At this point in time, the notion that Donald Trump stole last year’s presidential election ought to carry no currency. Even the most aggressive partisans of the Left, marinated in hatred for Donald Trump and all that he supposedly stands for, now seem to have lost their taste for challenging the outcome. Yet as they zealously pursue alternatives for delegitimizing his presidency in hopes of triggering an impeachment, the campaign to overturn the election still deserves maximum attention. It’s getting it, too, in the form of a new Kindle book by Fred Lucas, reporter for the political website The Daily Signal. In The Plot to Stop Trump: The Story of a Failed Effort to Overturn an Election, Lucas carefully lays out how Hillary Clinton and her allies sought to reverse an election they claimed was theirs.
Lucas sees the presidential election of 2016 as precedent-setting. “The election,” he writes, “was like no other in American history for the sheer celebrity value, unorthodox campaigns and multiple October surprises. The biggest surprise of course came in November, when most of the press, pollsters and pundits – on both the right and the left – saw what seemed like the safest of bets crash.” Given that the expected result did not materialize, supporters of the losing candidate, Hillary Clinton, came to believe that a fix of some sort was in; Trump had to have colluded with dark, satanic forces to rig the outcome. Somewhere the real story was out there. And an alliance of Clinton campaign operatives, embedded government officials and prestige media outlets were determined to uncover it.
The 2016 election, the author notes, was not the first time in this country’s history in which a presidential election was in dispute. The elections of 1800, 1824, 1876, 1960 and 2000 also might have gone the other way. But 2016 was unique in that the losing campaign, rather than overtly seek a recount in selected states or counties, conducted a below-the-radar effort to discredit votes cast for the winner. In other words, at issue was not the authenticity of ballots, but the manner in which voters arrived at their choice. And opponents of Donald Trump were convinced that his election was the result of secret Russian government intervention.
According to Team Hillary, Donald Trump had every reason to work with Russian officials to control the flow of election information. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin were kindred spirits – mean, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, egocentric bullies. This was in sharp contrast to Trump’s antipode, Hillary Clinton, a warm, wise, engaging soul, possessed of experience, a love of humanity and a passion for social justice. Though these were simple-minded and absurd caricatures, Trump haters believed them. And that overall perception drove their campaign to keep Trump out of the White House.
Lucas explains that this facile narrative leaves out far more than it includes. Most crucially, it ignores Mrs. Clinton’s own credibility problems. As secretary of state during the first Obama term, she kept a private email server in her home through which she could send and receive messages. At the very least, Hillary Clinton skirted Freedom of Information Act requirements. Very likely, she also was grossly negligent in handling classified information. Moreover, her emails raised questions about how the commingling of funds between the candidate’s nonprofit Clinton Foundation and her presidential campaign war chest, especially given that numerous foreign donors appeared to receive favorable treatment from the State Department as a quid pro quo. In addition, the Democratic National Committee, then headed by Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, almost certainly intervened on Hillary’s behalf to ensure her nomination. This suspicion is strongly supported by about 50,000 internal DNC messages to and from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, later published by WikiLeaks, and accusations by longtime party operative Donna Brazile in her own new book, Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns that Put Donald Trump in the White House.
The campaign to derail the Trump presidency must be seen in the context of the election campaign itself. Lucas hits key points here, noting that Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party nomination was anything but a lock. She had her hands full with upstart socialist populist rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who won the New Hampshire primary by a large margin. Clinton rallied to win subsequent primaries and ultimately the nomination, buoyed by heavy support from blacks and unions. Yet she couldn’t entirely shake off Sanders. The battle was more of a nail-biter than it should have been and revealed a deep fissure within the party.
On the Republican side, New York real estate magnate Donald Trump, who had been making periodic presidential noises since the late 1980s, announced his candidacy on June 16, 2015 at his Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The primary field was crowded, peaking at 17 candidates. And he would be substantially outspent by Mrs. Clinton. But Trump had something that would more than compensate: media appeal. And while nominally a Republican, his style all but announced “Independent.” A great many swing voters loved his anti-establishment swagger. Trump’s media presence proved crucial in putting him over the top, even where he wasn’t expected to win, such as South Carolina, supposedly Jeb Bush country. He secured his party’s nomination with plenty of room to spare over his nearest rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
During the general election campaign, Trump managed to avoid various trip wires – his refusal to release prior year tax returns, a class-action suit by several students at Trump University, and accusations by nearly a dozen women that he made unwanted sexual advances. While many people couldn’t stand Trump, many people couldn’t stand Hillary either. “An unpopularity contest for the ages,” declared the Washington Post. The difference was that Trump, initially far behind in opinion polls, was closing the gap. A surprisingly formidable television debater, he whittled away at Mrs. Clinton’s seemingly impregnable lead. By late October, a Trump win, while still unlikely, at least was possible. His cause would be helped by a 25 percent premium hike in Obamacare health insurance premiums and a letter to Congress by then-FBI Director James Comey declaring that the bureau was reopening its earlier investigation into compromised Clinton emails. This new probe, which triggered unladylike rage in the former First Lady, would be linked with another probe, that of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., estranged husband of Clinton confidante Huma Abedin. Two days before the election, Comey announced, as he had the first time, that Hillary was clean. But a certain amount of damage was done.
