The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kellyanne Conway admits Trump lost — quite usefully for her

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, records a speech to be broadcast on the third day of the Republican National Convention in Washington on Aug, 26, 2020. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

There were many points at which Kellyanne Conway could have forcefully rejected her boss Donald Trump’s claims that an election was tainted by fraud. There was the 2016 election, of course, after which Trump tried to sidestep his popular-vote loss by insisting that millions of people had voted illegally somehow. Conway, then at the White House, does not appear to have offered any objection.

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Then there was the little-remembered election in Florida in 2018. Gov. Rick Scott (R), seeking election to the Senate, was (like Rep. Ron DeSantis, who sought his job) clinging to a very thin lead over his opponent. So Scott very loudly claimed that ballots being counted in populous Democratic counties were an effort to steal the election for his opponent — with the goal of having that vote-counting stopped or simply to elevate skepticism about the results. Trump eagerly agreed.

“The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged,” Trump tweeted. “An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”

Very familiar rhetoric from Trump now, but this was not a standard part of his patter at the time. So interviewers pressed people such as Conway on it. ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, for example, asked her at the time whether Trump had evidence for his assertions.

“The evidence is that Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis have won,” Conway answered. She then raised questions about the supervisor of elections in Broward County, where vote-counting was underway — carefully elevating Trump’s rhetorical point while not specifically signing on to the conspiracy theories.

In her new book “Here’s the Deal,” Conway does something similar for the 2020 election: admitting that Trump’s defeat was not demonstrably a function of rampant illegal voting but, at the same time, reiterating all of the-election-was-sketchy-anyway claims that Republicans have been deploying since late 2020 to find some stable ground between Trump’s base and reality.

But doesn’t Conway deserve some credit for at least admitting Trump didn’t win? Perhaps, except that the reason for doing so is as transparent as her unwillingness to undercut Trump in 2018. Conway’s central point is that 2020 was winnable by Trump — if he had had a better campaign manager, like the one who won his 2016 race. Which is to say: Kellyanne Conway.

The passage from Conway’s book that has garnered attention for its deviation from Trump’s line is this one:

“I may have been the first person Donald Trump trusted in his inner circle who told him that he had come up short this time. It wasn’t the result I wanted. It wasn’t the result some 74 million Americans — by far the largest number of people ever to vote for an incumbent president — wanted.”

But that’s immediately followed by this:

“Equally sad and troubling was the missed opportunity he may have had to win a second term outright and, overwhelmingly, to avoid lawsuits, recounts, audits, legal challenges, assorted machinations over a stretch of months, and January 6, and to spend the enormous campaign fund’s $1.4 billion more wisely, including on a postelection legal strategy and team worthy of an incumbent president facing enormous resistance and once-in-a-century, global-pandemic-compelled changes to who can vote, how, and for how long.”

Pretty nifty, no? The car salesman telling you that you wouldn’t have had that problem with your tires if you had simply bought a Ford in the first place.

This is the hustle in the consulting world, of course. There’s always a reason that a loss wasn’t your fault or a win was, and it’s always the case that the thing for which you weren’t hired would have gone better if you had been. Conway knows this, of course, and even deploys it without irony against Trump’s campaign team.

“Admitting defeat would have required these advisors to forgo future paydays,” she writes. “The Trump campaign raised $200 million after November 3 to prove the election had been stolen. A smooth transition and a focus on the president’s legacy would have served him and the country better.”

If those advisers said they lost a winnable race, who’s going to hire them? If they say that they lost because of a scary boogeyman named Fraud, though? Different situation.

Notice, too, how Conway asserts that it’s some vague entity called “the Trump campaign” that was holding the post-election vacuum over supporters’ wallets. A smooth transition would have served Trump’s legacy better, yes, but it isn’t just the consultants who benefit from that massive post-election haul. So does Trump. The former president wanted to keep the payday going, too. He still does.

Again, Conway’s criticism is only partially about the fraud claims. It’s primarily about the people who ran Trump’s reelection bid.

