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Debate 3: Why be surprised by Trump’s unsurprising election-results remark?

He’s not very good at backing down from regrettable things he says. So why act shocked when he wouldn’t cut it out just because moderator Chris Wallace asked him to?

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shown at the end of their third and final presidential campaign debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Nevada.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

I understand why people are bothered that Donald Trump was unwilling to say whether he will abide by the results of the election, I just don’t really understand how they can be so surprised. He’s been saying for quite a while that the election is being rigged against him. His running mate and his campaign manager and a lot of other people have been saying it’s not rigged and urging him for some time to cut out saying it is, and he wouldn’t. He’s not very good at backing down from regrettable things he says. So why act shocked when he wouldn’t cut it out just because moderator Chris Wallace asked him to?

OK, so I take it from the talking heads after the debate that that was the big headline, that Trump said he would leave us in “suspense” about whether he would accept the result. And when the history is written, it will go down as the big “gaffe” of the night. I said in a previous post that almost all the famous “gaffes” were stupid accidental misspeaks or, often, not even misspeaks but body language mistakes. But when Trump said the election was rigged he said something he’s been saying for weeks, so, to repeat myself, I don’t get why it’s either surprising or a “gaffe.”

In the aftermath, the Trump-sympathetic cleanup crew that was on the post-debate shows immediately suggested a much better answer he could have and should have given. When asked by Wallace whether he would abide by the results, he could and should have said something like: “Let’s see what the results are. If the outcome is very close and I narrowly lost in a key state or two in which there appear to have been improprieties, I would reserve the right to contest the result, just like Al Gore did in 2000, in a peaceful, legal challenge.”

Something different from fraud

But there’s two problems with that suggestion. First of all, Trump has shown little interest to date in coming across as sane, reasonable, or, God knows, measured on such matters. But secondly — and this seems like the bigger problem to me — while some of Trump’s followers, including Rudy Giuliani, have talked about actual voting improprieties to defend Trump’s talk of a rigged election, when Trump plays the “rigged” card, he apparently means something completely different from voter fraud.

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He cites three big reasons the election is rigged, and only one of them has to do with voter fraud. He did it again last night. He said the election is rigged because Hillary Clinton is a felon who should not be allowed to run against him. And he says it is rigged because the media coverage of him has been unfair.

Seriously, I’ll attach that portion of the debate transcript at the bottom of this post. Leave aside, for the moment, the widely accepted understanding that voter fraud in U.S. elections is quite rare and unlikely to rise to the level of flipping a presidential election result. (People keep talking about the 1960 Kennedy victory, which probably was aided by fraud, but election administration has advance enormously in the last 50 years).

Trump is actually more insistent about the other two causes – the media rigging and the Clinton-is-a-criminal causes. And, can you really go to court to peacefully contest the election on the ground that the news media treated you unfairly?


I’ll also attach at the bottom the transcript of Trump’s discussion of the situation in Aleppo, Syria. I’m nominating it for the least coherent remarks ever made in a presidential debate. See if you can top it.

A few other thoughts from last night:

How about just one microphone?

Chris Wallace is getting raves in general for his performance as moderator. I think he did well. But this debate nonetheless strengthened my argument that stronger measures are needed to prevent the candidates interrupting each other or even, especially last night, talking over each other. A rather obvious, low-tech solution, would be to have a podium and only one microphone, on that podium, and have the candidates take turns speaking. If that sounds crazy, it was done in the famed Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960. They were seated until it was their turn to talk, then walked up to the podium, where the mike was.

Or, at least, cut off the mike of the candidate whose turn it is to be quiet.

The interrupting problem last night was better for the first few minutes. In fact, Trump was on what my favorite second-grade teacher used to call “best behavior” for much of the first portion. We’ve grown so used to his rude tactics that he seemed almost like a normal candidate. Clinton actually seemed to be taunting him, maybe even hoping to set him off. And I think she succeeded, perhaps during segment three, which was supposed to be about the candidates’ relative fitness for the presidency. Clinton brought up the parade of women who have claimed to be groped by Trump, which led to three ludicrous claims by Trump that a) those women ‘s accounts have “been largely debunked”; that b) Clinton’s campaign was behind the women’s claims; and that c) “Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Nobody.” (That last one had Clinton laughing audibly.)

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Trump retaliated by classifying the Clinton Foundation as a “criminal enterprise” and, later, by arguing that the only reason for the assault on Mosul is that the Obama administration wants to make Clinton look good before the election.

Old norms replaced

The opening segment, which was about Supreme Court appointments, reinforced the arguments I made recently that the old norms of deferring to the justices on matters of constitutional interpretation have been replaced by candidates who publicly announce that they will nominate justices who will rule a specific way on specific matters. The Second Amendment right to bear arms, and the Roe v. Wade ruling on abortions were the main two on which both candidates promised nominees who would vote the party line.

