Trump Is Right to Warn About Calling Elections Illegitimate

Whatever their reasons, both Obama and Trump have argued against overemphasizing the effects of election interference—and they might both have a point.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

At the start of the weekend, President Trump was buoyant, exulting that Robert Mueller’s latest round of indictments had not shown any evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. (Never mind that the troll-farm attacks are just one of several spheres Mueller is investigating, and that far more evidence to suggest collusion has turned up in others.)

But by the mid-weekend, the president’s mood had soured, as it became clear to him that the prevailed narrative from the indictment was the “incontrovertible” proof—to use National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s word—of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Nothing sets Trump off quite as consistently as any suggestion of anything that might undermine the legitimacy of his victory.

As I wrote on Sunday, this defensiveness usually backfires. By refusing to even acknowledge the Russian interference, Trump only calls attention to himself, and makes his reaction seem suspect. The president is making another point here, though, too: What about Obama?

First there was this, on Monday:

Then on Tuesday morning, he quoted something the president said in fall 2016:

Trump loves to indulge in whataboutism, and typically it misses the point. What is interesting here is that Trump seems to be laying claim to the same argument that his predecessor did. Obama and his administration (with some dissent) opted to minimize public statements about Russian interference, fearing it would only exacerbate its effects. They also worried about casting doubt on the legitimacy of the balloting, especially since Trump was out warning that the election was rigged. Given that, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in 2017, “We were concerned that by making the statement we might, in and of itself, be challenging the integrity of the election process itself.”

Trump, in his vulgar way, made the same argument on Sunday, suggesting that focusing on the interference did the Russians’ work for them. “If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos within the U.S. then, with all of the Committee Hearings, Investigations and Party hatred, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams,” he tweeted. “They are laughing their asses off in Moscow. Get smart America!”

The president’s case is helped by the fact that he’s not the only one making it. As he noted in a tweet, his recent nemesis Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has also faulted Obama’s response:

Ash Carter, Obama’s last secretary of defense, recently told Susan Glasser that Obama had not acted forcefully enough to reckon with Russian meddling. Others in the Obama administration have previously expressed regret.

Trump also claimed he has “been much tougher on Russia than Obama.” That’s a difficult argument to sustain: Another element of the Russia probe involves former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s conversations with the Russians in which he reportedly discussed pulling back from retaliatory measures belatedly imposed by the Obama administration. After Congress passed a law demanding sanctions, the Trump administration last month decided not to impose new measures. It did release a list of oligarchs, but the Treasury admitted it had cribbed that from Forbes.

Yet it is also true that Trump’s administration has been harder on Russia than one would guess based on the president’s own rhetoric and actions. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has been outspoken in criticizing Russian actions around the globe, and especially in Syria. Below the level of the president, Trump administration figures have been unequivocal in calling out Russian interference. Instead of bolstering his argument, though, this makes the president’s reticence all the more notable.

Perhaps, as Thomas Friedman writes, his refusal to point a finger at the Kremlin is because Trump is part of a vast collusive conspiracy. Perhaps he’s just sensitive about questions about his legitimacy. Or perhaps, like Obama, he’s worried about giving too much attention to the Russian disinformation effort. That’s a little tough to credit. After all, this is the same man who publicly called for the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, whether he was joking or not. Trump is seldom one to keep quiet about anything, and he didn’t buy Obama’s rationale for declining to refer to “radical Islamic terror,” which was similar to his reasons for keeping quiet on Russia.

Whether Trump’s stance is genuine or not, he and Obama have a point: Anything that undermines faith in the election is dangerous, especially at a time when faith in representative democracy is at a recent low. This is true whether it is false and preposterous claims that 3 to 5 million illegal votes were cast in the election, as Trump has said, or if it is the suggestion that Trump won because of Russian trolls running a social-media campaign. There’s easily enough evidence to justify further investigation of both Russian interference and of Trump campaign collusion, but there’s no proof at this point that it swayed the election. It’s difficult to measure how much the troll operation mattered, and it may have made some difference on the margins, but there are other, more obvious factors in the outcome of the voting: then-FBI Director James Comey’s October 28 reopening of the investigation into Clinton’s email server; the Clinton campaign’s decision not to emphasize several key midwestern states; a deep reserve of antipathy and misogyny toward Clinton; Trump’s own campaign, and so on.

When Trump spent weeks before the election warning that it was “rigged” and refusing to say he’d accept the results of the voting, the criticism was loud and justified. It’s just as risky to deem Trump’s victory illegitimate without proof, even as Mueller must be allowed to pursue claims of criminal conduct. The comparison between Obama’s approach and Trump’s here is not perfect. It’s one thing to step carefully before an election for fear of prejudicing the outcome, and another to refuse to speak out even after an election. Trump’s silence also makes it difficult to prepare to defend against similar operations in the future. But the idea that there is a risk in overemphasizing the Russian troll operation is not inherently crazy—whether it’s Obama or Trump saying so.