Does it matter if Trump believes he won the 2020 election?
Did former President Trump know, after the 2020 election, that he had lost as he convinced millions of supporters the election was stolen and sought to overturn it? If so, then he violated his oath as president to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution,” trying to prevent the constitutional transfer of power.
But what if Trump believed he’d won? Would that excuse his efforts to nullify the election? Would his sincerity rebut the widespread opinion that, even if he is not convicted of any crimes, his attacks on the election morally disqualify him from the presidency? After all, for commonsense morality as well as criminal law, motive matters — and, if Trump believed he won, then it is possible he saw himself as acting to prevent a monstrous injustice, the stealing of a presidential election. In that case, wasn’t his intent to defend the Constitution rather than undermine it?
There is considerable evidence Trump knew the election was fair. He was no doubt aware that he lost over 60 state and federal lawsuits alleging electoral fraud and that no state legislatures were acting to change their Electoral College votes. In sworn testimony to the Jan. 6 House Select Committee, former Justice Department officials said they told Trump the agency’s investigation of fraud claims by Trump allies found them to be false.
Numerous aides and associates testified that they informed Trump there was no significant fraud. Cassidy Hutchinson, former assistant to chief of staff Mark Meadows, testified that her boss told her Trump acknowledged he lost but wanted to “keep fighting it,” saying, “I don’t want people to know we lost, . . . this is embarrassing.”
She also described conversations in which other staff members reported hearing Trump say he lost but didn’t want to concede. Another former White House aide, Alyssa Farah Griffin, told CNN she heard Trump admit privately that he lost the election, and former Attorney General William Barr told NBC News he believes “[Trump’s] attitude is it either is stolen or if it wasn’t I want people to believe it was stolen.”
Nevertheless, Trump publicly insists he has always believed the election was rigged. If that is true, does his belief absolve him of spreading his baseless claim and attempting to overturn the election? Most certainly not — for at least two compelling reasons.
First, in pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to violate his constitutional duty as president of the Senate to open the certificates containing electoral votes from the states but rather to reject the votes from swing states won by Biden, Trump flouted his oath of office.
He also failed to protect the Constitution when he incited the Jan. 6 assault on Congress and then for three hours refused to tell the rioters to leave the Capitol. Regardless of what he believed about the election, these actions were flagrant abuses of power and demonstrated an utter disregard for democracy and the rule of law.
Second, if Trump truly believed he won the election, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and no credible evidence that he won, he clearly lacks a moral attribute essential in a president: intellectual honesty.
Given the immense power of the presidency, the person holding that office must be able and willing to make decisions based on reasonably unbiased weighing of evidence. That is, a president needs what can be called cognitive competence, which includes the capacity for clear-headed, rational evaluation of evidence, an ability our system of justice depends on in judges and jurors.
A key element of cognitive competence is intellectual honesty, a willingness to examine and be persuaded by strong evidence that conflicts with one’s desires. This quality is a virtue enabling one to accept painful or embarrassing facts — a character trait necessary for objectively assessing evidence. Lapses of intellectual honesty (to which we are all subject at times) can cause great and lasting harm, and they are especially dangerous in leaders. If Trump, unable to accept losing, ignored the available evidence confirming the election’s integrity and really believed it was fraudulent, then his dearth of intellectual honesty renders him cognitively incompetent to hold the most powerful office in the world.
Either Trump knew he lost the election and deceived millions of Americans with a “Big Lie,” stirring outrage that turned hundreds of his followers into a violent mob that threatened our democracy, or he allowed himself to believe he won. That still would not excuse his trying to subvert Congress’s certifying the election, and it would show a depth of intellectual dishonesty unconscionable in a president. Either way, voters have conclusive moral reasons to deny Trump a return to our nation’s highest office.
Dana M. Radcliffe is the Day Family Senior Lecturer of Business Ethics at the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. He also teaches ethics and public policy at Syracuse University.
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