On Monday, December 19th, the Electoral College will convene to formally cast votes for the 45th President of the United States. If, as expected, the electors choose to make Donald Trump President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, they will have handed America over to a kleptocrat who blundered into power on a razor-thin victory facilitated by Russian hackers. This would be an unprecedented assault on the foundations of our democracy, and the electors have a profound responsibility in this moment to put forward a viable alternative candidate who will win approval in the House of Representatives.
The Electoral College was, in part, created to thwart "the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils," in the words of Alexander Hamilton. Now the Central Intelligence Agency has concluded that Russian hackers interfered with the election in Trump's favor, a shocking confirmation that a foreign-backed despot has become ascendent here in America. This is a brazen attack on our system of government, one that transcends partisan politics and demands an equally historic response from our electors, who have a moral responsibility to avert this clear and present danger.
Addressing the CIA assessment in an interview this week, former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell put it bluntly: "We need to see this for what it is. It is an attack on our very democracy. It’s an attack on who we are as a people. A foreign government messing around in our elections is, I think, an existential threat to our way of life. To me, and this is to me not an overstatement, this is the political equivalent of 9/11."
The CIA's conclusions are even more alarming when considered in the context of Trump and his allies' Russian financial interests, which have been partially obscured by his refusal to release his tax filings. We do know that Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort was paid millions for advising Ukraine's former pro-Putin President Viktor F. Yanukovych, and Trump adviser Carter Page, who has extensive business dealings in Russia, is suspected of negotiating with the Russian government through back channels during the campaign. Trump’s pick for national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, has been paid personally by the Russian government for a speech. And this weekend, the Kremlin cheered news that Trump's choice for Secretary of State is Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who is a vocal opponent of sanctions against Russia, and whose company has billions of dollars at stake there.
Perhaps the President-elect's son, Donald Jr., summed it up best in 2008 when he said, "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." Trump has vaguely promised to divest himself of his business interests. But yesterday, as electors demanded an intelligence briefing on Russian hackers' impact on the election, Trump canceled a press conference scheduled for Thursday intended to announce his divestment plans, postponing it until after the Electoral College vote. Overnight, Trump tweeted that, "Even though I am not mandated by law to do so," he plans to put his sons Donald Jr. and Eric in charge of his businesses, and wrote that "[n]o new deals will be done during my term(s) in office."
Presidents are not governed by federal conflict of interest policies or subject to the federal background check that could have been disqualifying for Trump, but so long as Trump retains a stake in his business he would likely violate the Constitution's Emoluments Clause, which bars U.S. government employees from getting paid by foreign governments. Trump's refusal to release his tax returns and divest from his businesses also breaks with decades of presidential tradition.
Had Trump held a press conference this week as planned, it would have been his first since July 27th, when he urged Russia to perpetrate a cyber attack on Hillary Clinton and the State Department. "Darkness is good," Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, said not long after the election, going on to praise the power of Satan.
In August, 50 of America's most senior Republican national security officials signed an open letter warning that Trump, as president, "would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being...He is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood. He does not encourage conflicting views. He lacks self-control and acts impetuously. He cannot tolerate personal criticism. He has alarmed our closest allies with his erratic behavior. All of these are dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be president and commander in chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal."
Multiple inquiries will now examine in greater detail how Russian hackers tipped the election toward Trump, but the results will not be known until after December 19th. The Electoral College cannot wait, but must cast their votes based on what is established so far. It should be enough to terrify them: The CIA has concluded that Russian President (and former KGB officer) Vladimir Putin successfully interfered on Trump's behalf, and it is obvious, judging by Trump's words and actions, that the President-elect is eager to repay the favor. This should outrage and alarm all Americans, regardless of party affiliation. (Electors should also take into account, one last time before the point of no return, all of the other ways Trump has demonstrated that he is unfit for office.)
"Vladimir Putin is a thug, bully and a murderer, and anybody else who describes him as anything else is lying," Senator John McCain said on Saturday. Representative Jim Hines said Monday, "It became clear to me last night that this man is not only unqualified to be president, he's a danger to the republic. I do think the Electoral College should choose someone other than Donald Trump to be president. That will lead to a fascinating legal issue...but I would rather have a legal problem—a constitutional legal problem—then to find out the White House was now the Kremlin's chief ally."
For now, at least, it is still not too late. Will 37 Republican electors rise above local politics and prevent this impending catastrophe? Ask them yourself.
Update: President Bartlet agrees: