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An Embarrassing Presidential Display That Will Live in Infamy

Other presidents’ worst moments didn’t involve tantrums about valid vote counting.
November 6, 2020
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(Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Last night, from a podium in the White House—the People’s House, provided to the president, at public expense, as living and working quarters—Donald Trump claimed without evidence that valid votes coming in for his opponent were “illegal.” He declared that “we can’t have an election stolen like this.” He stated that “we can’t allow silence, anybody to silence our voters and manufacture results.”

With these remarks, the president humiliated those who have coddled or appeased him for four years. And, in asserting that votes presumably for his opponent are illegitimate before they’ve even been counted, he sunk to a new low for the American presidency.

That, I will admit, is a bold statement. Because we’ve had some low moments in the history of presidential behavior.

John Adams refused to even attend the inauguration of his successor, Thomas Jefferson. John Tyler, as a former president, was voted into the Confederate States of America’s House of Representatives. James Buchanan, facing Southern states’ exit from the Union, declared secession was “neither more nor less than revolution” and took no action to prevent the slide toward civil war.

Other commanders-in-chief violated norms of presidential action even more dramatically. Andrew Johnson, the first impeached president, used a rare-for-the-time public speaking tour to praise himself in grandiose terms, trade epithets with crowds, and denounce political opponents—asking rhetorically if his bête noire Thaddeus Stevens should be hanged. His own party wouldn’t even nominate him for another term after that. Richard Nixon sought to abuse his power to cover up the Watergate break-in; he resigned to avoid near certain impeachment and removal. Bill Clinton lied under oath to a grand jury and faced an impeachment of his own.

But when it comes to actual voting in elections, even previous presidents willing to use dirty tricks during their campaigns haven’t resorted to the kind of sordid display that the world witnessed on Thursday night. Instead, candidates running for the nation’s highest office in tumultuous times (including on the eve of an actual civil war) have by and large let the process unfold and then graciously accepted the result and moved on.

Trump, instead, is positioning himself to play the victim, to go down kicking and screaming like a toddler being pulled away from his favorite cartoon.

Shame on him. Shame on his enablers. And, yes, shame on us for allowing such an unfit man to occupy the People’s House.

David Priess

David Priess, chief operating officer of the Lawfare Institute served during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations as a CIA officer and daily intelligence briefer, and as a State Department desk officer. His new book is How To Get Rid of a President: History’s Guide to Removing Unpopular, Unable, or Unfit Chief Executives.