Commentators in the print and video media often complain about President Donald Trump’s aggressive actions regarding immigration, tariffs, health care, climate change, guns, the Iran nuclear agreement, and other controversial topics, but they recognize that he won the election. Reluctantly, they acknowledge that Trump has a mandate to take strong positions on the issues. But they are wrong. Donald Trump does not possess impressive authority to move the nation dramatically in new directions. Pundits and politicians should refrain from treating the 2016 election as evidence of public approval for extraordinary exercises in presidential power.
In many respects, Trump is a manufactured and accidental president. Trump’s case for strong leadership is deeply undermined by information that has come to light regarding Russian interference in the campaign, the cover-up of payments related to alleged sexual relationships, and FBI Director James Comey’s interventions. If the impact of these discoveries had been broadly understood before voters went to the polls on November 8, 2016, Donald Trump would probably not be president today. Furthermore, it is high time that pundits adjust their language when claiming that candidates who lost the popular vote possess the same mandate for action as candidates who win both the popular and electoral vote. The Electoral College is an outmoded and unjust system. It should receive more critical treatment in discussions about presidential authority and power.
Revelations about the Russian’s mischief, the sex scandals, and Comey’s actions, though disturbing, do not affect Donald Trump’s right to occupancy at the White House. Unless Robert Mueller’s investigation uncovers shocking new details that bring into question the legitimacy of 2016 election, Donald Trump’s position as Chief Executive is unassailable. But this newly revealed evidence raises questions about the appropriateness of his audacious decision-making, which often flies in the face of public opinion.
Much new evidence has come to light since 2016 that casts a shadow over the election results, including details about vast Russian interference. Very little information about Russian attempts to manipulate public opinion appeared in the national media before voters went to the polls. We now know that Russian agents disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million users on Facebook prior to the election. Russian agents published 131,000 messages on Twitter and planted more than 1,000 videos on Google’s YouTube. Fake news from trolls and bots contributed to Donald Trump’s victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin as well as other states.
The former director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, said as much in his book, Facts and Fears. “Of course the Russian efforts affected the outcome,” writes Clapper. “Surprising even themselves, they swung the election to a Trump win. To conclude otherwise stretches logic, common sense, and credulity to the breaking point. Less than eighty thousand votes in three key states swung the election. I have no doubt that more votes than that were influenced by this massive effort by the Russians.”
Additionally, Donald Trump could have suffered a huge setback if voters learned just a few weeks before the November election that he allegedly had a sexual relationship with Stormy Daniels, a porn star, and that $130,000 had been provided to ensure her silence. Concealment of that payment prevented a major scandal from dominating the national conversation shortly before the presidential election. Another alleged affair involving Playboy model Karen McDougal, did not appear in the news thanks to a payoff of $150,000. Of course, information about the “Access Hollywood” tapes (featuring boasts about sexual aggression) created only a temporary setback for Trump’s candidacy in October of 2016. But, if details about Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal had appeared in the media near the time of the Access Hollywood revelation, Trump’s prospects for victory could have been severely damaged.
Russians’ interference through social media and cover-up of the Daniels and McDougal stories represented efforts to “manufacture” a Trump win. Interference by then-FBI Director James Comey took a different form. It helped to elevate an “accidental” president. Comey’s actions, each step of the way, delivered unanticipated good fortune to the Trump campaign. Comey did not try to engineer a Trump victory, but his sanctimonious involvement in American politics hurt the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.
James Comey stumbled onto the national stage in three distinct events. First, the FBI Director concluded that “no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case” against Clinton for use of a personal email server. But he did not leave matters there. Comey aroused controversy by editorializing. He lambasted the Democratic candidate for sloppy computer practices. Eleven days before the 2016 presidential election Comey took action that he considered high-minded but received intense criticism. He told Congress he was reopening an investigation of Clinton emails because of new information the FBI had found but had not yet examined. Then, just two days before the election, Comey stepped into the political spotlight again, saying the FBI’s review of emails uncovered no evidence that altered his original conclusion.
It was difficult for voters to make sense of claims about emails. Many thought the news raised serious questions about Hillary Clinton’s leadership. James Comey’s three maladroit interventions accentuated a theme that Donald Trump and his backers hammered day after day. It ensured that reports about Clinton’s emails dominated the news cycle through much of the campaign.
Trump also lacks a mandate for demanding radical changes because he lost the popular vote by almost three million votes. This is a longstanding problem in American democracy, and it may recur soon. In two of the last six presidential contests, victory went to a candidate who was not the principal choice of the nation’s voters.
Journalists can advance the cause of electoral reform by treating presidents who lose the popular vote as leaders that lack a sanction for extreme departures from the national consensus. They can stress that these election winners did not prevail in a truly democratic process. They should recognize the Electoral College for what it is in 21st century America – a system that harms the voting power of urban citizens and disenfranchises millions of Americans whose votes are effectively erased in winner-take-all states. This controversial product of negotiations worked out at in 1787, which included compromises associated with slavery, magnifies the public’s distrust of American politics.
Dealing with flaws in the Electoral College should not only be a cause for Democrats who are unhappy about losses suffered by Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 (Gore and Clinton won the popular vote but lost the elections). Republicans, too, are vulnerable to undemocratic outcomes. In 2004, Ohio, a key swing state, came close to giving a winner-take-all electoral victory to Democrat John Kerry. But a proposed constitutional amendment that reflected opposition to same-sex marriage was on the state’s ballot. A late surge in Republican support for the ban in Ohio’s Bible Belt helped George W. Bush to counteract Kerry’s advantages in Ohio’s cities. Absent the measure opposing gay marriage, Kerry might have overcome Bush’s 118,601 margin of victory in the state (out of a total of more than five and a half million votes). A movement of just 60,000 Ohio votes to Kerry’s column would have made the Democratic candidate the winner. Kerry would have secured the presidency, even though George W. Bush beat him in the national popular count by almost one million votes. In that scenario Republicans are victims of a flawed electoral system.
Donald Trump won the 2016 election with outside help from Russian agents, through concealment of scandals involving sexual escapades, and through interference by a high-minded but politically clumsy FBI Director. Trump also lost the popular count by nearly three million votes. These facts are relevant to current discussions about affairs in Washington. Trump won the presidency, but he did not achieve the support necessary for promoting sharply controversial stands on immigration, tariffs, health care, climate change, guns, the Iran nuclear agreement, and many other issues. Citizens are broadly divided on these topics, and in some cases a majority opposes Trump’s policies. Donald Trump has been asserting executive power aggressively even though he lacks an impressive and democratically achieved mandate for strong leadership. Journalists need to keep this in mind.
Robert Brent Toplin is Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and was previously a professor of history at Denison University. Recently he has taught occasional courses at the University of Virginia. Toplin has published several books about history, politics, and film. Contact: [email protected].