The hallmark of a democracy is the peaceful transfer of power following an election. An essential, if painful, corollary of that rule is to accept the outcome of the election even when its conduct may have been marred, even when questions linger about the nature of the victory.
That was the difficult lesson of the 2000 campaign. But for a flawed butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County that diverted confused voters to Pat Buchanan, Al Gore would likely have been declared the winner in Florida and thus the 43rd president.
But there are no do-overs in elections, especially presidential ones. There may be flaws and disputes. But at some point, after the procedures established by the rule of law have run their course, the country needs to accept the result, however difficult it may be.
So for all of John Lewis’s heroic service to his country, the Georgia congressman’s assertion that Donald Trump is not a “legitimate” president was not appropriate or helpful. Indeed, it is not even the right way to think about the question. Trump is a legitimate president because our system demands finality and acceptance even in the presence of uncertainty. Posting an asterisk next to an election result is not healthy for democracy.
Yet there is a difference between debating whether Trump is a legitimate president and continuing to express concerns about the legitimacy of the election. Exactly what factors produced Trump’s victory can never be measured with precision: Hillary Clinton’s flaws or miscalculations? FBI Director James B. Comey’s improper intervention? Russian meddling? Any or all of these could have made the difference. We will never know. We never can know.
Trump, however reluctantly and belatedly, acknowledges the undeniable, the existence of Russian interference. But much as Trump and his team insistently proclaim a nonexistent landslide, they peddle the fiction that the absence of Russian hacking directly into voting machines equates to the absence of worry about the influence of other Russian mischief. The two are not the same.
Russia meddled. Trump himself eagerly seized on the fruits of its hacking. “I love WikiLeaks,” he announced during the campaign. He cannot now be taken seriously in asserting its irrelevance. “Donald Trump won this election fair and square,” Vice President-elect Mike Pence kept saying as he made the rounds of Sunday shows. Yes, Trump won. It was not necessarily fair and square. Trump can blame the victim — it was the sloppy Democratic National Committee. He can obfuscate — other countries have hacked into other systems, for other purposes. But nothing can change the reality that a hostile foreign power sought to affect the result of the election that made him president.
Thus California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, made important and somewhat spine-chilling news when she told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that she believes Russian intervention altered the outcome. Whether Feinstein is correct is less important than the unpleasant fact that she might be.
And that is the flip side of accepting Trump’s legitimacy: to insist on investigation and accountability. Feinstein put it in appropriately apocalyptic terms. “We cannot ignore what has happened. To ignore it is really to commit ourselves to a very bad future,” she said. “This is the future of America. It’s the future of democracy. And if we can’t carry out an election without disinformation being pumped into it by another country, we’ve got a huge destruction of our system going on.”
A searching inquiry into what happened and how to prevent it from recurring is essential. That should not be a matter for partisan debate, as hard as it may be for Trump, especially, to accept. Whether that happens will not determine the legitimacy of Trump’s election. It will shape history’s judgment of his presidency.
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