The New York Times has released an analysis of Tuesday’s Presidential debate confirming a nightmarish scenario few of us, prior to 2016, would ever have dreamed possible in this country. Written by David Sanger, it is titled, ”Tuesday’s Debate Made Clear the Gravest Threat to the Election: The President Himself.”
Sanger initially notes that Trump’s rant-filled conclusion to the first of what, up to this strange point in time, was simply a celebrated, routine rite of passage in our election process—the presidential debates–was converted Tuesday night by Donald Trump into a vehicle to attack the very foundations of our 244 year-old democracy.
President Trump’s angry insistence in the last minutes of Tuesday’s debate that there was no way the presidential election could be conducted without fraud amounted to an extraordinary declaration by a sitting American president that he would try to throw any outcome into the courts, Congress or the streets if he was not re-elected.
His comments came after four years of debate about the possibility of foreign interference in the 2020 election and how to counter such disruptions. But they were a stark reminder that the most direct threat to the electoral process now comes from the president of the United States himself.
What occurred Tuesday night, according to Sanger’s analysis, was not simply Trump denigrating our elections in an attempt to sow doubt about their legitimacy, but a curiously transparent appropriation of what Russian “president” Vladimir Putin has sought to accomplish in his efforts to destabilize our own, as well as European democracies, over the past twenty years:
“[Trump’s] unwillingness to say he would abide by the result, and his disinformation campaign about the integrity of the American electoral system, went beyond anything President Vladimir V. Putin could have imagined. All Mr. Putin has to do now is amplify the president’s message, which the Russian leader has already begun to do.
Trump’s effort to undermine this country’s greatest democratic asset—its free election process—by urging his supporters to question the electoral results with the implicit condonement of violence if the results are not to his liking, may have been one small step of mere verbal spew for Trump, but it was a giant leap towards a Putin-flavored autocracy. As historian Michael Beschloss, interviewed for Sanger’s article, observes, “This is the kind of thing we have preached to other countries that they should not do. It reeks of autocracy, not democracy.”
If this were simply an accident of Trump’s personal interests aligning with Putin’s with regard to the 2020 election, then Trump’s effort last night to raise false doubts about “voter fraud,” preemptively declaring an election which he is increasingly likely to lose as illegitimate, and pledging to use all available means to overturn any result that does not lead to his own reinstatement– while reprehensible and disqualifying– would not rise to the level of outright treachery.
But that is not how our own intelligence agencies are viewing Trump’s performance. As Sanger reports, they see his behavior as deliberate, and his statements (possibly) as an intentional signal to Putin to amplify Russian disinformation efforts directed against American citizens. According to Sanger (who chooses his words carefully here), U.S. intelligence distinctly sees a coded conduit of communication between this president and Russian intelligence, specifically raising concerns in the intelligence community “that Mr. Trump’s rant about a fraudulent vote may have been intended for more than just a domestic audience.”
They have been worried for some time that his warnings are a signal to outside powers — chiefly the Russians — for their disinformation campaign, which has seized on his baseless theme that the mail-in ballots are ridden with fraud. But what concerns them the most is that over the next 34 days, the country may begin to see disruptive cyberoperations, especially ransomware, intended to create just enough chaos to prove the president’s point.
So the laundry list of imagined “fraud” Trump delivered last night acts as a guidebook of sorts, for Putin and his intelligence services. As Sanger notes, Trump did the diametric opposite of what the Republican-controlled Senate warned him not to do in its recently released report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, specifically its admonition that ‘[s]itting officials and candidates should use the absolute greatest amount of restraint and caution if they are considering publicly calling the validity of an upcoming election into question.” Sanger also quotes Representative Adam Schiff who says that in his conversations with U.S. intelligence officials it is clear that Russia is already making efforts to sow doubts in this country about the security of mail-in balloting. It is also clear that Trump’s parallel campaign to foment similar disinformation to his voting base does not originate from information obtained from U.S. intelligence, but from Trump himself.
After Tuesday’s debacle there is already discussion about whether any further debates could possibly be of value where one of the principals refuses to abide by institutional norms. But the real question isn’t so much whether Joe Biden should agree again to debate Donald Trump. The more serious question is whether Trump should be included at all, or whether Biden should be debating Vladimir Putin instead.