Sunday, January 15, 2017 on NBCs “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd asked Rep. John Lewis (R-GA) if he would be attending the inauguration this coming Friday, January 20. The civil rights hero and moral voice of the Congress responded that he would not. Asked why, Congressman Lewis replied that he did not consider the President Elect to be a legitimate President. He explained that the Russian influences and intrusions in the recent election cycle were the basis for his assertion. Not surprisingly, Donald Trump spit out a tweet denigrating Mr. Lewis, and a flurry of reactions from all directions continues.
So, who’s correct? Is Donald Trump going to start out as an illegitimate President?
Last evening I enjoyed a delightful dinner and conversation with some friends. The topic of Rep. Lewis’s remark and Mr. Trump’s pending inauguration came up. One friend worried that the institutions that define America and hold us together may become severely eroded over the next four years. Let’s start there, with our institutions.
Over my teaching career I frequently used this example to illustrate the strength of our American institutions, since for most students these events were history. In the 1972 presidential election Richard Nixon was elected President and Spiro Agnew Vice President. The election, however, was the occasion of the Watergate scandal, and Nixon’s impeachment seemed all but inevitable once that scandal broke into clear view. Spiro Agnew resigned the Vice Presidency under a cloud of corruption. This presented a Constitutional crisis, for the Founding Fathers, despite their many wise moves, had not provided for replacing the Vice President. Were Nixon to be removed from office by impeachment, Agnew’s resignation would leave the nation leaderless.
The Constitution provides that, should the President be impeached or die, the Vice President shall take over that office. But what if there is no Vice President? A Constitutional amendment, in this case the 25th, was needed to provide a process for filling a vacancy in the office of Vice President. The process is that the President nominates someone, who must then be approved by a majority in both the House of Representative and the Senate. Amending the Constitution, however, is a hugely larger task. It requires a 2/3 majority vote in each house of Congress, followed by ratification by 3/4 of the states. I can’t imagine how anything, however grave the content, could pass such a process today. Yet, the 25th Amendment was approved and ratified, and Sen. Gerald Ford (R-MI) soon became Vice President. That cleared the way for President Nixon to resign, thus avoiding removal by the impeachment process. Gerald Ford subsequently became President. He ran for re-election in 1976, but lost to Jimmy Carter. Gerald Ford is the only person to serve as US President without ever being elected to that office or to the Vice Presidency.
I detail this example to illustrate the strength of the institutions enshrined in our Constitutional system. These institutions hold us together as Americans and define, in part, the world view that unites us as a nation of laws. The Nixon-Ford transition was a proud moment in American history, from an institutional point of view if not from a moral one. We had another institutional electoral crisis with the 2000 presidential election, when the Supreme Court stopped the recount of ballots in Florida, resulting in George W. Bush becoming President. Neither a Constitutional Amendment nor a decision by the Supreme Court were necessary in 2016, even though Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, the most ever by a President Elect. Our Constitutionally enshrined electoral process played out as designated, and Donald J. Trump will assume office at noon on January 20. From an institutional perspective, he will be the legitimate President of the United States.
Is John Lewis, a revered leader of our country who literally put his life on the line to secure voting rights for all citizens, wrong? Is he questioning the very institutional structures for which he nearly died? The reason he gave is Russian influence in this election cycle. I have some hesitation in simply accepting this justification, for the reality of Russian hacking, while indisputable and intended to have influence, has not been proven to have determined the outcome. Thus, Americans went to the polls and cast their votes as they saw fit; their votes were counted; the Electors voted as they saw fit; and the results of the Electoral College were accepted by the Congress. Donald Trump was duly elected according to our legal processes, despite the highly troubling and disturbing intrusion by Russia.
I do not intend to question the integrity of John Lewis, nor even, basically, to disagree with him. I simply wish to present a different reason for the same conclusion. Institutions are important, as exemplified above. They provide identity, continuity, and unity, especially important in a country that prides itself on welcoming diversity among its people. Yet, in and of themselves, institutions are merely granite columns, rituals, and sheaves of paper. Their vitality and efficacy derive from the character and actions of the individuals who inhabit them. The legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidency, therefore, depends on the character and actions of Donald Trump himself. Let’s examine what he has said and done before concluding this discussion of legitimacy.
Mr. Trump responds with tweets to any criticism, real or perceived, and attacks the character and integrity of his critics, thus deflecting or distracting from the criticism. He exhibits no capacity for self-examination. For example, his spokespersons justified his Twitter denigration of John Lewis by saying “He [Lewis] started it.” Really? That’s the response of a pre-adolescent (with due apologies to pre-adolescents). He mocked a disabled reporter and bragged about groping women. The list of crude and rude words and behaviors is extensive and wearisome. Nevertheless, however distasteful, this behavior is not sufficient to delegitimize his presidency. The question is not resolved yet.
What do draw into question the legitimacy of his holding the highest office in the land are the policies he says he will implement. He says that, should Russia cooperate in fighting terrorism, he will likely lift the sanctions on Russia, making no distinction between those recently imposed for hacking or those imposed for invading and taking hold of Crimea. So far, Russia’s fight against terrorism–in Syria, at least–has resulted in massive bombing of civilians, including women and children, to secure the presidency of Assad, hardly an assault on terrorism. Trump denigrates John Lewis, but has yet to utter a single critical word about Vladimir Putin. In turn, Putin today denounced the Obama administration for trying to delegitimize the impending Trump presidency. It seems the Russian president knows just how to stroke the narcissistic inclinations of the soon-to-be American president, and Trump does not seem to recognize how he is being manipulated, whether by Putin alone or Putin with the help of some people close to Trump. This Putin-Trump relationship raises serious concerns for undue influence in our government by a foreign power. This poses a direct threat to the very governmental institutions that assure our security. The danger may lie less with Russia’s intrusion on the election than with Putin’s influence on Trump. I do not mean to diminish the seriousness of the former; rather, I want to emphasize the peril presented by Putin’s proximity to the President Elect. The independence of the Presidency from undue outside influence is foundational to our national security.
Another institution fundamental to American democracy is a free press. Mr. Trump, throughout the campaign and after, dismisses and undercuts the press. He calls them liars and, in some instances, refuses them access to rallies or to the microphone, as at his recent press conference. Probing questions are either deflected or dismissed outright. Reince Priebus, a senior advisor to Trump, recently said there are plans to move the White House Press Corps out of the White House. The reporters whose day-to-day job it is to monitor and inquire into the activities of the White House so that the public can hold their elected officials to account may be removed from the very venue that enables them to do their job directly and responsibly. This is a significant threat to our democracy and ought not to stand. The press, on the other hand, has even greater responsibility to persist in deep, investigative reporting, and to recognize when they themselves are being trolled by tweets.
More might be said, and may be as time goes on, but these two examples are serious enough to illustrate the threat that a Donald Trump presidency poses to the very institutions that define and secure our nation in a dangerous world. A morally bankrupt man is about to assume the power to destroy the very institutions that constitute this country. Donald Trump, while legitimately elected, is truly an illegitimate President.