“Stop the Steal was the rallying cry for those challenging the election results,” she writes at another point. “Yet long before Election Day, the steal that needed to be stopped was the one that put an obscene amount of money in the pockets of campaign consultants who failed to focus on Trump’s winning outright and overwhelmingly.”

Got it.

We come back to the lingering question from 2018, though. What did Conway do, according to her, to try to derail the effort to claim that the election was tainted by fraud?

Well, she writes, she is the one who suggested that a statement from Trump offered shortly after the election include the line that “every legal vote should be counted, and no illegal votes should be counted” — falsely implying some huge cache of illegal ballots and muddying confidence in the votes that were still outstanding. She says that she told Trump that proving fraud was an uphill climb — and then advised him on how to try to make his case before the courts. She says that she was given talking points before a Nov. 5, 2020, Fox News appearance in which she was encouraged to say that Trump had won Pennsylvania (which he obviously didn’t). She declined to do so.

What she did say, though, is interesting. She was critiquing the network’s early call of Arizona for Joe Biden.

“Why are we in such a rush to finish this election prematurely? Let’s be patient. Let’s take a deep breath. Let’s count every legal vote,” she said. “I think it’s a time to be methodical and not emotional. This is what I think. And I think we should be exposing some of the people who are in charge of this who have been wildly anti-Trump.”

Muddying the water on the reliability of cast ballots. Implying a conspiracy against Trump. And this, mind you, after she no longer worked for the president!

But that “why are we in a rush” approach to Arizona is also important. In her book, Conway elevates the litany of complaints about the election that the GOP establishment has been using since the election ended to be able to both tell Trump voters that they agree with their complaints about the outcome and to stay at a distance from Trump’s conspiracy theorizing.

“I understood the concerns that President Trump and millions of other Americans had about the election results,” she writes. “It’s okay — even American — to question whether your sacred vote has been counted properly. And just because you question election results or distrust partisan activists fueled by ‘Zuck Bucks’ does not mean you are the ‘QAnon Shaman.’ ”

She admits that those analyzing the 2020 election have “never proven that or how a presidential election was rigged” (though she also praises a book from a sycophantic Trump ally that is titled “Rigged”). But the blame for questioning the election results again sits at the feet of everyone but her and Trump.

She writes:

“How do you get people to not trust the results of an election? By changing the rules at the last minute, by accepting ballots long past the legal deadline, by sending people mail-in ballots they did not request for elections they do not seem interested in until you show up at their door offering to help them complete and deliver it, by states giving you two months before Election Day to vote and then taking until two weeks after Election Day to count the ballots. With every minute that goes by without tallied and reported results, the way states like Ohio, Florida, and Vermont did on election night, the doubts will grow stronger. When a batch of votes comes in overwhelmingly for one candidate in the middle of the night, that creates doubt. When poll workers put up cardboard to block poll watchers from watching, that creates doubt. None of that is evidence of fraud or proof that the results are wrong. But all of it undermines public faith in our elections. We must make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

No, what erodes trust in elections is pushing for months to convince people that those things are suspect, as Trump did. What erodes trust is insisting that counting votes slowly in states you lost is dubious even as you’re on television demanding that people be patient and wait for vote-counting to finish in Arizona. What erodes trust in the system is claiming that it must be made “harder to cheat,” which is a bit like insisting we must make it harder for people not to be struck by a meteorite.

If Conway was the only person to tell Trump he had “come up short,” it doesn’t seem to have deterred the president much. Perhaps because, as she told him that, she continued to enable his insistences that he hadn’t, by her own admission. Perhaps because she had spent years enabling him in the same way both broadly and specifically on his claims about fraud.

As always for Conway, though, this book is the smart thing to say publicly: that she stood on the side of reality, although she also agrees with the GOP consensus that something fishy was perhaps afoot, that Trump’s race was winnable and she could have won it. Conway is very good at framing, indeed.