Inauguration Day Symbolizes America’s Enduring Constitution


Recent political talk has focused almost entirely on Jan. 5 (the Georgia Senate runoffs) and Jan. 6 (congressional certification of the Electoral College results). Important as they are, we also should remember Jan. 20. On that day Americans will witness a truly remarkable tradition: the peaceful transfer of power between opposing parties. Such handovers are extremely rare in history and a towering, hard-won achievement. Our next one is worth celebrating, regardless of how you voted.

It is especially important for Donald Trump to attend this one since he has contested the November outcome so aggressively. Those challenges have gone well beyond formal legal contests. He has rallied supporters to challenge the legitimacy of the election outcome. That rallying cry needs to end, even as legal battles continue. It is time for President Trump to signal his public recognition that Joe Biden won the 2020 election and that he and the Republican Party are now the “loyal opposition.”

The losers’ presence at the inauguration serves two crucial functions. First, it makes clear that they accept the winner as legitimate. Like the swearing-in of members of Congress and Supreme Court justices, it tells all Americans that our top officials hold their positions rightfully.

Second, it shows that defeated candidates and their party are integral features of our ongoing constitutional process. Their presence says they will continue to seek election and work within that framework.

The losing side has every right to challenge the election’s integrity in court. Trump has done so repeatedly and failed each time. That’s partly because it is nearly impossible to swiftly prove “fact claims,” such as voter fraud. Still, Trump’s legal team has held numerous press conferences and public hearings to assert they have incontrovertible proof. Their claims have convinced die-hard believers but not trial judges, appellate courts, or state legislatures. Repeating these claims of a “stolen election,” without convincing the courts, rends the country’s already-fraying political fabric.

Few open-minded people would doubt there was some fraud in this election. It was probably worse this year because so many states instituted widespread mail-in voting without experience or solid protections against fraud.

Still, no courts or administrative tribunals have found mistakes or malfeasance large enough to change any state’s electoral votes. Some courts may have been biased, but Trump’s team has lost before multiple judges he appointed. He has lost administrative challenges in states led by Republicans he once endorsed. He has every right to continue these challenges, but, without major legal victories, it irresponsible to claim that Joe Biden is not the duly elected president. He is. Attorney General Bill Barr underscored that point in a final press conference, saying his department has not yet found any evidence of widespread fraud.

Many Trump voters believe all of them are lying. They have convinced themselves that Republicans who recognize Biden’s victory, including those who voted for Trump, are weak-kneed RINOs. President Trump has encouraged this thinking. Ending it is another reason Trump should stand on stage with Joe Biden.

Democrats don’t come to this moment with clean hands. It’s fine for them to celebrate their presidential victory. But it’s rich to see them parading their moral superiority. Their abysmal behavior after Trump’s victory four years ago is a one reason we face such ferocious pushback today.

Hillary Clinton may have behaved properly in public, attending Trump’s inauguration, but her private behavior was appalling. In 2016, she and the Democratic National Committee used intermediaries to hire foreign agents, who concocted false and defamatory stories about Trump “colluding” with the Kremlin to win the election. Those agents weren’t loose cannons. They were doing precisely what they were hired to do. Clinton’s close associates then worked assiduously to feed that false information to the media, the State Department, the Department of Justice, and the FBI, hoping to fuel a federal investigation into Trump-Russia collusion.

At the same time, the FBI not only spied on the Trump campaign, it spied on the newly elected president and his team. Holdover officials continued to do so after Trump was sworn in. Their efforts were profoundly damaging. They deliberately sabotaged the transition of power while publicly undermining the new president’s legitimacy. Theirs was abuse of power on a grand scale.

This effort to delegitimize Trump’s presidency was systematic, sustained, and well-orchestrated. Its overriding aim was to show that Trump did not win the presidency honestly, exactly what Trump himself is now saying about Biden. Democratic lawmakers tipped their hand at Trump’s inauguration, when some five dozen House members, led by civil rights icon John Lewis, refused to attend. Lewis said openly that Trump “is not a legitimate president.” He also refused to attend George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001.

Boycotts like this are something new and troubling for our democracy. Lewis had every right not to attend, as do pro-Trump representatives this time. That’s their prerogative, but we all pay a price when they exercise it. Their disdain for the rival political party undermines our shared traditions and institutions.

Eschewing civic niceties pales beside the damage done by prolonged, politically inspired investigations. Those were the sulfurous face of the Washington Swamp: James Comey’s FBI; Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his top aide, Andrew Weissmann; anti-Trump leakers in the bureaucracy and White House; and the Democratic House of Representatives. The mainstream media participated actively, eagerly. They hated Trump more than they loved journalism.

They all had the same straightforward goal: showing that Trump was elected only because he sought help from a foreign enemy and received it. How, then, could he possibly be considered a legitimate president?

It was certainly appropriate for Congress and the Department of Justice to see if Russia interfered in the election and if either party received foreign assistance. Fair-minded investigations, including Mueller’s, would have included Hillary Clinton’s campaign payments to foreign investigators, who relied on questionable Russian sources. Mueller never looked into those and never explained why. But, then, these investigations were never really about Russia. They were about Trump, whom Democrats wanted to sink by tying him to Vladimir Putin. Ideally, they would remove him from office. Failing that, they hoped to immobilize his presidency and hurt his chances of reelection.

That’s why, as soon as Democrats won the House in 2018, they ginned up a massive investigation, endorsed by their party’s top elected official, Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That’s why the Mueller team, filled with anti-Trump partisans, refused to release a partial report before the 2018 election, clearing Trump of collusion with Russia. That part of the investigation was already complete. They knew the evidence fell far short of collusion, and they should have informed the public.

Meanwhile, the House investigation, led by Pelosi’s protégé Adam Schiff, was coming up dry, too. Schiff’s House Intelligence Committee secretly interviewed all of Barack Obama’s top officials in law enforcement, intelligence, and national security. Every one of them, testifying under oath, said they had no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion. They said something very different before the cameras while Schiff hid their secret testimony for two years. Schiff himself repeatedly told reporters he had conclusive evidence of Trump-Russia collusion. If it exists, it remains as secret today as the formula for Coca-Cola.

These constant investigations, targeting a sitting president with little or no basis, hiding exculpatory evidence, spewing false information to take down political opponents, are noxious. They are not the behavior of a “loyal opposition,” operating within clear constitutional limits. They are the behavior of malignant politicians, journalists, and broadcasters who see their political competitors as enemies. Their actions, combined with the collapse of public trust in our institutions, endangers our constitutional order.

President Trump is doing the exact same thing now. His backers say, “They did it to us, and we need to fight back just as hard.” This “eye for an eye” is blinding our democracy.

It’s fruitless to direct blame at one party. Both have wrongly claimed the winner is illegitimate. We need to restore a bipartisan sense that our leaders hold office rightfully, thanks to free and fair elections.

That restoration should begin with a bipartisan effort to ensure future elections are honest, especially if they involve large-scale mail-in voting. Second, politicians and their ardent supporters need to stop promoting unproven claims of fraud and criminality. Third, leaders from both parties, including the outgoing president, need to affirm America’s constitutional stability by standing together as the new president is sworn in. Trump will have to grit his teeth, but his appearance on stage with Joe Biden will show the world our democracy endures.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at [email protected].

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