When Election Day arrived, Mrs. Clinton, though palpably vulnerable, still appeared to hold the stronger hand. Most polls showed her leading by around two to four percentage points. And she had assembled a large force of foot soldiers to get out the vote. But what mattered were the results. And they were not good for Hillary. Over the course of Election Night, key battleground states, one by one, fell into the Trump column. After midnight, the mood at Clinton headquarters was beginning to resemble a funeral service. And around 2:30 A.M., TV networks were declaring Trump the winner. Hillary then phoned Trump to concede. When the dust settled a few days later, the Donald had won the Electoral College vote by 306-232, even while losing the popular vote by two percentage points. Trump took Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and, most crucially, Florida. He won, in other words, where he had to win. In the popular vote the polls had called the outcome right, but could not account for late movement in swing states.
Hillary Clinton and her tight network of friends soon developed an explanation that quickly became a meme: a computer hacking conspiracy. Clinton campaign manager John Podesta and campaign attorney Marc Elias were part of a conference call with voting rights attorney John Bonifaz and a cyber expert, Alex Halderman, director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Computer Security and Society. Bonifaz and Halderman were claiming that the results in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked. In particular, they noted that Mrs. Clinton in Wisconsin received 7 percent fewer votes in counties relying on electronic voting machines than in counties relying on optical scanners. From this, they deduced that she lost as many as 30,000 votes in that state, which Trump won by 22,000 votes.
The Clinton campaign people formally declined to challenge these results. But Huma Abedin’s sister, Heba Abedin, exhorted her Facebook followers to flood the Justice Department with demands for an audit. She wrote: “A shift of 55,000 votes in PA, MI and WI is all that’s needed to win…Even if it’s busy, keep calling. It takes a few times to get through because of all the calls being made.” The assertions, published in New York magazine, went viral. Halderman said that while the article had “some incorrect numbers,” it was possible that a cyber-attack altered the outcome.
Apparent irregularities, however, do not a conspiracy make. Skeptics such as political blogger Nate Silver believed this was a case of a premature reaction. After conducting an eight-state (including Wisconsin) analysis of election returns, he concluded: “There’s no clear evidence that the voting method used in a county – by machine or by paper – had an effect on the vote. Anyone making allegations of a possible massive electoral hack should provide proof, and we can’t find any.” Notwithstanding, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, a far-Left outlier who won all of 0.36 percent of the popular vote, demanded recounts in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Mrs. Clinton’s campaign attorney, Marc Elias, announced that she would participate.
On the surface, Hillary Clinton was only along for the ride. But author Lucas isn’t fooled. Hillary was too filled with ambition, frustration and moral entitlement. She had everything to gain and nothing to lose by serving as a passive partner to Stein, challenging the outcome without giving the appearance of doing so. Trump saw the effort as “a scam by the Green Party for an election that has already been conceded.” Journalist Chuck Todd, speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, suggested that someone had talked Ms. Stein into this. Even with a recount, he noted, it was doubtful that the election could be overturned. Historically, Lucas notes, recounts rarely have succeeded in altering any more than a few hundred votes. And that was far less than what would be needed in the three contested states.
Dutifully, Wisconsin’s county clerks worked frantically to recount ballots to meet the December 13 certification deadline. Stein sued the state for not requiring hand recounts, apparently unconcerned that such a procedure almost certainly would have ensured failure to meet the deadline. Stein also sued Pennsylvania to initiate a recount even though she had missed the November 21 filing deadline. The recount campaigns won Ms. Stein money and publicity, but for the target states it was a different story. Michigan officials, for example, in filing a challenge to the recount in the state, estimated that the ongoing recount would cost about $5 million and that taxpayers would bear most of it.
The recount gambit didn’t hold up in court. U.S. District Court Mark Goldman ordered a halt to the Michigan recount on December 7, asserting: “Plaintiffs have not presented evidence of tampering or a mistake. Instead, they present speculative claims going to the vulnerability of the voting machinery – but not actual injury.” Five days later in Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond concluded that it “borders on the irrational” to believe that the vote was hacked. Further delays, he added, might “ensure that no Pennsylvania vote counts.”
