Donald Trump was forced Thursday to admit he would accept “clear” results of the Nov. 8 presidential election, after coming under intense criticism when he refused to endorse the legitimacy of American elections in his third and final debate with Hillary Clinton.
“Of course, I would accept a clear election result, but I would also reserve my right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result, right?” Trump told supporters at a rally in Delaware, Ohio.
Trump claimed he was asked “an unprecedented question” Wednesday night by moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News. He also tried to reframe the actual question Wallace asked, claiming he’d been pressed to waive his “right to a legal challenge or a recount” like the one mounted by Democrat Al Gore in 2000.
“In effect, I’m being asked to waive centuries of legal precedent designed to protect the voters,” Trump said.
But Wallace did not ask Trump to waive any right to a challenge in the event the election turned out to be close. Wallace simply asked whether Trump would accept the election results, precisely because Trump has been talking for days about his belief that the election will be marred by widespread voter fraud. He has offered no evidence besides exaggerated speculation for this claim, which has been widely rejected by fact-checkers.
Wallace asked Trump, as well, if he was committed to upholding “the peaceful transition of power,” one of the bedrock principles at the heart of American democracy.
“I’ll keep you in suspense,” Trump said Wednesday night. And on Thursday he joked that he would only accept the result if he won, before finally acknowledging that he would have to respect a “clear” result.
But he continued to allege that Democrats might try to steal the election from him. Trump charged that a Democratic operative for a group called Americans United for Change — who bragged on video shot by a hidden camera that he had paid homeless people to incite Trump supporters to violence and who has since been fired — amounted to the Clinton campaign inciting violence.
He called Clinton “a candidate who is truly capable of anything, including voter fraud.”
Trump, who was already flirting with the likelihood of a loss of historic proportions on Nov. 8, has now concentrated the nation’s focus on the possibility that he is undermining faith in American presidential election elections in order to save his ego and prop up whatever business ventures he might pursue in the future.
Up until the final debate on Wednesday night in Las Vegas, American politics was consumed for two weeks with stories about Trump’s treatment of women, following the release of a video in which Trump was heard bragging about forcibly kissing and groping women. He denied ever having acted on such boasts, but nine different women have come forward to state that he victimized them in various ways, including sexual assault. Yet another women revealed new allegations Thursday. Trump has denied the allegations, insisting that they are part of a vast media conspiracy to elect Clinton.
During all this, however, there was a small group of figures lamenting the lack of discussion concerning Trump’s affronts to the American constitutional and electoral system.
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote a Washington Post column a week ago noting that the most disturbing moment of the second debate on Oct. 9 had been Trump’s threat to imprison Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton if he were elected president.
“Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chávez and a cavalcade of two-bit caudillos lock up their opponents. American leaders don’t. One doesn’t even talk like this,” Krauthammer wrote. “It takes decades, centuries, to develop ingrained norms of political restraint and self-control. But they can be undone in short order by a demagogue feeding a vengeful populism.”
Trump’s growing reliance on talk of a “rigged” election at campaign rallies over the past week as a way of explaining his increasingly bad poll numbers has set off alarm bells. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was forced to issue another statement disagreeing with Trump. Secretaries of state from both parties — the officials who will administer each state’s election process — denounced Trump.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who has spent a good portion of his 36-year post-presidency monitoring foreign elections through his Carter Center, issued a statement before the debate on Wednesday repudiating Trump.
“The Carter Center has observed more than 100 elections around the world, some of them quite problematic,” Carter said. “However, allegations of potential rigging of U.S. elections, as well as of widespread voter fraud, are baseless, serving only to undermine confidence in our democratic processes and inflame tensions.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., told Yahoo News that Trump’s habit of “talking about rigged elections with zero evidence is dangerous because it erodes trust without justification and kindles cynicism that undermines self-government.”
And Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican operative who ran the super-PAC supporting Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, said on his podcast Tuesday that Trump’s rhetoric was “damn close to treason.”
“It’s the most disgusting thing Trump has done. It’s classic demagogic behavior and it’s why he deserves the contempt of every American, every voter, and particularly every Republican elected official,” Murphy said.
But until Trump’s refusal to accept the American electoral system as legitimate on the debate stage Wednesday night, the issue was not front and center in the political discussion. As of Thursday morning, however, it was.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., called Trump’s comments “beyond the pale.” Bret Stephens, the deputy editorial page editor at the Wall Street Journal said Trump’s remarks were “the most disgraceful statement by a presidential candidate in 160 years.” Michael Strain, the director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, tweeted, “Based on that answer alone, I hope Mr Trump loses all 50 states. He deserves to. He is attacking democracy itself.”
