LAS VEGAS—How to spin the possibility of Donald Trump refusing to accept the outcome of the election? “Who are you?” demanded Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s military adviser who had once been considered a possible running mate. We were in the spin room after Wednesday’s presidential debate, and I’d asked if he thought Trump should say he would abide by the results of the vote. “Who are you?” he asked again. When I told him, he continued to walk away without answering the question.
So that’s one way.
No one, it seemed, knew how to spin Trump’s attack on democracy, other than to pretend he hadn’t said what he’d said. A reporter asked Sen. Jeff Sessions, one of Trump’s earliest supporters, if he was concerned by Trump’s statements that he would not necessarily accept the results of the election. “Well, he’s going to accept the election,” Sessions said, rejecting the premise of Trump’s own words.
Sessions then attempted to explain Trump’s answer in the context of electoral fraud.
“If there’s fraud or impropriety in it, I think what he’s saying is that ‘I’m not waiving’” the option to contest the results, Sessions continued, comparing Trump’s response to Al Gore’s legal challenge in the state of Florida in 2000. The vote in that decisive state was determined by fewer than 600 out of nearly six million cast, the closest presidential election in American history. “One thing that Donald Trump means is, he doesn’t intend to be cheated or taken advantage of,” Sessions continued. “So he will defend his rights.”
Sessions followed up by blaming the media for making too much of the topic. In reality, Trump has been laying the groundwork for months to argue that the election is rigged. It’s just that his rhetoric has escalated in recent days.
How big a losing margin, I asked, would Trump need for Sessions to feel it would be justified for him to concede?
“I don’t know about that,” Sessions said.
Was there a margin? Two points, three points, more? This was when Sessions began to acknowledge reality.
“You can’t—it would be wrong for a candidate to contest an election for light or transient reasons,” he said. “It ought to be a serious reason, a justifiable reason, because you should accept the election results unless you have a real basis to challenge it. Al Gore lost his challenge, and I think he was wrong, but he had a right to bring it, it was a serious issue.”
But then, almost as quickly as he had returned to Earth, Sessions floated off into unreality. Could he define a serious issue?
“I’ll just see,” he said. “There’s no need to declare that today.”
At this point, Sessions went back to his original reading of Trump’s statement, the one that ignored the text of what Trump actually said. Trump, Sessions argued, was merely saying he was preserving his right to contest a close election or one with issues of voting fraud.
“He feels strongly that he thinks there are things going on out there. It worries him,” Sessions said. “We do have voter fraud, there’s no doubt about this.” (There is plenty of doubt about this.) Sessions then argued that Trump didn’t actually mean he would challenge the results of a legitimate election; he was just “not a politician” so he couldn’t articulate things the way “you think he should have.”
Sessions continued: “I think what he said is justified—he basically said what I’m saying. … He refused to make a prejudgment on all that, that’s all you’re hearing.”
For the record, here is what Trump said: Moderator Chris Wallace had asked him whether he would commit, as he’d done in the first debate, to accepting the results of the election. “I will look at it at the time,” he said. “I’m not looking at anything now.” He hinted darkly at voter fraud, whereupon Wallace pressed him: “One of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign the loser concedes to the winner. … Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?”
“What I’m saying is that I’ll tell you at the time,” Trump reiterated. “I’ll keep you in suspense, OK? “
I asked Sessions what evidence he had of voter fraud that was widespread enough to come close to swaying an election—evidence that every legitimate expert who has looked at the issue denies exists. Again, Sessions cited the 2000 election. “There is fraud [in] every election,” he said. “Florida tried to count ballots in one county more lenient to Al Gore than they did in other counties, and the Supreme Court had to say, ‘No, whatever standard you use in pro-Democrat counties to count more ballots had to be used throughout the rest of the state.’ That was an attempt to manipulate the outcome of that election.”
What Sessions was describing was the wrangling over how ballots would be tallied in a recount after the fact—whether or not the state of Florida could make a judgment about the intentions of a voter with a faulty ballot based on that voter’s attempted vote. This was not evidence of vote rigging in any way resembling what Trump has suggested—massive voter fraud on election day.
When I caught up with Flynn later, he was being interviewed by another reporter who was asking him about Trump’s response. Flynn answered this time, but like Sessions, he denied reality.
“He’ll accept the results,” the general said. “Donald Trump will accept the results. What he’s talking about is—that’s part of it is, if you listen to what he’s been saying, he’s been talking about the media bias against him, frankly, which poisons the American people. Talk about divisive.”
