The Danger of Delegitimizing Trump
On January 20, 2001, John Lewis did not attend George W. Bush’s inauguration. He didn’t make a big deal about it, but Bush losing the popular vote coupled with the contentious Florida recount left Lewis feeling less than magnanimous. According to contemporaneous press accounts, the Georgia congressman and civil rights icon spent Inauguration Day in his Atlanta district.
Lewis was hardly the only prominent Democrat who had trouble accepting the new president after the 2000 election was finally decided. Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Jesse Jackson trashed the U.S. Supreme Court and questioned Bush’s “legitimacy.” Recognizing the starkness of such hyper-partisanship, moderator Tim Russert asked Dick Gephardt if he considered George W. Bush “a legitimate president.” Gephardt, a longtime Democratic congressional leader, refused to grant Bush that status -- though Russert tried three times.
Meanwhile, a Democratic Senate leader was being similarly coy on ABC. Asked by Sam Donaldson if he thought news organizations should undertake their own vote recounts in Florida even if it might “delegitimize” Bush’s presidency, Tom Daschle implied that the latter was already the case. “We already know that Al Gore got more votes in the popular election,” he said.
In other words, the path John Lewis and other Democrats are taking prior to the 2017 inauguration is not untrodden ground. But what is taking place now is far more than acting out against the Electoral College. This is entrenched opposition, some of it organized, some spontaneous. It’s being stoked in the grassroots, at the highest level of the Democratic Party, and in the media. And it’s all aimed squarely at Donald J. Trump. Here are some manifestations:
-- The “Not my president” impulse of feminists dismayed by Trump’s election morphing into the Women’s March on Washington. Scheduled for the day after the swearing-in, it may attract a larger crowd than Trump’s inauguration itself.
-- Liberals’ concerted effort, not repudiated by leading Democrats including Hillary Clinton or President Obama, to intimidate or inspire “faithless electors” who would go against how their state voted to deny Trump the presidency.
-- Meryl Streep using her Golden Globes lifetime achievement award to excoriate Trump. That’s not merely another Hollywood liberal taking a potshot at a Republican. Streep is a prominent Democratic activist who spoke at the party’s Philadelphia nominating convention on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
-- Robert Reich going on CNN and talking about impeachment—10 days before Trump had even been inaugurated. Again, that’s not simply the musings of a liberal California college professor: Bob Reich is an influential Democratic writer and thinker who served as a Cabinet official in the administration of Hillary Clinton’s husband.
-- Four dozen (and counting) liberal House Democrats, including at least one candidate to chair the national party, announcing they are boycotting Trump’s inauguration. It seemed like déjà vu, but the most prominent of these naysayers is the irrepressible John Lewis, who told NBC’s Chuck Todd that he didn’t consider Trump a “legitimate president.”
-- Even Democratic Party moderates such as Dianne Feinstein and Mark Warner, channeling Dick Gephardt circa 2001, are raising concerns about whether Trump should really be considered the winner.
The rationale for such disapprobation falls under three themes:
The first is Trump’s incendiary campaign rhetoric—primarily, but not solely, on the topic of immigration. It begins with his pushing the “birtherism” narrative about Barack Obama; segues into Trump’s characterization of Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug mules; and continues with his vow to build a huge wall on the United States’ southern border. It includes myriad other criticisms, ranging from the way Trump discussed Muslims and how he treated a handicapped New York Times reporter to encouraging his crowds to chant “Lock Her Up” when he mentioned Clinton and how he talks to and about women.
It is reasons such as those that led liberal critics such as New York Rep. Jerry Nadler to describe Trump as “legally elected, not legitimate.”
The second justification is that Clinton won the popular vote—and Trump’s response to that fact. The president-elect infuriated liberals with his specious and retroactive rationalizations. (He could have done better in California had he campaigned there, he said. Or “millions” of illegal immigrants voted against him.)
Third is that “Russian hacking” of the Democrats, and subsequent leaking of the pilfered material to WikiLeaks, altered the political environment in ways that helped Trump win. This is the new wrinkle, and certainly the most divisive. Asked on “Meet the Press” if she thinks Russian hacking altered the election’s outcome, Feinstein said, “That’s what I believe.”
