Trump's baseless election attacks undermining U.S. image abroad

Sean D. Naylor
·National Security Correspondent
·7-min read

President Trump’s repeated demand on Thursday morning to “STOP THE COUNT!” of votes in the presidential election, combined with his other recent statements casting doubt on the validity of the election results, have done lasting damage to the United States’ international reputation and its moral authority to lecture other countries on how to conduct free and fair elections, according to several experts.

Later Thursday, Trump claimed the election was “rigged,” without citing any evidence, during an extraordinary public tirade that amounted to an attack on the American democratic system and was roundly condemned.

Trump’s Thursday morning tweets and his numerous previous allegations that any electoral outcome other than a victory for him must somehow be illegitimate undermine “the standing of the United States to be the kind of beacon and watchman of democracy and democratic principles around the world,” said Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security and a former foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain.

“The president’s call to stop counting votes and also his false declaration of victory on election night absolutely have an impact on America’s image and the ability for the United States to be a leading voice for democracy and free and fair elections,” said Jonathan Katz, director of democracy initiatives at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Katz, who monitored numerous foreign elections while working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said he was very familiar with the tactics being employed by Trump. “It’s really unfortunate to see them in the United States,” he said. “It’s more typical in a place like Azerbaijan or Russia or Ukraine.”

President Donald Trump speaks in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC on November 5, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
President Trump speaks at the White House on Thursday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

As if to underline that point, the head of an international team that is visiting the United States to observe the election sharply criticized Trump’s behavior Thursday. The president’s claims of victory and demands for a halt to vote counting amounted to “a gross abuse of office,” Michael Link, a German parliamentarian who is leading a delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), told the Stuttgarter Zeitung, according to Barron’s.

The OSCE team issued a statement Wednesday that did not mention Trump by name, but said the election had been “tarnished by legal uncertainty and unprecedented attempts to undermine public trust.” Katya Andrusz, a spokesperson for the team, declined to compare the U.S. election to any others but decried Trump’s rhetorical assaults on the process in an interview with Yahoo News. “There have been remarks made by the incumbent president that undermine public trust in the democratic system and in democratic elections, and that is certainly something that we took note of again and again,” she said.

The U.S. usually finds itself telling other countries of the importance of conducting fair elections, rather than being on the receiving end of such criticism. Under Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, the State Department routinely issues press releases exhorting other countries to run “free, fair and inclusive elections.” The president’s angry outbursts undercut those efforts, according to experts.

“It’s inevitable that the kinds of statements that Trump has been making will have some impact on our credibility when we speak about democracy to other countries,” said Sarah Repucci, vice president of research and analysis at Freedom House. “People all over the world are watching what happens here, both people who are struggling for democracy in their own countries and people who are looking for ways to repress their countries. So when there are cracks in our democracy here, it is noted all over the world.”

The State Department referred questions on whether Trump’s comments undermined U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad to the White House, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump’s comments also play into the hands of adversaries whose goal is to undermine the American model of government, according to Fontaine. “It hands autocrats a nice talking point to be able to say, ‘Look at these hypocrites who lecture us about democracy and elections,’” he said, citing Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as an example. On Wednesday, Khamenei mocked the U.S. election on Twitter, using Trump’s own complaints as a rhetorical weapon against the United States.

A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on October 24, 2020. (KHAMENEI.IR/AFP via Getty Images)
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Khamenei.ir/AFP via Getty Images)

“What a spectacle!” Khamenei tweeted. “One says this is the most fraudulent election in US history. Who says that? The president who is currently in office. His rival says Trump intends to rig the election! This is how #USElections & US democracy are.”

But it’s not just U.S. adversaries taking note of Trump’s behavior. American allies are also concerned.

Trump’s continual attacks on the American democratic system damage not only the U.S. image abroad, but also its capacity, “particularly at a time when the U.S. is in a geopolitical contest with China and Russia, to be able to muster the will and support and cooperation of the democratic world, of its partners, to tackle the difficult issues,” Katz said.

Following a Trump tweet Wednesday that accused the Biden campaign of “trying to steal” the election, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told a German television station that what was occurring in the United States amounted to “a very explosive situation” that could lead to “a constitutional crisis.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was more measured in her comments Thursday. “We have faith in the institutions in the United States,” she said, according to the Guardian. “And of course faith that those final votes will continue to be counted and that there will be a final result declared.”

It remains to be seen whether the damage Trump has done to U.S. prestige on the world stage is permanent. “President Trump is very skillful at making statements that grab headlines, here and everywhere, and those things stick in people’s heads,” Repucci said. “I have a strong belief that our institutions will prevail, and when that happens, people will see that. But that doesn’t mean that they will forget some of the real attention-grabbing moments that happened along the way.”

A simple change of leadership will not automatically undo the damage the president has inflicted on U.S. prestige on the international stage, according to Fontaine, who points to Trump’s election in 2016 and the close race this year. “There’s going to be a lot of doubts about American reliability [and] commitment to democracy,” he said. “You just don’t turn a light switch and turn those doubts off.”

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump carry semi-automatic rifles as they gather during a protest about the early results of the 2020 presidential election, in front of the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center (MCTEC), in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., November 5, 2020. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
Trump supporters carry semiautomatic rifles at a protest in front of the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center in Phoenix on Thursday. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

One positive to emerge from the rhetorical wreckage of the past several days is that so far, the U.S. electoral framework and the broader institutional infrastructure of American democracy seem to be holding steady, according to experts.

Andrusz paid tribute to the way that the “very dedicated” U.S. election officials and workers had persevered through the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that the election was relatively trouble-free. “The process has actually been going more smoothly than I think many might have expected,” she said.

“There are still checks and balances that can hold the president back from his worst inclinations of wanting to do things like autocrats do in other countries, but those systems have been badly strained over the last four years,” Katz said, citing a Congress that “can no longer hold the president accountable” and Trump’s addition of many judges to federal courts, including three to the Supreme Court, who Katz said Trump thinks “will carry out his wishes.”

Fontaine sounded a more cautiously optimistic tone but acknowledged that Trump’s recent allegations of election fraud and his refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election had created an “unprecedented” situation. “You’re having the chairman of the Joint Chiefs come out and reassure people that the military won’t play a role,” Fontaine said. “This is not a good place to be.”

Nonetheless, the fabric of the U.S. government was still holding up, despite “everything that Donald Trump has thrown at our democratic system,” he said. “It’s not that there hasn’t been a big problem, it’s that the structure of government and our political system have been able to deal adequately with the problem.”

However, he added, “the bottom line is you’d prefer the most powerful country in the world to be doing better than just adequately.”

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