To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s famous quip: “There he goes again.”
Last Friday, at the ripe old age of 94, former president Jimmy Carter said something that will surely take its place among the dumbest statements any former president has ever made in public.
Before a large audience at the Carter Center, our thirty-ninth president was asked about Russian interference in the 2016 election. He said this: “I think the interference, although not yet quantified, if fully investigated would show that Trump didn’t actually win the election in 2016. He lost the election, and he was put into office because the Russians interfered on his behalf.” When asked if he therefore believed Trump was “an illegitimate president,” Carter responded: “Based on what I just said, which I can’t retract, I would say yes.” The audience applauded, and Carter grinned.
For a former president to publicly confirm that the incumbent president is an illegitimate occupant of the office is a stunning development. Traditionally, most former presidents have tried to avoid direct criticism of their successors, even when the incumbent is of a different political party. And I know of no other instance where a former president has publicly endorsed the notion that the incumbent illegitimately occupies the office. No other living former president—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama—has done so.
What possible justification could Carter have for such an unprecedented attack on one of his successors?
We all know that, as the Obama administration was drawing to a close in January of 2017, the leading U.S. intelligence agencies issued an Intelligence Community Assessment, entitled “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections” (the “I.C.A.”).
The I.C.A. found that Russian president Putin in 2016 ordered an “influence campaign” to undermine Americans’ faith in the U.S. democratic system, to denigrate and harm Hillary Clinton and her campaign, and to enhance the electoral prospects of Donald Trump. The I.C.A. further states: “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.”
So, although the I.C.A. does support the idea that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election, nothing in that document supports the conclusion that Russia succeeded in that effort. The intelligence agencies explicitly, unequivocally disavowed any attempt to measure the impact Russian interference did or did not have in 2016. Therefore, nothing in that assessment supports former president Carter’s assertion that Trump “was put into office because the Russians interfered on his behalf.”
Another thing we all know is that, in July of 2018, Robert Mueller, who had been appointed Special Counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, filed an indictment alleging that 12 Russian intelligence officers had violated U.S. law by meddling in the election, including a hack into computers of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. The indictment neither asserts nor implies that the activities of the named defendants were decisive in causing Trump to win the election. In fact, the indictment is completely silent as to whether the defendants’ activities had any effect whatsoever on the outcome of the election.
We all also know that, in his final report, Special Counsel Mueller found that there was not sufficient evidence to charge anyone in the Trump campaign with engaging in an illegal conspiracy with any Russian person or entity to influence the election.
In addition to all the foregoing, there is a broader, more fundamental reason why Carter could never have adequate justification for the outrageous comment he made about Trump’s election. Carter’s statement is a counter-factual hypothetical; that is, it is a statement about what allegedly would have happened had history been different. Specifically, it is a statement about who would have won the 2016 election had the Russians not interfered.
The truth of counter-factual hypotheticals is inherently unknowable, unless the particular hypothetical is a statement about an event that can be reproduced and manipulated in a laboratory. So, if we could go back into historical time and re-run the 2016 election with no trace of Russian interference, we could find out who would have won that election under those conditions.
But we can’t go back in time. Every child knows that, and the thirty-ninth president of the U.S. ought to know that as well, although he apparently does not. Thus, Carter’s reference to “interference, although not yet quantified,” is pure nonsense, because that interference could never be quantified. We can’t re-run the 2016 election in a laboratory after eliminating all Russian attempts to interfere. Therefore, we could never quantify the effects of the attempted interference.
A former president of the U.S. is not just anybody. We might expect political operatives and active politicians to be reckless in their attacks on adversaries, but I think we all expect former presidents to behave more responsibly. Former president Carter has failed that test.