With ballot recounts no longer a viable option for a challenge, Democrats and their allies shifted their strategy to pressuring Republican members of the Electoral College not to vote for Donald Trump. “Russian interference” was the theme. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., claimed that this was a matter of patriotic duty, as it would ward off a Russian takeover of America. “This man (Trump),” Himes declared, “is not only unqualified to be president, he’s a danger to the republic. I do think the Electoral College should choose someone other than Donald Trump to be president. That will lead to a fascinating legal issue, but I would rather have a legal issue…than to find out the White House was now the Kremlin’s chief ally.” Christine Pelosi, a California elector and daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, led a letter signed by several dozen other electors requesting an intelligence briefing for the full College before it convened in 50 state capitols on December 19. Clinton campaign chief John Podesta endorsed this tactic. “Each day our campaign decried the interference of Russia in our campaign and its evident goal of hurting our campaign to aid Donald Trump,” he wrote. “Despite our protestations this matter did not receive the attention it deserved by the media in our campaign.” Podesta also claimed that “the CIA has determined Russia’s interference in our elections was for the purpose of electing Donald Trump.”
Anti-Trump activists launched various campaigns to persuade Republican electors to go against the wishes of voters in their state. One of the more prominent was Electors Trust, organized by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig and Boston attorney R.J. Lyman, to give legal advice to renegade (“faithless”) electors. Lessig claimed that 20 Republican electors already were considering voting against Trump. Another such group was the Hamilton Electors, so named after Alexander Hamilton’s successful effort to persuade the House of Representatives to support Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr. Bret Chiafalo, an elector from Washington State and Hamilton Electors campaign co-organizer, made his goal clear: “We’re trying to be that ‘break in case of emergency’ fire hose that’s gotten dusty over the last 200 years. This is an emergency.” If organizers couldn’t persuade Republican electors to go with a substitute, he argued, they should take their chances in Congress. For the record, Lucas notes, Burr actually came closer to being elected in 1800 than Hillary did in 2016. But that made little difference to self-anointed firemen such as Chiafalo. Meanwhile, far-Left blog site Change.org launched an online petition drive to urge the Electoral College to vote for Hillary and placed full-page newspaper ads to that effect. The effort generated about 5 million signatures but no significant movement.
To the naked eye, these were not Hillary Clinton initiatives. But only the naïve could believe that. In fact, the Clinton people were working full time behind the scenes. The blog site Politico obtained call logs, emails and text messages from top Clinton aides and Hamilton Electors. Clinton policy advisers Jake Sullivan and Jennifer Palmieri, in fact, were in close communication with Colorado faithless elector Michael Baca, a supporter of Ohio Governor John Kasich for president. At one point, a panicked Baca sent Palmieri a text message about his “final plea” for assistance. “I know I will have done everything I could to stop Trump but I am just a guy at the end of the day.” Palimieri’s response: “I hear you. Are you doing a press conference today?” Clinton loyalists in the Electoral College filed suits in California, Colorado and Washington to overturn restrictions on electors, but the courts, in a burst of common sense, upheld the laws.
Meanwhile, electors committed to Trump in a number of states were besieged with messages via regular mail, email and social media, some them outright threatening, urging them not to vote for him. Hillary’s people might not have been behind this, but they made no effort to object. One of the electors, Sharon Geise of Arizona, said that she had received more than 50,000 mails. Another, Patricia Allen of Tennessee, told the New York Post that she had gotten 2,000 emails, 120 letters and five phone calls telling her to change her vote. And Michigan elector Michael Banerian told CNN: “I’ve had death wishes, people just saying ‘I hope you die. Do society a favor, throw yourself in front of a bus.’ And just recently, I was reading a blog about me, and unfortunately these people not only called for the burning of myself, but my family, which is completely out of line.”
Come the big day, December 19, the nation held its breath: Would there be mass defections by Republican electors? The answer turned out to be no. Indeed, to the extent there were defections, Hillary was the prime casualty. In Washington State, four Democratic electors abandoned Clinton; former Secretary of State Colin Powell got three of those votes and a Native American activist, Faith Spotted Eagle, got the other. In Hawaii, one elector cast his ballot for Bernie Sanders. Trump, by contrast, lost only two committed electors, both in Texas. One of the votes went for John Kasich and the other went for former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex.
