I have something to say about this, but it’s probably not what you expect:
President Trump used his first official meeting with congressional leaders on Monday to falsely claim that millions of unauthorized immigrants had robbed him of a popular vote majority, a return to his obsession with the election’s results even as he seeks support for his legislative agenda.
The claim, which he has made before on Twitter, has been judged untrue by numerous fact-checkers. The new president’s willingness to bring it up at a White House reception in the State Dining Room is an indication that he continues to dwell on the implications of his popular vote loss even after assuming power.
Mr. Trump appears to remain concerned that the public will view his victory — and his entire presidency — as illegitimate if he does not repeatedly challenge the idea that Americans were deeply divided about sending him to the White House to succeed President Barack Obama.
Mr. Trump received 304 electoral votes to capture the White House, but he fell almost three million votes short of Hillary Clinton in the popular vote. That reality appears to have bothered him since Election Day, prompting him to repeatedly complain that adversaries were trying to undermine him.
Moving into the White House appears not to have tempered that anxiety.
On one level, I can fully understand why Donald Trump and his political team do not want his presidency to be hampered from the outset with the stench of illegitimacy. For a variety of reasons, it’s very difficult to govern if your right to lead is not respected. As a result, it makes a lot of sense to push back at narratives that undermine his legitimacy. For example, when he says that he would have or at least could have done better in the popular vote if he had designed his campaign to win it rather than to win the Electoral College, he is correct. He won the only contest that matters, and he deserves recognition for prevailing according to the rules of that contest.
It’s obviously not correct to argue that he actually won the popular vote or was somehow cheated out of winning it. That only bolsters his legitimacy with people who are already giving his presidency legitimacy, and with gullible fools. Perhaps it is important to sustain their support, and maybe that’s his real motive here. But you can’t sell that lie to a room of people who are only there because they’re pros at winning elections. They are too sophisticated to buy your nonsense, and they are either insulted or begin to question your sanity.
Having badly lost the popular vote is a stain on his victory, as is the low turnout at his inauguration and the massive global protests that broke out the next day. His terrible approval numbers are also a concern. But his real legitimacy problems are coming from his connections to Russia and the way that the FBI intervened in the election.
If he were truly and sanely interested in preserving his legitimacy he would not do seemingly everything possible to bolster the impression that the Russians have something on him and that he is doing their bidding. He would not have made a man suspected of being a conduit to the Russians his National Security Advisor. He would not have named a man to serve as Secretary of State who had once been awarded a Friend of Russia award. He would not act as Vladimir Putin’s defense attorney at every opportunity, especially when he is critical of nearly every other prominent politician on Earth. He wouldn’t nakedly signal his intention to lift Russian sanctions without getting anything related to the sanctions in return. He would not adopt a posture consistent with Putin’s desire to undermine the European Union, nor go out of his way to criticize NATO and our Far Eastern allies. He wouldn’t call Angela Merkel’s policies “catastrophic.”
He can’t go back and undo his hiring of Paul Manafort or his connections to Carter Page, but he can stop acting as if the United States is now located behind the Iron Curtain. Yet, he refuses to stop.
It’s true that this posture only undermines his legitimacy with a relatively small subset of Americans, but those Americans include the members of Congress, the entire Intelligence Community, our military leadership, our State Department, and the media. In other words, he’s not seen as legitimate by the Establishment. That dissent is part of his appeal and explains his political success, but he’s not just a candidate anymore. If he cares about his legitimacy, he ought to see that it’s most badly undermined at the moment by his policies towards Russia and the lingering concerns about their role in getting him elected.
Instead, he wants to fight the media about crowd sizes and he goes to the CIA and disrespects their dead. He treats the truth in a way that is guaranteed to undermine his standing with authors and reporters and professors who will write about his presidency and create his legacy for posterity.
Fighting about the audience for his inauguration in light of all these other bigger blows to his legitimacy is a fool’s errand.