Despite hacks by Russia, Trump’s win is legitimate

Donald Trump is our legitimate president. Russian hackers didn’t alter poll results or anything of the sort.
Donald Trump is our legitimate president. Russian hackers didn’t alter poll results or anything of the sort. AP

Let’s assume that Russia tried to swing the election to Donald Trump. Newspaper reports say that intelligence officials have reached that conclusion.

Did Russia’s efforts succeed? Trump backers, and even some conservatives who didn’t back him, are defensive about this point. But Trump’s margin in the electorally decisive states was sufficiently small that his victory can plausibly be attributed to anything that affected a significant number of voters.

It is certainly true, as many conservatives have noted, that Hillary Clinton could still have won the election if she had made different decisions, such as showing up in Wisconsin, refraining from setting up her own e-mail server, and so on. But it seems likely that if everything about the election had been the same except for Russian interference, Clinton’s lackluster campaign would have narrowly won those states.

If so, Russia has surreptitiously intervened in our affairs more successfully than any other foreign power ever. Its work should be investigated and, if necessary and feasible, punished. Statesmanship sometimes requires monumental ingratitude, and Trump will have a chance to exhibit it.

Does Russian involvement mean “this was a tainted election” with a result “illegitimate in important ways,” as Paul Krugman charges? In a country premised on rule by popular consent, whether an election or a government is legitimate depends on whether the public thinks it is. If the Electoral College were now to vote for Hillary Clinton, for example, tens of millions of Americans would consider it illegitimate even though the Constitution allows for it.

But I think there are good reasons for voters, including voters who did not support Trump, to reject Krugman’s view.

The form Russian interference took is foremost among them. It didn’t hack voting machines so citizen preferences would be miscounted. It didn’t even inject misinformation into the public debate. What it mainly seems to have done is put accurate but wrongfully obtained information into circulation: information about what various Clinton aides and Democratic National Committee officials were thinking during the primaries.

Voters were free to consider this information, or not, and to take account of its illicit origins. At the time, they had good reason to know Russia had a hand in its dissemination. Russian hacking came up in two presidential debates (even though Trump now bizarrely insists it didn’t). Clinton said the hacking was being done for Trump’s benefit. The main thing we have learned since the election, assuming the reporting holds up, is that U.S. intelligence officials agreed with her about the motive.

Again, Russia’s interference ought to be investigated – as should U.S. cybersecurity practices, and President Barack Obama’s dithering in response to the interference. Americans should be able to agree on the need for further investigation regardless of their sympathies in this election.

Clinton’s supporters, meanwhile, can’t be faulted for regretting the choices that an electoral majority of their fellow citizens made. But the voters had access to the information they needed to put the leaks about the Democrats in context, their choice was made freely, their choices were tabulated accurately, and the result is being decided in the standard way. Like it or not, Trump was elected legitimately.

Twitter: @RameshPonnuru.