On Wednesday during the final presidential debate, Donald Trump refused to say that he would accept the results of next month’s election, a move that would be unprecedented in its rejection of American democracy. In the past 16-plus hours, he has been hammered for those remarks by media critics, experts, and even members of his own party.
On Thursday, Trump gave them his response.
Speaking to a crowd of supporters in Ohio, he said this:
Ladies and gentlemen, I want to make a major announcement today. I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters and to all of the people of the United States that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election … if I win.
Every aspect of this, from the “major announcement” preamble, to the pledge, to the “accept the results” phrasing that mirrored what he was asked in the debate, to the brief pause and denouement felt like a fairly typical Trump troll of his adversaries.
That’s almost definitely partially what it was. And maybe it doesn’t even matter if he accepts the election results. But in the rest of this ugly, rambling speech, Trump was doing even more to attempt to excuse his own threats to democracy while laying the groundwork for rejecting the election results based on myths and conspiracy theories.
It was pretty despicable.
First, citing unscientific and biased online polls, Trump claimed to have won the third debate by as much as “90 percent.” After bringing up these bogus surveys, Trump transitioned to his long running premise that the election might be stolen from him through electoral fraud despite all available evidence to the contrary.
“The question of voter fraud came up during the debate,” he said. “We want fairness in the election. This is having nothing to do with me, but having to do with the future of our country.”
Again, you could just read this as an arch troll by a former pro wrestling villain. But he’s actually succeeding in putting these ideas in the heads of many voters, who now believe that the presidential election will be “rigged.”
As Trump did with his rise to political power via his support of the birther movement, he is now literally using invented conspiracy theories from the nuttiest corners of the internet to bolster an even nuttier one.
Trump gave his first reason for why the election might not be "fair." “John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, was quoted in WikiLeaks as saying illegal immigrants could vote as long as they have their driver's license,” Trump said. “What I'm saying is don't be naïve, folks. Don't be naïve.”
On the picture ID, the one thing I have thought of in that space is that if you show up on Election Day with a drivers license with a picture, attest that you are a citizen, you have a right to vote in Federal elections.
Nowhere does he say anything about illegal immigrants and there’s no suggestion of voter fraud anywhere in that sentence. But Trump is citing it to say that Hillary Clinton will possibly steal the election and attributing things to her campaign chairman that he literally never said.
“[Hillary Clinton] is a candidate who is truly capable of anything,” Trump continued. “Including voter fraud.”
He then called on Clinton to resign from the race because Donna Brazile appears to have fed the Clinton campaign a town hall question in advance, an admittedly awful charge against the acting DNC chairwoman. Trump is now alleging Clinton was fed questions (plural), was aware of it, and covered it up, again something for which there is no evidence:
She was given these questions, she used these questions, studied the questions, got the perfect answer for the questions and never said that she did something that was totally wrong and inappropriate. Hence the name Crooked Hillary.
He then went on to site the film Quiz Show as an example of what should happen to Clinton.
Years ago there was a show called The $64,000 Question. A contestant got the questions in advance, and his life was ruined. … Charles Van Doren was his name. He got the questions, and his life was ruined. But Hillary, Hillary Clinton got the question—think of it.
A few things here. Van Doren knew he was being fed questions and answers; there’s no evidence that Clinton did or that it happened more than once. Van Doren’s actions were not criminal, and nothing being alleged about Clinton is either (though it is grossly unethical on the part of Brazile and Clinton’s campaign if true). Finally, the game show was Twenty One, not The $64,000 Question.
“Can you imagine if I got the questions?” Trump continued. “They would call for the re-establishment of the electric chair.”
This was where Trump’s speech devolved to its most grotesque.
“Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt and dishonest person ever to seek the office of the presidency,” he said. “So it's in that context that I was asked a question about whether I would agree in advance to concede the results on election night if for some reason we should lose, which we're not going to lose.”
This is not what he was asked. He then cited the 2000 election results and “Gore v. Bush or Bush v Gore” as a justification for refusing to say he’d accept the outcome of the election (Al Gore did ultimately accept the outcome of that election).
“In effect, I'm being asked to waive centuries of legal precedent designed to protect the voters,” he said. Again, no, that’s not what he was being asked.
Trump then continued to outline his "evidence."
“According to Pew—highly respected—there are 24 million voter registrations in the United States that are either invalid or significantly inaccurate,” he continued, citing Pew Research that found not one example of actual voter fraud among the duplicate registrations. Trump then claimed that dead people vote, so that’s why he’ll lose, another bogus claim. Finally, he cited the idea that undocumented immigrants would put themselves at risk of discovery and deportation just to vote illegally, again, something for which there is zero evidence.
“And 14 percent of noncitizens are registered to vote,” Trump said, citing a debunked study. “Those are terrible and frightening statistics. America is a constitutional republic with a system of laws. These laws are triggered in the case of fraud or in the event of a recount where it's needed. Of course, I would accept a clear election result, but I would also reserve my right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result.”
Trump then closed this portion of the speech on perhaps the most disgraceful note of all:
And always I will follow and abide by all of the rules and traditions of all of the many candidates who have come before me. Always.
Again, this is exactly what he refused to do on Wednesday night and was still refusing to do on Thursday.