Opinion writer

I’m not a big believer in conspiracy theories, but I’ve been nursing one since the start of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. My dark theory involves Russian tampering with actual votes.

It goes like this: If evidence emerged that the results of the 2016 election were “impacted or changed by the Russians,” there would be a compelling interest to never have that information come to light, because there is no remedy in the Constitution for a rigged/altered/stolen election. Such information would lead to an unprecedented constitutional crisis that the nation at this time couldn’t survive. Think Area 51 meets “B613.”

On a near-daily basis, President Trump swears there was “no collusion” between his presidential campaign and Russia. But Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians on Feb. 16 led the president to also swear, again, “The results of the election were not impacted.” The next day, when national security adviser H. R. McMaster said the “evidence is now really incontrovertible” that the Russians interfered with the election, Trump lashed out.

Trump’s fixation on the legitimacy-sapping accusation that the Russians “impacted or changed” vote tallies to put him in the White House feeds this conspiracy theory of mine. What set off alarms for me was the last sentence in the Times’s paragraph about Trump’s McMaster tweet.

Mr. Trump said his adviser had “forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems.” The nation’s intelligence agencies believe that it is not possible to make such a calculation about the election outcome.

“It is not possible to make such a calculation about the election outcome”? Wut?!

From my grassy knoll, I emailed three people about my theory. My questions were simple. Am I nuts to think there would be a conspiracy of silence on the truth about the election results? If so, why, especially if there IS a constitutional remedy? Or, should I be thinking about this particular question differently? As I would learn, I’m right on the Constitution and wrong on the conspiracy theory.


President Trump takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2017, at the U.S. Capitol. (Katherine Frey /The Washington Post)

“Not exactly sure about your question,” responded Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer for the New Yorker and a former associate counsel in the Justice Department. “There is no provision in the constitution for a do-over, even if that might be the just result. … The only remedy is impeachment and removal.”

“You’re far from nuts,” replied Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe (emphasis his), who elaborated on the concrete constitutional point made by Toobin. “There’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution that would remotely permit redoing a fraudulently stolen presidential election – whether in the days of Mayor [Richard] Daley and JFK monkeying with the votes in Illinois in 1960, or in the days of [Vladimir] Putin’s grotesque intervention throughout America in 2016, which I’m sure altered the result although the latest indictments pointedly avoid that issue and Mueller’s mandate doesn’t encompass it,” Tribe told me. “What this means is that, in addition to the impossibility of ever knowing for sure whether the [2016] outcome…was altered by Putin’s information war on our democracy, the truth is that, even if we could be certain that it was, we’d have no constitutional remedy.”

Edward Price, who served as the spokesman for the National Security Council in the Obama administration and quit his post as a CIA analyst, tackled the foundation of my conspiracy theory. “The intelligence community and [Department of Homeland Security] came to a fairly quick conclusion after the 2016 election that there had been no tampering with the results and that there was no uptick in malicious cyber activity around Election Day,” he explained in his email. “I can tell you w 100 percent confidence, the vote tallies were not altered. That’s a conclusion the [United States government] can be clear about.”


Then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens during their presidential town-hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9, 2016. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Price then took the extra step of addressing the impact of Russian efforts on the actions of American voters. “There’s a trickier question that involves whether the sum total of the Russian propaganda had an effect on the decision making of the 77,000 or so voters in three states that ultimately decided the election. This is not a question the intel community can address,” Price advised. “They can’t do so because it’s primarily anthropological and because our intelligence services don’t analyze the actions of U.S. persons. So they both can’t and won’t look at that question.” He added that this is what “forms the basis of the stated inability of the intel community to address this.” This being what was posed in that sentence about the results being “impacted” by the Russians that set off my hair-on-fire concern. That sound you hear is me scampering off my grassy knoll as I leave my conspiracy theory behind.

Tribe also took on the Russian-impact issue and came to virtually the same conclusion as Price. “Although it’s no doubt impossible in a scientific sense to determine what the outcome would’ve been without Putin’s meddling,” Tribe said, “surely we know – to the degree things like [this] are ever knowable – that the perfect storm that put Trump over 270 electoral votes, with the help of under [80,000] votes in MI, PA, and WI, wouldn’t have occurred had any one of a multitude of factors been changed even a little.” Among those factors, the Comey letter, Hillary Clinton’s campaign in those three states and “Russia’s efforts to undermine Hillary in several ways, including by hacking, suppressing the minority vote, encouraging voters to go for Bernie [Sanders] and Jill [Stein], getting unwitting Americans to put on skits of Hillary in prison garb and behind bars, spreading BS about voter fraud and ID theft, and lots of other crap.”

But Tribe, whose forthcoming book, “To end a presidency: The power of impeachment,” co-written with Joshua Matz, isn’t despairing. He ended his email to me with a rhetorical rallying cry. “Trump’s legitimacy is a legal fiction that any morally decent view of democracy would require us to work our hearts out to undermine,” he wrote, “always staying within the boundaries of the rule of law.” Of course.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj
Subscribe to Cape Up, Jonathan Capehart’s weekly podcast