Trump, apparently, was also talking about voter fraud.
“Donald Trump at the end of the day when he talked about the kinds of things that are happening that we see at some of these in previous elections, and also some of the things that we’re hearing and what we’re seeing with people that are different rolls, people that are on lists to be able to vote, all kinds of things, there’s three or four different examples out there,” Flynn rambled Trumpishly. “But at the end of the day, he’ll accept the results of the election.”
“Why didn’t he say that?” a reporter asked.
“Because he wasn’t asked that,” Flynn said. Again, here is what Trump was asked: “Do you make the … commitment that you will absolutely accept the results of this election?”
After denying Trump was asked what he was asked, Flynn decided that the nominee had answered in a way that he didn’t answer. “He addressed it in a way that I felt was appropriate,” Flynn said. “He said, ‘Hey, look, let’s see what happens. We have got to maintain our elections the way we always have, which is free and fair.’ ” Trump, of course, has never defined free and fair. Flynn was then asked if he believed that Trump believed in his heart that the election would be free and fair?
“Yeah, I do,” he responded.
Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., was asked at another point if the Republican nominee would accept the outcome of the election. Like everyone else, he rejected his father’s own words.
“He will, barring rampant fraud,” Trump Jr. responded.
Given what Trump’s campaign had been saying earlier in the day, it’s no surprise that Trump refused to say he would accept the results of the election, or that his surrogates would bend over backward to pretend he actually meant that he would.
Trump senior aide Boris Epshteyn told me that “voter fraud has been rampant in this country and we want to make sure that there’s integrity in voting.” This is all Trump’s talk of usurping American democracy was really about: integrity. Epshteyn then cited multiple examples that he claimed demonstrated fraud, none of which actually did. The key line was a claim Epshteyn had been pushing in recent days that a debunked and essentially retracted article from the Washington Post in 2014 showed that enough non-citizens might have voted in the 2008 presidential election in North Carolina to sway that contest for Barack Obama (he won by a bit more than 14,000 votes).
Not only is the evidence for this theory wrong, the theory itself doesn’t make any sense. “If you’re an illegal immigrant, you usually don’t do criminal acts because you’re concerned about exposure and removal from the country,” Robert Lang, director of The Lincy Institute and of Brookings Mountain West at UNLV, told me before the debate. “The value of a single vote is so small that it’s a very high-risk, low-yield thing to do: You’re not going to likely change an election and you’re putting yourself at risk of discovery.”
What about Epshteyn’s other claims of fraud, specifically his citation that some members of ACORN monkeyed around with the voter rolls during the 2008 election? (This did indeed happen, though it’s never been proven to have had an effect on the vote count).
“First of all, ACORN doesn’t exist anymore so your fear of ACORN is misplaced if you’re going to say it’s in this cycle,” Lang said. “Voter registration issues like that are so few and far between, and states are so large relative to them.”
What about general voter fraud?
“This idea that there’s dead people—people have looked into those claims,” Lang responded. “It’s a pretty clean voting system. And, by the way, it’s an insult to every Republican secretary of state, as well, that somehow these people can’t handle this.”
Again, the voter fraud claim is nonsensical. There are more than 3,000 counties running voting operations in this country, with power completely decentralized in our elections.
“Rigging this thing would require participation of both parties. It would have dozens and hundreds of thousands of volunteers,” Lang notes. “Most of these people are doing public service by volunteering, they’re doing civic duties. So it’s a real stab at that and the whole thing is completely bogus.”
Maybe Trump’s threat not to accept the results of the election has some historical basis, though, as Sessions suggested.
“It’s unprecedented and I think it’s bad for the country, truthfully,” UNLV associate history professor Michael Green told me before the debate. “There is one election where one side did not accept the result: 1860.”
Trump’s refusal to say that he will accept reality flummoxed not only Republicans, historians, and electoral experts. Democrats struggled with it too.
“It’s racial intimidation,” Jesse Jackson told me of Trump’s calls for his supporters to monitor polls in “certain areas” on Election Day. “What I find to be astonishing is he will not accept the results of the campaign, wants to play by his own rules. He will think that if he doesn’t win, it’s rigged. That’s not fair.”
Did Jackson fear an outbreak of violence if Trump loses and refuses to accept the result?
“I hope it will not happen,” he said. “He is trying to incite it, but it has not happened and it should not happen.”