WASHINGTON — In backing President Donald Trump's baseless claims of election fraud, Republicans risk leaving millions of Americans with the false impression that the results of the 2020 race are illegitimate.
And that may be the point.
None of Trump's legal challenges and assertions of voting irregularities has revealed any substantive issues with the election that would overturn the results. And some GOP lawmakers and party officials privately acknowledge that Trump has no choice but to step aside by Jan. 20 and cede power to President-elect Joe Biden.
But Trump is doing nothing to make that road to Inauguration Day easier for Biden. In fact, he's trying to block it, littering the path with misinformation and falsehoods about the election. As a result, Biden will almost certainly be viewed as an illegitimate president by some voters, potentially denying him that period of goodwill that typically greets a new president.
The stakes for Biden are even greater, especially if the Senate remains in Republican control, as he advances an agenda to arrest the spiraling coronavirus pandemic and faltering economy.
"Their intent is to delegitimize this election and thereby delegitimize President-elect Biden's presidency," said Valerie Jarrett, who was a White House senior adviser to President Barack Obama. "It is damaging to the democracy. Once again they're putting their short-term political interests ahead of the interests of the country."
The GOP strategy has echoes of the Republican approach to Obama's 2008 victory when he won by 9.5 million votes and with 365 Electoral College votes. Republicans largely allowed lies about Obama's citizenship to flourish, leaving millions of Americans with the impression that the nation's first Black president might not be eligible to serve.
The chief proponent of the "birtherism" lie was, of course, Trump.
More than a decade later, Republicans again face a choice about whether to embrace Trump's falsehoods for political gain. So far, few are openly disputing his assertions or challenging his acts to impede the transition.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday there was "no reason for alarm" at Trump's refusal to acknowledge defeat. Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota balked at the notion that Republicans were enabling conspiracy theories, saying what "we're doing is following exactly what the Founding Fathers here wanted us to do, which is to follow the rule of law."
Even those who have taken a tougher stand against Trump are giving themselves room when it comes to Biden's victory.
"It's important we show confidence in our institutions, our ability to investigate cases and when that's completed, I think it's by far the most likely outcome there will not be a change in the tally in a substantial way," said Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.
Yet Biden's victory is not an open question. He has cleared the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House.
There has been no evidence of widespread voting fraud or irregularities. State election officials in both parties say voting went well, even in the middle of a pandemic. International observers have also concluded there were no serious issues.
Trump, however, has repeatedly and baselessly claimed that Democrats are stealing the election from him and that the results will be reversed after legal challenges, none of which has shown any evidence of problems so broad that it could swing the election. In fact, many of the lawsuits have already been dismissed by judges.
Still, Republicans have allowed Trump's misinformation to flourish, pushed along by conservative media and on the internet. And Trump's obstinance has practical, negative consequences.
In preventing Biden from tapping into the government resources typically associated with a presidential transition, Trump is hobbling the incoming administration from preparing for a full government response to the worst pandemic in a century. Trump's refusal to cooperate also could prevent background investigations and security clearances for prospective staff who will be needed to fill sensitive roles.
The commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks said the abbreviated transition following the 2000 election contributed to critical national security positions going unfilled until just weeks before the strikes.
Biden on Tuesday vowed to move forward with his transition plans whether Trump likes it or not. The turmoil surrounding the transition, he added, said more about the person leaving the White House than the one who will soon enter.
"It's an embarrassment, quite frankly," Biden said. "It will not help the president's legacy."
Republicans' willingness to align themselves with Trump's attacks on the election offers a preview for Biden of what may be to come once he takes office.
During Obama's presidency, many Republicans did little to tamp down questions about his eligibility for the nation's highest office. Those lies helped fuel some of the hard-line opposition to Obama within the party, making it difficult for more mainstream GOP leaders to work with the White House.
The result was gridlock — but also the mobilization of forces within the Republican Party that propelled them to the majority in the House and Senate, and Trump ultimately to the White House.
Trump is likely to remain the most powerful force in the Republican Party even when he's out of office, having drawn more than 71 million votes in the election. That's the second-highest number in history, surpassed only by Biden's 76.8 million.
"The president controls Republican voters in a way that nobody has in a long time," said Brendan Buck, a Republican who advised Paul Ryan when he was House speaker. "There's very little upside to speaking up against him because he will bring his ire down on you."