The ranking Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee and California’s senior senator, Feinstein continued, “I’ve had all of the major classified briefings. I have been astonished at what has been a two-year effort [by] Russia to spearfish, to hack, to provide disinformation, propaganda, wherever it really could. And I think this has been a very sophisticated effort.”
All this activity raises several questions: Will the Democrats’ obstructionism toward Trump succeed—and, if so, to what end? Will it backfire on them in two years when Democratic senators running in states Trump carried face the voters? Or will it help Democrats organize their liberal base in those states? Are there long-term ramifications to these guerrilla tactics that Republicans can choose to employ the next time they lose the White House? Or is Donald Trump so sui generis that normal precedents won’t apply?
Many observers, however, whether they primarily blame Trump, Clinton, or the CIA, believe that the open politicization of intelligence reports is an alarming new development, with implications that go beyond increasing mistrust in an already polarized Washington.
“I think that this bickering that’s gone on for weeks between the president-elect and the intelligence community is just not good for the country, and it’s not good for our national security,” said Leon Panetta, former CIA director and secretary of defense, in a radio interview.
“I was pleased that [Trump] acknowledged Russia's role in hacking, and trying to interfere with our election process,” added Panetta, who was also a longtime Democratic congressman from California. “I think it’s important to understand … that Russia is an adversary, we have very different values, and Russia’s going to try to continue to destabilize the United States. It may be that they were trying to help Donald Trump in this last election, but they would not hesitate to try to do everything possible to destabilize this country, even if it meant going after him when he is president.”
But there is an alternative view of this controversy, and it’s that whatever the Russian intelligence services may be up to, the CIA is also trying to influence partisan U.S. politics.
Citing the “obvious open warfare” between Trump and the U.S. intelligence community, open government advocate Glenn Greenwald questioned the judgment of Democrats who are “calling for and cheering for the intervention of the CIA.”
Greenwald added that those Democrats are “hoping ... that this unelected faction in Washington will undermine and subvert and destroy the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidency before he’s even inaugurated, and I think what you’re seeing is actually quite dangerous.”
For his part, the man Trump is replacing in office has mostly stayed above the fray. In his end-of-the-year press conference, Obama made clear that he is confident in the integrity of the ballot box, and said there was no evidence of tampering. That continues to be the administration’s official line. “The president has made very clear he believes [Trump] is the freely elected president,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said on CNN over the weekend.
Yet some Democrats think the question of the extent to which the Russians impacted the election will linger over Trump’s presidency. “The outcome of any number of investigations around how things played out in 2016 could certainly impact the views of Democrats -- and lawmakers writ large -- regarding the legitimacy of the incoming president,” Lynda Tran, a veteran of both Obama campaigns, told RCP.
To be sure, however, some of what’s happening is just political theater. For starters, the Democrats are milking the John Lewis-Trump spat for everything they can get. Numerous lawmakers boycotting the inauguration cited Lewis as the reason—even if they already had no intention of attending. In addition, the Democratic National Committee had a fundraising letter ready about two minutes after Trump responded unkindly to Lewis’s rejection. “Trump attacked me on Twitter,” said the DNC pitch to donors. This is technically true, but incomplete. The honest way of saying what happened—“I attacked Donald Trump knowing that he wouldn’t be able to resist firing back on Twitter”—would lack the same fundraising punch.
What John Lewis did to Trump is called trolling in the etiquette of the Internet, but why Trump cannot resist responding is a mystery even to those who love the guy. Yes, John Lewis criticized George W. Bush, too. He even called for Bush’s impeachment halfway through his presidency. How did Dubya respond? The same way he did to the 2001 inauguration snub, which is to say he didn’t rise to the bait.
Late in his presidency, in fact, Bush honored Lewis as one of four dignitaries at a 2008 White House celebration of Black History Month.
“Congressman John Lewis earned his place in history long before winning a seat in the United States Capitol,” Bush began. “One Sunday in 1965, he set out to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery. The marchers never made it past the rows of state troopers outside Selma, but their message made it all the way to Washington, D.C. Five months later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. And more than 40 years later, John Lewis continues to inspire us, and we’re blessed to have him here today.”
Such grace sometimes brings rewards. Eight years later, Bush and Lewis were on the stage together at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The picture of Michelle Obama hugging George W. Bush went around the world. Less noticed, but equally interesting, was that Bush and John Lewis saw each other and shook hands.