WASHINGTON — When Kamala Harris returned to the Senate this week for the first time as vice president-elect, her Republican colleagues offered their congratulations and Sen. Lindsey Graham greeted her with a fist bump.
It was a sign that many Republicans have privately acknowledged what they refuse to say openly: Democrat Joe Biden and Harris won the election and will take office in January.
The GOP's public silence on the reality of Biden's victory amounts to tacit approval of Trump's baseless claims of election fraud. That has significant repercussions, delaying the transition during a deadly pandemic, sowing public doubt and endangering Biden's ability to lead the portion of the country that may question his legitimacy.
"The real-world consequences are perilous," said Eddie Glaude, chair of the Department of African American studies at Princeton University. "The long-term implications are calcifying the doubt about the election and what that means for the body politic. It could lead to half the country not just being deeply suspicious of the democratic process but also actively hostile toward it. It becomes difficult to imagine how we move forward."
Republicans are closing the Trump era much the way they started it: by joining the president in shattering civic norms and sowing uncertainty in institutions. But their efforts to maintain a public face of support for the president began to deteriorate on Wednesday.
Backroom whispers about the futility of Trump's legal fight have become louder after Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani appeared in a Pennsylvania courtroom making wide and unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud in seeking to undo the election results. Asked about the case, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said, "Let me just say, I don't think they have a strong case."
And when White House chief of staff Mark Meadows visited with Senate Republicans, he encouraged them to "make the most" of their remaining time with Trump, according to two senators.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the message from Meadows was "basically just that we got about 45 days left of the president's term." Meadows told them the administration wanted to make sure that if the senators "had ideas of things that the White House could and should do during that period of time, that we got them to him."
But even then, there remained a glimmer of denial.
"But he did, I have to be honest with you, he did say whether it's 45 days or four years and 45 days," Cornyn added.
Despite the private admissions, there has been no public effort to nudge Trump toward the exit.
Trump has declined to concede the presidential race and is mounting legal fights in several states, but there has been no indication or evidence of voter irregularities or widespread fraud in the election. The Trump-appointed head of the General Services Administration has held off on formally beginning the Biden transition to the White House, slowing the incoming administration's ability to prepare to grapple with a worsening pandemic that has already killed 250,000 Americans.
Trump's refusal to accept the results means the election disputes could drag on for weeks as states certify their tallies or push to mid-December, when the Electoral College is set to vote. And baseless claims about election fraud have filled conservative media without any rebuttal from Republicans, potentially undermining the Biden presidency before it even begins.
A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday showed that while 95% of Democrats believe the election was "fair and square," only 18% of Republicans do, while 70% of GOP voters believe some voter fraud took place.
A sense of paralysis has set in at the White House.
The West Wing has been hollowed out, with staffers quarantining after COVID-19 exposures and others actively looking for new jobs. The president has remained in the Oval Office well into the night but has stayed out of the public eye, tweeting baseless claims while largely giving up on governing and not taking a single question from a reporter since Election Day.
Republicans have said privately there's not much they can do except wait, giving the president the time and space he needs to see the results for himself. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, perceived by some Republicans as the one man who could urge Trump to cooperate with the Biden transition, has instead steadfastly backed the president, saying he's "100% within his rights" to legally contest the results.
GOP lawmakers have pointed to the more than 70 million votes that Trump garnered as well as his overwhelming popularity with Republicans, including among their respective bases of support back home. The chatter that Trump is already eyeing a 2024 campaign has also frozen Republicans wary of his Twitter account, and they have also expressed fear that being perceived as forcing the president to the exit may trigger the temperamental chief executive to make further risky decisions, such as troop drawdowns or more dismissals on the national security staff.
And, of course, there is Georgia.
Republicans need to win one of the two runoff elections set for January in the state in order to hang onto their Senate majority and prevent a Democratic sweep of Washington. Although Trump has not yet signaled much interest in helping with the races, Republicans have made the calculation that keeping his base fired up may be their best chance to secure a victory in a state where Biden has a narrow lead. (The Associated Press has not yet called that race.)
"Trump is behaving exactly as everyone should have expected he would do. Nothing he has done in the last two weeks is out of character," said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who advised Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential bid. "And Senate Republicans are responding to him the same way they always do: Ignore him and focus on the Senate calendar."
"But there's no guarantee this works out well for Republicans."