Thankfully, last night ends the debate season. Here, as promised, the portion in which Trump explains that, among the reasons he might not accept the election results are that the media has treated him unfairly and that Clinton should not have been allowed to run against him:

WALLACE: Mr. Trump, I want to ask you about one last question in this topic. You have been warning at rallies recently that this election is rigged and that Hillary Clinton is in the process of trying to steal it from you.

Your running mate, Governor Pence, pledged on Sunday that he and you — his words — “will absolutely accept the result of this election.” Today your daughter, Ivanka, said the same thing. I want to ask you here on the stage tonight: Do you make the same commitment that you will absolutely — sir, that you will absolutely accept the result of this election?

TRUMP: I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now. I’ll look at it at the time.

What I’ve seen — what I’ve seen is so bad. First of all, the media is so dishonest and so corrupt, and the pile-on is so amazing. The New York Times actually wrote an article about it, but they don’t even care. It’s so dishonest. And they’ve poisoned the mind of the voters.

But unfortunately for them, I think the voters are seeing through it. I think they’re going to see through it. We’ll find out on November 8th. But I think they’re going to see through it.

WALLACE: But, sir, there’s …

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TRUMP: If you look — excuse me, Chris — if you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people that are registered to vote — millions, this isn’t coming from me — this is coming from Pew Report and other places — millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn’t be registered to vote.

So let me just give you one other thing. So I talk about the corrupt media. I talk about the millions of people — tell you one other thing. She shouldn’t be allowed to run. It’s crooked — she’s — she’s guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run.

And just in that respect, I say it’s rigged, because she should never …


TRUMP: Chris, she should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with e-mails and so many other things.

WALLACE: But, sir, there is a tradition in this country — in fact, one of the prides of this country — is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying that you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and that the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?

TRUMP: What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. OK?

CLINTON: Well, Chris, let me respond to that, because that’s horrifying. You know, every time Donald thinks things are not going in his direction, he claims whatever it is, is rigged against him.

The FBI conducted a year-long investigation into my e-mails. They concluded there was no case; he said the FBI was rigged. He lost the Iowa caucus. He lost the Wisconsin primary. He said the Republican primary was rigged against him. Then Trump University gets sued for fraud and racketeering; he claims the court system and the federal judge is rigged against him. There was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged against him.

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TRUMP: Should have gotten it. (LAUGHTER)

CLINTON: This is — this is a mindset. This is how Donald thinks. And it’s funny, but it’s also really troubling.


CLINTON: So that is not the way our democracy works. We’ve been around for 240 years. We’ve had free and fair elections. We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them. And that is what must be expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election. You know, President Obama said the other day when you’re whining before the game is even finished …

Most incoherent ramble in debate history

And here is the other excerpted I promised above, which I nominated for most incoherent ramble in debate history. Wallace tried to give Trump a chance to clean up a small mess from the previous debate, when Trump said that Aleppo has “fallen.” In fact, it hasn’t “fallen” because it’s still being fought over. Trump responded:

 TRUMP: Well, Aleppo is a disaster. It’s a humanitarian nightmare. But it has ‘fallen’ from the — from any standpoint. I mean, what do you need, a signed document? Take a look at Aleppo. It is so sad when you see what’s happened.

And a lot of this is because of Hillary Clinton, because what’s happened is, by fighting Assad, who turned out to be a lot tougher than she thought, and now she’s going to say, ‘oh, he loves Assad,’ she’s — he’s just much tougher and much smarter than her and Obama. And everyone thought he was gone two years ago, three years ago. He — he aligned with Russia.

He now also aligned with Iran, who we made very powerful. We gave them $150 billion back. We give them $1.7 billion in cash. I mean, cash. Bundles of cash as big as this stage. We gave them $1.7 billion.

Now they have — he has aligned with Russia and with Iran. They don’t want ISIS, but they have other things, because we’re backing — we’re backing rebels. We don’t know who the rebels are. We’re giving them lots of money, lots of everything. We don’t know who the rebels are. And when and if — and it’s not going to happen, because you have Russia and you have Iran now. But if they ever did overthrow Assad, you might end up with — as bad as Assad is, and he’s a bad guy, but you may very well end up with worse than Assad.

If she did nothing, we’d be in much better shape. And this is what’s caused the great migration, where she’s taking in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, who probably in many cases — not probably, who are definitely …

WALLACE: Let me …

TRUMP: … in many cases, ISIS-aligned, and we now have them in our country, and wait until you see — this is going to be the great Trojan horse. And wait until you see what happens in the coming years. Lots of luck, Hillary. Thanks a lot for doing a great job.