On January 3, Trump called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to demand he overturn the results of the presidential election in Georgia and deliver the state to Trump.

Raffensperger apparently recorded the call, keeping it handy in case Trump misrepresented it publicly. This morning, Trump did exactly that, tweeting: “I spoke to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger yesterday about Fulton County and voter fraud in Georgia. He was unwilling, or unable, to answer questions such as the ‘ballots under table’ scam, ballot destruction, out of state ‘voters’, dead voters, and more. He has no clue!” Raffensperger retweeted the president’s accusation with the comment: “Respectfully, President Trump: What you’re saying is not true. The truth will come out[.]”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Washington Post both obtained a recording of the conversation and published news of the call this afternoon, revealing that Trump had asked Raffensperger to “find” the 11,800 votes Trump needed to win Georgia. In the hour-long call, the president rambled through the conspiracy theories about the election — all of which have been debunked—seeming to believe them. He insisted that there was simply no way he could have lost in Georgia, and cited the size of his rallies there as proof. Trump asked Raffensperger to adjust Georgia’s vote to give the election to Trump by a single vote, telling him that he could just say that he had recalculated.

Trump made vague threats against Raffensperger and the secretary of state’s general counsel Ryan Germany, suggesting that their unwillingness to find the ballots Trump insists are missing puts them at risk for criminal charges. He bullied them—talking over them and at one point telling Raffensperger “only a child” could believe the vote counting was fair – and warned them that it would be their fault if the Republican candidates lost in the January 5 runoff election since “a lot of Republicans are going to vote negative, because they hate what you did to the president…. And you would be respected, really respected, if this can be straightened out before the election.”

After running through all the conspiracy theories and suggesting that Raffensperger and Germany might face criminal charges, Trump said: “So what are we going to do here folks? I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break.”

Joining Trump on the call were White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows; lawyer Cleta Mitchell, a prominent right-wing lawyer who had managed until now to keep her participation in Trump’s efforts to overturn the election quiet; and lawyer Kurt Hilbert. Meadows was more reasonable than Trump, but he, too, asked Raffensperger “to look at some of these allegations to find a path forward that’s less litigious.” (Raffensperger replied: “[w]e don’t agree that you have won.”)

Mitchell and Hilbert backed Trump and Meadows in their repeated demand for information about voters, including their voter IDs and registrations. This is voter data to which, by law, they cannot have access. (When Germany answered that the state is prohibited from sharing that information, Trump retorted: “Well, you have to.”)

University of Georgia Law Professor Anthony Michael Kreis told Politico reporters Allie Bice, Kyle Cheney, Anita Kumar, and Zach Montellaro that it is against the law in Georgia for anyone to “solicit” or “request” election fraud. “There’s just no way that… he has not violated this law,” Kreis said. Michael R. Bromwich, former inspector general of the Department of Justice, tweeted that “unless there are portions of the tape that somehow negate criminal intent,” Trump’s “best defense would be insanity.”

David Shafer, the chair of the Georgia Republican Party, tried to excuse this extraordinary conversation by tweeting that the phone call had been a “confidential settlement discussion” of two lawsuits Trump has filed against Raffensperger, and that the audio version the Washington Post published was “heavily edited and omits the stipulation that all discussions were for the purpose of settling litigation and confidential under federal and state law.”

Marc E. Elias, a lawyer leading the Biden team’s litigation efforts to counter Trump’s lawsuits over the election, knocked that explanation flat. “Trump and his allies have lost 60 post-election lawsuits, including several in GA,” he tweeted. “There are no cases that could have plausibly been the subject of settlement discussion. Oh, and I represent parties in all of those cases, so I would have had to be on the phone as well. I wasn’t.”

President Richard M. Nixon resigned after his people orchestrated an attempt to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC, before the 1972 election, and then covered up that burglary. What is on this recording makes the Watergate scandal look quaint. President Trump, his chief of staff, and two of his lawyers have been recorded pressuring state authorities to change vote counts so they can steal an American election. Especially considering that we know Trump pressured Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to help him win in 2020, we have to assume this is not the only call like this he has made in the last several weeks.

The only more thorough attack on our democracy would involve the military and, not coincidentally, tonight all ten living former defense secretaries, including two who served under Trump, signed a letter to the Washington Post reiterating that the military should not be involved in determining the outcome of an election. They warned that any efforts to involve the military in an election dispute “would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory,” and noted that any civilian or military official who either directs or carries out an order to get involved in an election “would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”

This bombshell recording changes political calculations across the board.

Republicans have been lining up either for or against the president, showing their loyalty by backing his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. More than 100 House members have said they would contest Congress’s January 6 counting of the electoral votes from states Trump continues, without evidence, to claim he won. On December 30, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) agreed to join them, at least for the state of Pennsylvania.

Then twelve senators on January 3, led by Ted Cruz (R-TX) said they would reject the votes from all the contested states and demand an audit of the election results there. They don’t expect to change the election—the results are clear—but lawmakers backing Trump are hoping to court his voters for future elections as they try to step into the vacuum his removal from office will create.

It’s a cynical and dangerous position, and standing against them are lawmakers like Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE), who note that the 2020 election was overwhelming and clean, and that Trump is attacking the very basis of democratic government as he tries to change the outcome of it. They are hoping to pull the Republican Party away from Trump and his followers.

The struggle between the two factions was out in the open by January 3, and shortly before the news of the recording dropped, two Republican leaders sided against the lawmakers planning to contest the counting of the electoral votes. House of Representatives Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-WY), who is responsible for electing the House Republican leadership and managing committee assignments and who is therefore very powerful, sent a 21-page memo to her colleagues warning that such a plan would set a dangerous precedent, enabling Congress, rather than the states, to choose the president. She concluded: [B]oth the clear text of the Constitution and the Electoral Count Act [of 1887] compel the same conclusion—there is no appropriate basis to object to the electors from any of the six states at issue.”

Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) also issued a statement condemning the plan. “It is difficult to conceive of a more anti-democratic and anti-conservative act than a federal intervention to overturn the results of state-certified elections and disenfranchise millions of Americans,” he wrote.

These two defections from the Trump camp were not, perhaps, surprises, but the news of this extraordinary recording now offers an opening for others to slide away from Trump. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), who has been a staunch supporter of the president but who seems to be trying to position himself for a presidential run in 2024, also rejected his colleagues’ plan to challenge the electoral count on Wednesday, January 6.

Cotton’s statement split the difference between the two Republican factions. He reiterated many of the Trump camp’s talking points but, like Cheney, objected to their plan to overturn the election in Congress on the grounds that the last thing conservatives, who object to the power of the federal government, should want is a stronger Congress. Cotton’s defection is a sign that the recording is undermining Trump’s position.

Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics