the national interest

Trump’s Absurd ‘You Did It First’ Argument for Stealing the Election

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Senator Kevin Cramer appeared on Meet the Press Sunday to deliver the freshest version of the Republican party line on President Trump’s efforts to cancel the elections and reinstall himself in office. Cramer defended Trump’s coup attempt as mere turnabout for the Russia investigation:

I don’t see this as an attack on our democracy. I mean, we spent four years listening to news shows and liberals discrediting, trying to discredit the Trump administration to the point of spying on him by the last administration. $40 million spent on an independent counsel that started with no evidence and ended proving that there was no evidence.

Trump is in the habit of offering different (and frequently contradictory) justifications for his crimes, like a menu from which they can order the most appealing items à la carte. Trump himself “continues to hold a grudge against those who he claims undercut his election by pointing to Russian interference efforts, and he has suggested it is fair game to not recognize Joe Biden as the president-elect,” reports CNN. The Russia parallel has proven especially appetizing for a certain class of anti-anti-Trumpist on the right and the far left.

Like many arguments made on Trump’s behalf, this one first creates an imaginary parallel offense by Democrats, then uses it as a justification for his misconduct, allowing his defenders to neatly sidestep the need to directly defend the indefensible. The Russia comparison is an especially absurd use of the method, combining several leaps of fact and logic.

To begin with, Hillary Clinton did concede the election. Democrats did not attempt to pressure electors to switch their votes or take other steps to cancel out the election result, despite Clinton defeating Trump in the national vote. She delivered a gracious concession speech instructing her supporters to give him an open mind. President Obama met with Trump and offered cooperation with his transition. (Trump trashed his own transition plans, but this was hardly Democrats’ doing.) So the attempt to find a parallel for Trump’s efforts to override the election founders immediately on the fact that no such behavior was done against him.

Instead, his defenders have to liken his misdeeds to a completely different category of behavior: the Russia investigation. In their mind, the Russia probe was akin to denying Trump’s legitimacy. And it is true, in the sense that the charge that Trump colluded with Russia did make his election seem kind of scummy.

But Democrats aren’t the ones who undertook the Russia probe. It began as an FBI investigation, under the direction of Director James Comey, a Republican. After Trump fired Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (also a Republican) appointed Robert Mueller (likewise) to continue the investigations that had begun.

Trump and his allies constantly claimed that this investigation had actually been directed by Barack Obama. Indeed, William Barr appointed investigators to find evidence for this claim. But none of the investigators have ever found this to be true. What’s more, the Department of Justice found that the investigation of the Trump campaign was adequately predicated. It was not a witch hunt, it was not ordered by Barack Obama, and it was not designed to delegitimize Trump.

Liberals and the media did spend a lot of time questioning Trump’s solicitation and acceptance of Russian help to win in 2016. That’s because Trump solicited and accepted Russian help.

If Russia had merely decided on its own to try to do whatever it could to help Trump beat Clinton, and Trump refused to cooperate with its efforts, then it would have been unfair to implicate Trump in Russia’s scheme. But Trump was deeply complicit. His campaign took a meeting with a Russian agent promising election assistance. Trump went on television asking Vladimir Putin to hack Democratic emails. His adviser Roger Stone used a back channel with WikiLeaks to coordinate its exploitation of the emails Russia stole. His campaign aides, including Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, sought to find more stolen Russian emails. And Trump lied about the fact that he was negotiating for a sweet no-risk deal with Russian authorities during the campaign that massively compromised his independence and exposed him to Russian blackmail.

While it is true that Trump thwarted Mueller’s efforts to implicate his campaign in a criminal conspiracy — in part because he dangled pardons and got Stone and Paul Manafort to withhold cooperation from the investigators — his moral culpability has been established.

Trump’s critics think it was wrong of Trump to solicit and accept Russian help, which included actual crimes, to win the election. His cooperation with Russia taints his 2016 election. It didn’t invalidate his election, or provide grounds to throw out the results and make Hillary Clinton president (as Trump is trying to do to Joe Biden now). But it does taint his election victory. If Trump wanted an untainted victory, he should have refused Vladimir Putin’s help instead of treating Russian hackers like a friendly super-PAC.

The right wing has come away from this experience with the conclusion that Trump not only did nothing wrong, but that wrongs were done to him, by everybody investigating the web of shady ties he hid from the public. Indeed, they have turned Trump’s misconduct in 2016 into a rationalization for his misconduct in 2020. The mere fact that the FBI and the media investigated Trump has become a rationale for him to outright attempt to cancel the election.

The truth is that, even if the FBI had never opened an investigation of Trump’s ties with Russia, and no reporter had ever written a word on the subject, Trump would be trying to steal the election anyway. When Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election, Trump said it was rigged and called for a “revolution.” When Trump lost the 2016 Iowa primary, he said it was stolen. And when his supporters blame the Russia investigation for him doing the thing he always does when he loses, they’re simply showing that Trump’s complete lack of ethics has spread to the party he leads.

Trump’s Absurd ‘You Did It First’ Argument for His Coup