That seemingly concluded matters. But anti-Trumpers had one last option to torpedo the election. A joint session of Congress had to certify the results on January 6, 2017. Five Democratic House members raised objections, alleging Russian interference and voter suppression. “The American people are owed an explanation,” proclaimed Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex. The Senate did not feel this way. Not one senator registered an objection to the outcome in any state, something required under law for a successful challenge. After each state delegation upheld the wishes of voters, Vice President Joe Biden, presiding over the session, declared Trump the winner. At last, the ordeal was over.
Well…not quite. A number of Democrats and media partisans still believed they could overturn the result. It had to do with those nosy Russians. The New York Times ran a column by economist Paul Krugman, “The Tainted Election,” alleging that the result was “illegitimate,” a combination of “foreign intervention” and “grotesquely inappropriate partisan behavior on the part of domestic law enforcement.” Krugman wrote: “Mr. Trump is, by all indications, the Siberian candidate, installed with the help of remarkably deferential to a hostile foreign power.” The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and other papers of record ran a surfeit of stories accusing Russian agents of stealing the election. Newsweek ran a headline, “U.S. to Announce Response to Russian Election Hacking,” as if to imply that Russian hacking was an indisputable fact. On December 9, 2016, President Obama ordered the intelligence community to investigate Russia’s role in the election. Four weeks later, on January 6, 2017, the Office of Director of National Intelligence released a declassified report concluding that Russian President Putin had ordered his country’s agents to influence the U.S. presidential election but that Donald Trump had not colluded with the Russian government to rig the vote. “[The Department of Homeland Security] assesses that the types of systems we observed Russian actors targeting or compromising are not involved in vote tallying,” the report read.
A few government officials aside from President Trump rejected the Russian bogeyman argument. They included Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell (under Obama). But the “Russia did it” story line already had taken on a life of its own. The new administration was in its opponents’ cross hairs from day one. It would not take long for a casualty to occur. In February, only weeks in office, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned for allegedly lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contact with the Russian ambassador. That would not be enough for those seeking Trump’s ouster. President Trump, in full damage control mode, fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9, 2017. Eight days later, on May 17, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller (2001-13) as special counsel for the Justice Department to investigate “any links and/or coordination with Russian government and any officials associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump, and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
The probe thus far has won only symbolic trophies. On October 30, subsequent to the publication of The Plot to Stop Trump, Mueller’s office charged Trump campaign advisers Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos with conspiracy, money-laundering, failure to register as a foreign agent and other offenses entirely unrelated to either the Trump campaign or presidency. Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty; Papadopoulos, the lowest rung on this totem pole, has pleaded guilty to giving false statements to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials over non-campaign issues. The case has garnered hurrahs from Time and other leading media outlets, but appears politically motivated. The nine counts against Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, for example, center upon his foreign lobbying that began in 2006. Ironically, Mueller now is probing John Podesta – Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager – because Manafort in 2012 had brought Podesta into the very project that got him (Manafort) into trouble, the European Center for a Modern Ukraine. Some might call that poetic justice.
To repeat: Nothing in this “Russian interference” sleuthing expedition has implicated any Trump administration official. The evidence appears to be a classic case of connecting several dots and passing the result off as the big picture. It is unlikely that either Mueller or current FBI Director Christopher Wray will quench the thirst of the anti-Trump brigades. Americans on November 8, 2016 elected Donald Trump as president. To reverse that decision would take many more searches for that elusive smoking gun. And discovery has virtually no chance of yielding the desired results in absence of a large Democratic pickup of seats in the 2018 midterm congressional elections. Either way, one strains to see any credibility in the effort.
The author, Fred Lucas, closes his book by imagining an alternative history. Suppose Hillary Clinton had been elected. Wouldn’t that have spared our country this trauma? Lucas thinks it would not have. America, he argues, would have remained polarized. Congress would have opened multiple investigations. And James Comey’s FBI predecessor, Robert Mueller, now special prosecutor in the Russian probe, would not have gotten that job. The one big area of impact was the selection of a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Hillary Clinton assuredly would have nominated an ideological progressive and not a moderate liberal similar to the Obama nominee, Merrick Garland, who had been placed in limbo by Senate Republicans. There would have been zero chance of Clinton going with someone like Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s eventual pick, approved in a virtual party-line Senate vote.
Fred Lucas has written a lucid and informative book on the attempt by Hillary Clinton and her coterie to undo the presidential vote of a year ago. Without lapsing into overheated rhetoric common to conservative blog sites, he provides a gripping and alarming tale of how Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic Party and sundry anti-Trump forces effectively tried to legally steal an election while disingenuously claiming high moral principle. They failed. But if Trump runs for re-election in 2020 (and wins), and the vote is anywhere as close as it was in 2016, expect a sequel.