Chris Wallace presented Donald Trump with a question that falsely appeared to call for a yes or no answer. Trump has been roundly criticized for his honest answer.
The question from Chris Wallace: “I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, that you will absolutely accept the result of the election?”
On its face, the question seems to call for a simple yes or no, but contains unspoken assumptions that make an honest yes or no impossible.
Donald Trump’s response reflects that impossibility: “I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking anything now I will look at it at the time.”
Trump then accurately mentions that there are millions of names improperly on voter registration rolls. A 2012 Pew Center on the states study determined that about 24 million, or 1 in 8 voter registration records, were inaccurate or invalid. That should give anyone reason to pause when considering a pledge to blindly accept an outcome in advance of actual voting.
Trump’s honest answer properly reserved the right to contest electoral results. While the candidate possesses the legal right, contesting a doubtful electoral outcome is conceivably a duty a candidate owes to the electorate. Who can best contest the integrity and accuracy of an election if not the candidate? The answer is no one, yet the electorate is entitled to a legitimate outcome.
This reservation of right was not satisfactory to Wallace. His follow-up would again improperly imply a yes or no answer: “… at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner, … that the country comes together in part for the good of the country, are you saying that you are not prepared now to commit to that principle?”
The question fails to define the “end of the campaign.” Is it when Hawaiian polls close? When the final absentee ballot arrives at an election authority somewhere in the country? When all overseas ballots of members of the armed services are recorded? Any of these may mark the “end of the campaign,” but if there are doubts in states that affect the Electoral College outcome, none are the “end of the campaign.”
The campaign “ends” when all mandated or legally allowed recounts have been complete and proper legal challenges have been decided by the applicable court of last resort, and the Electoral College outcome is no longer in doubt.
There is no end to the campaign for the White House until all potential doubt about the Electoral College vote has been erased. This may be an uncomfortable reality in a world expecting instant results with nice, neat projections based upon exit polls.
Donald Trump was expressing this truth when he said: “What I’m saying now is I will tell you at the time. I will keep you in suspense, okay?”
Wallace asked a question that implied the campaign ended November 8th. The question could not be answered with a yes or no answer because of unknowable future facts. He did not receive a lawyerly answer from the non-lawyer Trump, which the lawyerly Mrs. Clinton would pounce upon with her own misstatement of history.
“Chris, let me respond to that because that is horrifying…. it’s funny but it’s also really troubling. This is not the way our democracy works. We’ve been around for two hundred and forty years. We have had free and fair elections. We have accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them.”
Dating back to 1800, and most recently in 2000, there have been many presidential campaigns that did not “end” on Election Day or did a perceived “loser” meekly accept the “results.”
1800: By a constitutional quirk, since addressed by the 12th Amendment, Thomas Jefferson and his vice-presidential running mate tied in the Electoral College. Burr fought tooth and nail through 35 votes in the House of Representatives to become president instead of Jefferson.
1824: An agreement between Speaker of the House Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams would deprive popular vote winner and Electoral College leader, Andrew Jackson. Jackson dubbed the agreement the “Corrupt Bargain” and would win the White House in 1828.
1860: The legitimacy of Abraham Lincoln would not be accepted by eleven states.
1876: 20 Electoral College votes from four states were in dispute. Congress created an “Electoral Commission” that gave all the disputed votes the Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel Tilden, despite Tilden’s clear popular vote majority. Hayes’ presidency was based on a promise to remove federal troops from the former Confederate states.
1888: Grover Cleveland would be denied his reelection bid, because unlike 1884, he would lose his home state of New York at the hands of the corrupt Tammany Hall machine. Cleveland lost NY by less than 1 percent and Benjamin Harrison became president.
1960: Before midnight on election night, The New York Times began printing the next day’s edition headlined: “Kennedy Elected President”. Times managing editor Turner Catledge, recalled in his memoirs his hope, “a certain Midwestern mayor would steal enough votes to pull Kennedy through,” to allow the Times to avoid a “Dewey defeats Truman” humiliation. Thanks to Mayor Daley and Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy would edge Richard Nixon in Illinois and Texas. The Republican National Committee would pursue recounts through the summer of 1961, six months after Kennedy had been inaugurated.
The election of 1960 is of current interest. The Project Veritas videos connecting the Clinton campaign to voter fraud and political dirty tricks contain DNC operative Scott Foval stating: “We’ve been bussing people in to deal with you f*****’ a**holes for fifty years and we’re not going to stop now.”
2000: Al Gore conceded then withdrew his concession until all legal challenges were exhausted, finally conceding to George W. Bush.
There was criticism of Trump when during the first Republican debate he did not pledge to support the Republican nominee without knowledge of who that nominee might be. His was the honest answer then, unlike many of his opponents who reneged on the pledge they made that day.
Trump answered Wallace’s question honestly in the third debate. Professional politicians would have easily lied and said, “Of course Chris, I’ll respect the outcome no matter what,” when in reality they would fight and not concede until all avenues were exhausted, in keeping with tradition that dates to Thomas Jefferson.
David J. Shestokas is an attorney and author of the book, Constitutional Sound Bites, an explanation of America’s Founding Documents in a 21st Century format.