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Reckoning With Trump’s Illegitimacy

In announcing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals, whose efforts to subvert the 2016 election entailed conspiring to defraud the United States, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein included the conspicuous caveat that the charging documents contain “no allegation” that Russian interference “altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”

The White House seized on this strange admonition as a vindicating fact, as if Mueller were investigating the convincingness of Donald Trump’s victory. Trump has been reminded ad nauseam since Friday that the value of Mueller’s findings isn’t in their effect on White House public relations, but in their power help the country secure the integrity of its democracy.

That rejoinder, while correct to an extent, risks making political accountability the victim of high-mindedness. Whether it was his intention or not, Mueller has given legal weight to the legitimacy crisis that should define the Trump administration. Specifically, he has given us proper cause to question the freeness and fairness of the election that made Trump president, which means we have to grapple not just with the vulnerability of American democracy, or with how to punish Trump and others for exploiting those vulnerabilities, but with the possibility that all of the GOP’s substantive gains of the past year are ill-gotten and deserve to be erased.


Mueller’s job is to interdict spies and investigate and prosecute crimes.

What the crimes he charges ultimately say about America, and the legitimacy of our elected leaders, is a question of controversy that can only be answered by citizens. These are matters of intense debate in the media and among politicians because different parties have different stakes in how the public perceives what Mueller finds.

In this battle for narrative control, Trump and the right-wing media established their priorities long ago. They seek to discredit Mueller’s investigation, so that any crimes Trump and his allies committed in the course of and after the 2016 election go unpunished, and they seek to misinform people about what Mueller’s investigators have concluded, so that Trump’s legitimacy goes unquestioned.

On Friday, after Mueller handed down his latest indictments, Trump’s White House fabricated the inference that “the Special Counsel’s investigation further indicates…there was NO COLLUSION [sic] between the Trump campaign and Russia and that the outcome of the election was not changed or affected.”

Trump didn’t do anything wrong, in other words, and even if we’re lying (and they certainly are lying) it doesn’t matter, because the election would’ve come out the same way regardless. The administration’s response to Russia’s meddling, past, present, and future, is crafted to protect Trump at the expense of the country. It begs the question that the meddling was of no consequence, because if it had an impact, then the election itself—Trump’s election—is tainted.

Outside the realm of pro-Trump media, there is a powerful impulse to treat the effects of the Russian influence operation as incalculable and contested and thus irrelevant or best left in the partisan fray. Mueller, like the intelligence community before him, will not touch the question of how effective the operation was, because it in a very literal sense can’t be quantified. We can’t run the election over again without Russian interference to see how things would have played out differently in its absence, and because the liberal media is not in the propaganda business, there is no narrative countervailing Trump’s that the election was stolen outright. The political press would be out of its comfort zone questioning the legitimacy of a sitting president under any circumstances, and because the public is hearing two stories—one in which Russian meddling had no impact at all, and one in which its impact is unknowable—the commentariat is generally letting the issue lie.

That is a mistake. It is important not just to establish that Trump is a narcissist entertaining a fallacy, but that the opposing claim—that crimes tipped the election to Trump—is not just plausible but likely. 


The principle that the president shouldn’t be a criminal is powerful on its own. Watergate ultimately forced Richard Nixon to resign because prosecutors uncovered proof that he helped cover up his campaign’s involvement in the 1972 break-in at DNC headquarters. That finding, however, didn’t create an additional crisis over the validity of Nixon’s reelection, in part because the effort to sabotage the Democrats was interrupted, and in part because Nixon’s reelection was so overwhelming.

If the race had been historically narrow, as Trump’s was, and won before the full scope of the sabotage had been discovered, as Trump’s was, Watergate would loom even larger in the public imagination than it does today.

Whether or not Mueller ever alleges that members of the Trump organization were involved in the conspiracy to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign, he has already staked the U.S. government behind the position that Trump won amid a criminal influence operation aimed at helping him win. The question he won’t address is whether an influence operation like the one the Russians ran was an effective electioneering tool—but that is an issue we should be hashing out amongst ourselves. It’s not one we should leave to known liars like Trump to answer.

It would be dishonest to assert outright that Trump would have lost but for the conspiracy Mueller is investigating, but unlike Trump’s proposition that the conspiracy had no effect whatsoever, it is at least a credible theory.

The argument turns on whether we think influence operations of the type Russia ran can change human behavior at all. Clearly we think they can, because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t particularly care about what happened in 2016, and yet even a Trump enabler in as deep as House Speaker Paul Ryan has now called it “a sinister and systematic attack on our political system…a conspiracy to subvert the process, and take aim at democracy itself.” But if that conspiracy can change behavior, then it can theoretically tip an election as close as the one Trump won.

Mueller’s indictment details a well-financed propaganda campaign, undergirded by identity theft, wire fraud, and illegal subversion of U.S. election law, which involved the recruitment of unwitting American political activists, and the creation of thousands of troll accounts on social media. We know that this is just one compartment of the Russian government’s efforts to help Trump win, because it excludes charges related to the theft of Democratic emails, and it is silent on the multiple other channels Russia had available to them to harm Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, including propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik, and a partnership with Wikileaks.

Whatever Trump’s specific awareness at the time of the facts alleged in the indictment, we know Trump and his most senior aides knew that the Russian government was involving itself in the campaign on his behalf, and endeavored to encourage and conceal the meddling.

The fact that the election turned out to be so close is perhaps the crowning achievement of the conspiracy. With a budget of over $1 million a month to target swing state voters with disinformation on social media, multiple troves containing thousands of stolen emails, “news” outlets at your fingertips, the complicity of a major party political nominee, and impunity from American law, could you move 80,000 votes in three states?

It’s clearly not crazy to believe the answer is yes, and thus that the crimes that made the election unfair also determined its outcome. In an election so close that many individual factors were decisive, a major foreign espionage attack surely could have been as well. The difference is that the other factors were seemingly legal, and internal to American politics.

There is no mechanism in American politics to annul a corrupted election, and a congressional majority determined to prop up a president who cheated his way to power can assure he serves out his term. But a question mark like the one that now hangs over Trump’s victory is a potent political fact unto itself, and acknowledging it is perhaps our best means of stigmatizing the bad deeds Trump engaged in to win the presidency. We can’t ignore it because it feels uncouth, or even because those who want to undermine American democracy are surely thrilled that an argument over whether the election was stolen for Trump is now inevitable.