How a state that was never in doubt became a “national embarrassment” and a symbol of the Republican Party’s fealty to Donald Trump.
After five years spent bullying the Republican Party into submission, President Donald Trump finally met his match in Aaron Van Langevelde.
That’s right. In the end, it wasn’t a senator or a judge or a general who stood up to the leader of the free world. There was no dramatic, made-for-Hollywood collision of cosmic egos. Rather, the death knell of Trump’s presidency was sounded by a baby-faced lawyer, looking over his glasses on a grainy Zoom feed on a gloomy Monday afternoon, reading from a statement that reflected a courage and moral clarity that has gone AWOL from his party, pleading with the tens of thousands of people watching online to understand that some lines can never be uncrossed.
“We must not attempt to exercise power we simply don’t have,” declared Van Langevelde, a member of Michigan’s board of state canvassers, the ministerial body with sole authority to make official Joe Biden’s victory over Trump. “As John Adams once said, ‘We are a government of laws, not men.’ This board needs to adhere to that principle here today. This board must do its part to uphold the rule of law and comply with our legal duty to certify this election.”
Van Langevelde is a Republican. He works for Republicans in the Statehouse. He gives legal guidance to advance Republican causes and win Republican campaigns. As a Republican, his mandate for Monday’s hearing—handed down from the state party chair, the national party chair and the president himself—was straightforward. They wanted Michigan’s board of canvassers to delay certification of Biden’s victory. Never mind that Trump lost by more than 154,000 votes, or that results were already certified in all 83 counties. The plan was to drag things out, to further muddy the election waters and delegitimize the process, to force the courts to take unprecedented actions that would forever taint Michigan’s process of certifying elections. Not because it was going to help Trump win but because it was going to help Trump cope with a loss. The president was not accepting defeat. That meant no Republican with career ambitions could accept it, either.
Which made Van Langevelde’s vote for certification all the more remarkable. With the other Republican on the four-person board, Norman Shinkle, abstaining on the final vote—a cowardly abdication of duty—the 40-year-old Van Langevelde delivered the verdict on his own. At a low point in his party’s existence, with much of the GOP’s leadership class pre-writing their own political epitaphs by empowering Trump to lay waste to the country’s foundational democratic norms, an obscure lawyer from west Michigan stood on principle. It proved to be the nail in Trump’s coffin: Shortly after Michigan’s vote to certify, the General Services Administration finally commenced the official transition of power and Trump tweeted out a statement affirming the move “in the best interest of our Country.”
Still, the drama in Lansing raised deeper questions about the health of our political system and the sturdiness of American democracy. Why were Republicans who privately admitted Trump’s legitimate defeat publicly alleging massive fraud? Why did it fall to a little-known figure like Van Langevelde to buffer the country from an unprecedented layer of turmoil? Why did the battleground state that dealt Trump his most decisive defeat—by a wide margin—become the epicenter of America’s electoral crisis?
With all 83 counties boasting certified results, the only thing that stood between Joe Biden and his rightful claim to Michigan’s 16 electoral votes was certification from the state board of canvassers. In a rational political climate, this would not have been the subject of suspense. But the swirling innuendo and disinformation had long ago swept away any semblance of normalcy. Already, one of the board’s two Republicans, Norm Shinkle, a career party fixture, had hinted he would not vote to certify the state’s result. Because the two Democrats would obviously vote in favor of certification, a manic gush of attention turned to the other Republican member, Aaron Van Langevelde.
The problem? Hardly anyone knew the guy. Van Langevelde, a deputy legal counsel to the Michigan House GOP, had been appointed to the board less than two years earlier by Governor Rick Snyder. He had kept a deliberately low profile in Lansing, attending the occasional happy hour but spending most of his time in nearby Eaton County, where he lives with his wife, an assistant prosecutor, and their three children.
