by Andrew W. Robertson, Acting Executive Officer of the History PhD Program, CUNY Graduate Center. His newest forthcoming publication is The Oxford Handbook of Revolutionary Elections in the Americas, 1800-1910 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), ed. by Andrew W. Robertson and Eduardo Posada Carbó. His current work in progress is Democracy in the Early Republic: America’s Other ‘Peculiar Institution’ and John L. Brooke, Distinguished Humanities Professor of American History at The Ohio State University. His current project are State Formations: Histories and Cultures of Statehood, co-edited with Julia Strauss and Greg Anderson, and Forging the Civil War North: Political Crisis, Fugitive Slaves, and Liminal Rupture in Antebellum America, 1850-1856.
On Nov. 8, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, winning a projected 306 Electoral College votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232. The election outcome surprised many veteran campaigners, politicians, pollsters, columnists and members of the public. The election result is an extreme outlier in the history of the republic – it is one of four out of 57 presidential contests since 1789 in which the Electoral College victor has not also won the even a plurality of the vote and one of eight in which the margin was two percent or less. The Electoral College will appoint a president, on its constitutional authority as directed by the states. Now, as in 1876, 1888 and 2000, the nation should carefully consult the documents that record its governing mandate, particularly in light of other more pressing clear and present dangers.
Perhaps the outcome of the election even surprised President-elect Trump. It is the surprises that have followed the election, however, that have pushed the U.S. to the brink of a constitutional crisis. Trump has refused to sell off his many properties around the globe or to place them in a blind trust, a situation that could place him in the position of receiving foreign emoluments. While he initially announced that he would address potential conflicts of interest at a press conference on Dec. 15, he has now deferred any such discussion to January. Our situation is all the more complicated since Trump expressed his admiration of Vladimir Putin, the ruler of a country which for almost a century has been our country’s leading adversary. Trump has nominated for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the corporate chair of ExxonMobil, a company with billions of dollars at stake in the future of sanctions on Russia voted by the United States Senate. More ominously, this week the Central Intelligence Agency released its formal determination that Russian operatives had deliberately interfered in the presidential election to tilt the outcome towards Mr. Trump. The election process may have been so thoroughly compromised that public officials will need to consider whether it has been conducted fairly. Russian interference would undermine the very legitimacy of the democratic process and could have grave and long-lasting consequences. In the words of Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA, this information is the “political equivalent of 9/11,” and “an existential threat to our way of life.”
There has never been such a set of circumstances surrounding a presidential election in the history of the American republic. While Congressional leaders are considering an investigation of these charges, any such inquiry would require weeks to complete. These issues raise serious questions about whether Mr. Trump is constitutionally qualified to be president. None are likely to be resolved before the Electoral College meets to vote on Dec. 19.