In a stunning late night Facebook Live video, Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee pleaded with Donald Trump to step aside and give up his nomination for president. The video, which Lee filmed from his home in Utah, is like many on Facebook Live — a single person, speaking to the camera, spreading a message. Trump used a similar tactic, though not as a live stream, when he apologized for comments he made about women that were published earlier on Friday.
But it is exceptional in that Lee, a 45-year-old senator who took office in the Tea Party-surge of 2010, didn’t go to Fox News or CNN or MSNBC to spread his message. He went to an internet streaming service that didn’t exist a year ago. Of course, Lee’s plea to Trump wasn’t really aimed at the New York businessman, but instead at his constituents and fellow Republican politicians. It’s a signal that it’s okay for Republicans to run from the party nominee in a manner unprecedented in recent American politics.
The Senator's decision to make the video was "definitely spur of the moment," said Conn Carroll, Senator Lee's communications director, in an email to The Verge. "I didn't know about it until my phone started blowing up."
It’s an unprecedented move for an unprecedented election. New ways to use the internet are weaved into every part of the race — Trump tweets more than basically any other politician, while his supporters and opponents argue it out in 140-character chunks. Lee’s statement comes after dozens of major Republicans used Twitter to denounce Trump’s deplorable comments about women, caught on a hot mic more than 10 years ago during taping for a segment on Access Hollywood, were published by the Washington Post in a story that had more simultaneous readers — more than 100,000 at one point — than any other in the paper’s history.
Exponentially more people will read the story and, more importantly, watch and rewatch the video, on the Post’s website than will read about it in the paper (where, obviously, the video can only be described).
And yet, for all the ways the election plays out online in real-time, we end up at the oldest of old-school conundrums. Republican Party rules state that the nominee for president cannot be removed as nominee — he can only voluntarily step aside (or pass away). If that happens the 150-member Republican National Committee will come together to choose a replacement.
There are countless problems with this scenario, not the least of which is that many ballots in early-voting states are already in the hands of voters, but there is a presidential debate scheduled for Sunday night, less than 48 hours from now. Could the Republican Party pick a new nominee (assuming Trump steps aside) and get them into the debate in time? We don’t know.
What I do know is that Senator Lee was not the first Republican to tell Trump to step aside tonight — Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman made a similar plea — and he definitely will not be the last. Trump is completely toxic now, though that’s a statement which may elicit snorts from those not inclined to support him in the first place. If we thought this election was crazy before, we haven't seen anything yet.
Updated 2:23AM ET: Added statement from Senator Lee's communications director.