All day Friday, and throughout the weekend, a chorus of Michigan Republican heavyweights tried and failed to contact Van Langevelde. When it became apparent that his extended family was shooing away callers—giving the impression he did not welcome this intrusive sort of spotlight—word got around that Van Langevelde had cold feet. By Sunday morning, speculation was rampant that Van Langevelde would resign from the board on Monday. This made perfect sense to Republicans and Democrats alike: Based on their fact-finding mission into the mysterious fourth board member, Van Langevelde was a bookish type, a rule follower, an obsessive student of world history (particularly the Roman Empire) who believes to his core in a conservative application of the law. His pious Dutch sensibilities, one co-worker said, make him “the the kind of guy that would turn himself in for tasting a grape at the grocery store.” He would be inclined, Lansing insiders figured, to vote in favor of certifying the results. But he would be disinclined to throw away his future in the Republican Party. A resignation from the board was his only way out.
Working off this expectation, a late lobbying blitz turned on Shinkle. In the 36 hours preceding Monday’s vote, he was inundated with calls and emails and text messages from high-ranking Republican luminaries around the state. Some, such as former congressman and House Intelligence Chair Mike Rogers, urged him to certify the results in accordance with Michigan law. Others, including McDaniel and Cox and other state party figures, pleaded with Shinkle to stand his ground and insist on a two-week delay. The response they got was universal: He would promise to “do my best,” then he would offer a litany of unsubstantiated allegations of fraud. (Not everyone bothered contacting Shinkle: That his wife served as a plaintiff’s witness in Trump’s ill-fated lawsuit against Detroit struck many people not just as a conflict of interest, but as a clear indication he would never vote to certify.)
When Monday morning arrived, the Michigan MAGA coalition hoped to wake up to news of a postponed meeting on account of Van Langevelde’s resignation. No such luck. Nervously, the calls and text messages and email chains began anew—this time directed not toward Shinkle or Van Langevelde, but to each other. What was going on? Was the 1 p.m. meeting really going ahead as scheduled? Would Van Langevelde, who had stayed silent and off the grid for the previous 96 hours, dare to vote against the party’s edict?
Some Republicans didn’t want to believe it. But for others, reality began to set in. They had grown so accustomed to Republicans falling in line, bending a knee to Trumpism, that the notion of someone acting on his own personal ethic had become foreign. But the more they learned about Van Langevelde, the more he sounded like just that type of independent thinker. Some viewed his relative youth as an asset, believing he wouldn’t risk throwing away his future in the party. What they had failed to appreciate was that young conservatives were oftentimes the most disillusioned with the party’s drift from any intellectual or philosophical mooring.
By the time the meeting commenced, just after 1 p.m., the smart money had shifted dramatically—away from any resignation or delay and toward prompt certification. Van Langevelde did little to disappoint. “The board’s duty today is very clear,” he declared just minutes into the meeting. “We have a duty to certify this election.”
Like a good attorney, Van Langevelde meticulously questioned a number of expert guest speakers to ascertain if they had dissenting views of the board’s authority under state law. Time and again, they affirmed his position. The body did not have power to audit or investigate or recount; that could be done only by distinct bodies after certification was complete. The job of the board of state canvassers was narrowly to examine the certified results from all 83 counties and then, based on the relevant vote totals, certify a winner of Michigan’s 16 electoral votes. The one time he was challenged—by Spies, the political superlawyer representing John James’ U.S. Senate campaign—Van Langevelde calmly brushed his recommendations aside, telling Spies, “I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with you on that.”
If this young canvasser’s rebellion against the entire Republican Party apparatus was surprising, what came next was all too predictable. Within minutes of Van Langevelde’s vote for certification—and of Shinkle’s abstention, which guaranteed his colleague would bear the brunt of the party’s fury alone—the fires of retaliation raged. In GOP circles, there were immediate calls for Van Langevelde to lose his seat on the board; to lose his job in the House of Representatives; to be censured on the floor of the Legislature and exiled from the party forever. Actionable threats against him and his family began to be reported. The Michigan State Police worked with local law enforcement to arrange a security detail.
All for doing his job. All for upholding the rule of law. All for following his conscience and defying the wishes of Donald Trump.
“It took a lot of courage for him to do what he thought was right and appropriate, given the amount of pressure he was under,” said Brian Calley, the GOP former lieutenant governor, who told me days earlier that he had never heard the name Aaron Van Langevelde. “He carried himself as well as anybody I’ve seen in that type of setting, including people with decades and decades of experience. He showed an awful lot of poise.”
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