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Flashbacks to Florida in 2000 as Trump heads to court to save his presidency

WASHINGTON – The White House was hoping to find a figure “like James Baker” to wage its post-election battle to somehow find a way to win a second term. But premier James Baker says the White House should stop trying to prevent vote counting.

Mr. Baker, the former secretary of state who led the legal and policy team in the epic 2000 Florida recount battle that took over the presidency of George W. Bush, said in an interview Thursday that the President Trump might have legitimate issues to resolve, but they should not be used to justify stopping the initial compilation of ballots.

“We never said not to count the votes,” said Mr. Baker, a Republican who voted for Mr. Trump. “It’s a very difficult decision to defend in a democracy.”

The feuds since Tuesday have evoked many memories and not a few post-traumatic stress flashbacks from the Florida confrontation that rivaled the world. Figures like Mr Baker, now retired and spending much of his time on his Texas ranch after recovering from the coronavirus, have been referred to as proxies for the current debate. But the comparisons go no further.

In the 2000 episode, Mr. Bush, the Republican candidate, and Al Gore, the Democrat, did not begin their legal fight until after the vote count in Florida. Mr. Bush ended election night with a lead of 1,784 votes out of the roughly six million cast in the state that would ultimately determine which candidate would win the Electoral College. Because the margin was so small, an automatic machine recount was then performed, confirming Mr. Bush’s advance.

Arguing that some ballots had been improperly disqualified or otherwise not counted, Mr Gore’s team went to court to request manual counts in four strongly Democratic counties, while Mr Baker argued that the votes weren’t did not need to be counted again. By the time the Supreme Court halted the process more than a month later on the grounds that different counties had different standards, Mr. Bush’s lead had been reduced to 537, still enough to win.

Mr. Trump, by comparison, sought to prevent even the first round of counting and exclude entire batches of mail-in ballots. In an appearance in the middle of the night after the polls closed, the president called the systematic counting of the votes an effort to steal the election without any evidence at all. “STOP THE ACCOUNT!” he wrote on Twitter on Thursday as his lawyers unsuccessfully tried to do just that. As Mr. Bush tried to preserve his victory, Mr. Trump was trying to overthrow what might be his opponent’s.

“There are huge differences,” Baker said of the Battle of Florida and the brewing fights in this week’s election. “On the one hand, our whole argument was that the votes have been counted and they have been counted and they have been counted and it is time to end the process. This is not exactly the message I heard on election night. And so I think it’s pretty hard to be against counting votes.

As an example, he criticized the Republican effort to reject 127,000 votes in Harris County, which includes his hometown of Houston, because they were chosen through a driving-and-drive system. which the party opposed. “I didn’t think it was a particularly wise thing to do and, in the end, it wasn’t legally wise because they lost in state and federal courts,” he said. -he declares.

This in some ways mirrored one of the parallel battles in the Florida fight when Democrats asked the courts to reject 25,000 missing ballots in two other counties due to “irregularities” in the way polling demands were made. were processed. Two Florida judges rejected the effort, ruling that procedural problems faced by local authorities did not justify preventing voters from having their ballots counted.

One of the attorneys who argued against the Republican effort in Texas this week was Benjamin L. Ginsberg, one of the nation’s most prominent Republican election lawyers and part of Mr. Baker’s 2000 recount team. In a friend of the court record in Federal Court, Mr. Ginsberg compared the Texas Republicans’ attempt to exclude the drive-thru ballots to the fight for 25,000 ballots in Florida.

In an interview, Mr. Ginsberg said Mr. Trump’s efforts to stop the wholesale count were dangerous. “This is integral to his demolition of the basic democratic institution of free elections by saying that they are rigged without providing any real proof,” he said.

Mr. Ginsberg was part of the all-star Republican legal team that Mr. Baker assembled in Florida on the fly. Among them were three future members of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, as well as a future senator, Ted Cruz of Texas; a future national security adviser, John R. Bolton; and prominent lawyers like Theodore Olson and Michael Carvin.

Mr Trump, for his part, has been unlikely to attract anything like that kind of top-tier Republican legal firepower this week, relying on Rudolph W. Giuliani, his personal lawyer, and his sons. Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, among others, to carry his message.

Mr Baker, who has led five Republican presidential campaigns, has at times been strongly critical of Mr Trump and refused to endorse him publicly, but still voted for him this fall, citing fears of a “far left” program if Democrats led by former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. were to take over.

Mr Baker said Mr Trump has every right to pursue any legitimate challenges after the votes have been counted. “You have the right to challenge or question the results of any election in any state until you are satisfied that it was conducted in a fair and open manner,” he said. . “This does not fail to accept a peaceful transition of power.”

Mr. Baker agreed that Mr. Trump should find someone like Mr. Baker to serve as a marshal. “Message discipline,” he said, “is especially important in something like this.”

But at 90, he’s ready for it to be someone else.