Trump’s penchant for falling back on conspiracy any time things don’t go his way probably should have been a focus going all the way back to the spring, when he began to lash out at the Republican Party primary as “rigged” when it looked as if Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, might be able to mount a challenge to him at the convention. Trump even called for a do-over vote after Cruz bested him in the Iowa caucuses.
Clinton, prepared as usual with a full repertoire of opposition research on Trump, didn’t fail to remind viewers Wednesday night that this has been a yearslong pattern for Trump: He tends to explain his losses to himself and others as the product of an unfair process.
“There was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged against him,” Clinton said. “This is how Donald thinks. And it’s funny, but it’s also really troubling.”
And then there is the prospect that the reason for Trump’s refusal to embrace the American tradition of victor and foe uniting after an election is that he may want to continue to play the role of rabble-rouser in chief and champion of the Washington opposition, all without any actual responsibility to govern the country and with the extra benefit of a highly profitable income stream.
It’s been speculated for some time that Trump, if he lost, might seek to parlay his magnified fame and political following into creating a media venture, perhaps some sort of transmogrified mixture of Fox News and Breitbart.com. And then this week the Financial Times reported that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had met with an investment banker, Aryeh Bourkoff, who has been in the middle of several mass media sales and consolidations.
After the debate Wednesday, some downplayed the significance of Trump’s remarks, pointing to former Vice President Al Gore’s decision to contest the 2000 presidential election, which was decided in favor of President George W. Bush by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision after a monthlong recount battle in the state of Florida.
Ben Domenech, publisher of the Federalist, on Thursday called the Florida recount “the starting point for a decade and a half rife with claims about Diebold and rigged elections and open conspiracy-theorizing about electoral outcomes.” He connected this to “the delegitimizing efforts of sit-ins and protests in the legislatures of Wisconsin and Texas” by Democrats against Republican governors.
“What is rare is for a candidate for any federal office to give voice to this view prior to an election taking place, and for that candidate to be a Republican. So now it’s a problem,” Domenech wrote in his morning newsletter, the Transom. “Except one reason why Trump supporters are open to the idea is because they’ve heard it about American elections for a decade and a half. Breakdown of trust in institutions is not easily confined.”
MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” compiled a list of all the Democratic politicians and media figures — Howard Dean, Jesse Jackson, Michael Moore, Jonathan Chait, Ezra Klein, Josh Marshall and others — who accused Republicans of stealing the 2000 and 2004 elections.
“Everybody’s shocked and horrified that Donald Trump would suggest that he was going to wait and that he’s even used the words ‘rigged,’” Joe Scarborough, a former GOP congressman, scoffed Thursday morning. “I heard people last night saying that he was the first person to ever do this, that this actually cuts at the very heart of America’s credibility.”
But neither Al Gore nor Bush’s 2004 opponent, then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., ever did what Trump is now doing: egging on supporters during an election to discount the results ahead of the outcome.
Gore also conceded gracefully in 2000. “The U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College,” Gore said in his concession speech. “And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”
“I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together,” he said.
Jonathan V. Last wrote in the conservative Weekly Standard that comparisons of Trump to Gore are “false equivalency.”
“While Democratic (and Republican) functionaries and low-level officeholders have dabbled in electoral illegitimacy in the past, no presidential candidate has raised the possibility himself,” Last wrote. “This is a big deal. And to make it even bigger, Trump didn’t just question the legitimacy of the outcome but also the peaceful transition of power, which he specifically refused to endorse.”
It is of course still possible that Trump could react to what is likely to be a loss to Clinton with the equanimity shown by Gore in 2000. But he has shown little evidence so far that he is capable of accepting defeat with grace or humility. On Election Day in 2012, when Trump incorrectly thought Mitt Romney would lose the Electoral College tally but win the popular vote, Trump launched into a Twitter tirade calling for scrapping the current U.S. democratic system and for a “revolution”
However, Josh Blackman, a law professor at the University of Houston who signed his name to a letter from a group of conservative legal scholars against Trump this week, said Trump’s undermining of the presidency and the election process, while destructive, is a surmountable challenge.
“How many people thought Obama wasn’t a natural-born citizen,” Blackman said, referring to Trump’s infamous conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in the U.S.
“There’s always going to be a certain segment of the electorate that rejects the election for some reason or another, but I’m not sure if [Trump’s potential rejection of the result] makes it any bigger,” he said.
What seems more likely is that, as another signatory of the conservative lawyers against Trump — renowned legal scholar Richard Epstein of New York University Law School — wrote earlier this week, Trump could ultimately be “condemned as one of the most destructive forces in American history.”