the law gets pretty, pretty severe on that,” Weiner said.

In addition to being ethically and legally questionable, Weiner says these gambits by the president can also be seen as another type of voter suppression. “Instead of stopping people from voting they are trying to devalue their votes after they are cast—and once again the targets are overwhelmingly Black and brown people. It won’t change the outcome, but that’s not the point. It’s still sending the message that some people’s voices count less than others.”

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