WASHINGTON — Funny what passes for a jolting revelation at the Capitol these days.
Senator Mitch McConnell had just uttered a sentence that in more normal times would be received — and quickly forgotten — as just the kind of drab boilerplate that the Senate majority leader, a Kentucky Republican, is known for.
“I think we all know that after the first of the year, there’s likely to be a discussion about some additional package of some size next year,” Mr. McConnell said Tuesday as he discussed prospects for a coronavirus relief bill. At which point he delivered his bombshell: “Depending on what the new administration wants to pursue.”
He said “new administration.” Implying there would be an outgoing president.
If President Trump had won re-election, as he keeps insisting — and which few Republican senators will publicly disabuse him of — there would be no “new administration” to speak of.
In other words, Mr. McConnell, in his own circuitous and perhaps unintentional way, was acknowledging that Mr. Trump had lost.
Maybe he did not mean to be so forthcoming. It is, after all, a delicate verbal dance that Mr. McConnell and many of his fellow Republican senators are engaged in. They do not wish to alienate the apparently significant portion of the party’s base that still believes that Mr. Trump won, or antagonize the president to the point that he torments them with future primary challengers from what they fear will be the effective Republican leadership base of Mar-a-Lago.
As such, when Mr. McConnell was asked directly about Mr. Trump’s false claims, he reverted to his bland, inscrutable form. “The future will take care of itself,” he said.
This would seem beyond dispute.
Privately, pretty much all Republican senators acknowledge that yes, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Jan. 20. This includes even Mr. Trump’s staunchest supporters, like Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who admitted as much to Mark Becker, a former Republican official in the state.
Mr. Becker recounted a conversation he had had with Mr. Johnson on Wednesday in The Bulwark, a website with a heavy bent toward “Never Trump” conservatism. When Mr. Becker asked Mr. Johnson why he had never acknowledged this election result in public, Mr. Johnson explained that to do so would be “political suicide.” (It appears likely that Mr. Johnson believed this conversation was private.)
In recent weeks, the unwillingness of most Senate and House Republicans to acknowledge an obvious election result has reached new levels of absurd. Whenever another prominent Republican official admits that Mr. Biden in fact won, the media updates the scoreboard like it’s breaking news — as if a new state had been called on election night. Senators Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, Ben Sasse and Susan Collins declared this early, as did former President George W. Bush, his brother Jeb Bush, and a bunch of Republican governors and members of Congress.
To reiterate what should now be indisputable: Mr. Biden won the election. Every serious news outlet in the United States has declared it. Nearly every lawsuit that Mr. Trump’s legal team has filed disputing results in multiple states has failed — laughably in many cases. and Attorney General William P. Barr announced Tuesday that he had seen zero proof of fraud that would meaningfully affect the outcome. (Mr. Trump is reportedly furious at Mr. Barr for saying this.)
Mr. Biden has received nearly seven million more votes than Mr. Trump, and he has amassed an Electoral College margin of 306 to 232, with virtually all ballots counted.
It appeared last Sunday that Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, had joined the ranks of the sky-is-blue caucus when he referred to the “Biden administration” in an interview with CNN. This was of added significance because Mr. Blunt is the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees inaugural activities.
“We are working with the Biden administration,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash. “Likely administration,” he corrected himself. Ms. Bash pressed Mr. Blunt on whether this meant Mr. Biden was in fact the “president-elect.”
Not so fast, he said.
“Well, the president-elect will be the president-elect when the electors vote for him,” Mr. Blunt said, referring to the meeting of the Electoral College that is scheduled for Dec. 14.
“There is no official job of president-elect,” Mr. Blunt explained, though this had not stopped him from congratulating “President-elect” Donald J. Trump in a statement the day after Mr. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In lieu of explicitly saying that Mr. Biden won, most Republicans are at least willing to engage in public discourse predicated on that reality. They have, for instance, repeatedly said that the two Senate seats up for grabs in a Georgia runoff election next month would determine which party controlled the chamber.
If both Republican incumbents, Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, lose, the Senate would be 50-50, and Democrats would win the majority — an assumption premised on Senator Kamala Harris becoming the vice president and presiding over the Senate and being tasked with breaking tied votes.
Several have weighed in on Mr. Biden’s cabinet nominees. Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, deemed the president-elect’s choice to lead the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, “radioactive.” Mr. Cornyn also lamented that Mr. Biden’s team had not sought “consultation” from Republicans before making the choice (which would of course not be necessary if Mr. Biden had lost and was just spitballing).
Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, hopped on Twitter on Wednesday to suggest a few good candidates to be the next secretary of agriculture “if Biden becomes pres.” Vice President Mike Pence even made the trip to Capitol Hill to swear in the newly elected Democratic senator from Arizona, Mark Kelly, while Mr. Pence’s boss continued to rail against the results in that state (which were formally certified Monday).
When asked after Mr. Kelly’s swearing-in whether this meant he accepted the election results, Mr. Pence did not respond to reporters.
Things get trickier when Republicans are asked directly whether they accept the results of the election, as reporters have been pressing them to do pretty much daily since Nov. 3. In normal times (how long before we retire that qualifier?), this question would yield some variation on the same obvious and broadly accepted response: “Yes.”
Alas, these are not normal times.
“This has not been a conventional presidency,” Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, summarized for reporters when he was asked why he and other Republicans have not raised concerns about the president’s repeated and false claims that the election was “rigged” or “stolen.”
Since Mr. Trump was sworn in, Republicans have repeatedly sought verbal refuge in the “unconventional” nature of this presidency. This has been something of a blanket response to questions about his latest incendiary conduct. From Day 1, these statements have involved a willingness to indulge “alternative facts,” as Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, said in defense of the untrue assertion by Sean Spicer, then the press secretary, that Mr. Trump had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period.”
In other words, an administration that began with a whopping assertion of “alternative facts” is concluding with similarly outlandish claims about an alternative election result.
Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.