Donald Trump was almost universally condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike for his refusal during Wednesday’s final presidential debate to say whether he’d accept the results of the election in November.
“I think that, tonight, Donald Trump chose to ignore one of the basic tenants of our democracy,” Ted Newton, president of Gravity Strategic Communications and former communications adviser to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, told Business Insider. “The fact that we have a peaceful transition of power, and we have for over 200 years. It’s really what makes us different from so many other countries.”
“And for him to just toss that aside is disqualifying,” he continued. “It’s come down to this: After all of the insults and all of the crazy things he’s said and all of the allegations, the fact that he cannot accept what you learn in grade school civics class — that everybody accepts to be how things are done in this country — is absolutely disqualifying.”
Trump was pressed by debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News on whether he would honour the election results despite his increasing accusations that the election may be “rigged” against him.
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump replied. “I’m not looking at anything now. I’ll look at it at the time.”
When pressed again, Trump said he’d “keep you in suspense” regarding his decision to honour the November results.
That answer was lambasted by many on the right.
Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer called it the “totally wrong answer” on Fox News, adding that it was “not a gaffe” and “you know that he’s convinced that this is something he wants to take a stand on.”
“This is political suicide,” he said, suggesting Trump was winning the debate up until that point.
Laura Ingraham, a conservative radio host and fierce Trump supporter, tweeted that he “should have said he would accept the results of the election” and that there’s “no other option unless we’re in a recount again,” making note of the 2000 election between then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore.
Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona, two fellow Republicans who have not endorsed Trump, were swift to criticise him for the answer.
Graham wrote that a Trump loss would not be “because the system is ‘rigged’ but because he failed as a candidate,” while Flake called his suggestion that he may not accept the results of the election “beyond the pale.”
Billionaire Mark Cuban said on Fox News that Trump “disowned American democracy” with his answer.
For her part, responding to Trump during the debate, Clinton said Trump’s remarks were “horrifying.”
“Every time Donald thinks things are not going his way, he thinks whatever it is is rigged against him,” Clinton said.
“He lost the Iowa caucus, he lost the Wisconsin primary,” she continued. “He said the Republican primary was rigged against him. Then, Trump University gets sued for fraud and racketeering. He claimed the court system and the federal judge was rigged against him. There was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row, and he started saying the Emmys were rigged against him.”
“Should have gotten it,” Trump interjected, smiling.
“This is a mindset,” Clinton said. This is how Donald thinks. It’s funny but also really troubling … Let’s be clear about what he’s saying. He’s denigrating, he’s talking down our democracy.”
Newton said he found himself cheering on Clinton in that moment “as an American” even though he’s not voting for her.
Trump could say “whatever he says about the Supreme Court” and “parrot whatever conservative talking points were put in front of him,” he said, but it “doesn’t matter” after suggesting he might not respect the results of the election.
“Because in that moment, he revealed himself,” Newton said. “It was shocking. It was really shocking. And I think it was unlike anything we’ve ever seen and hopefully unlike anything we’ll ever see.”
Trump’s top surrogates quickly defended the remarks in the spin room and in interviews afterward.
Former Alaska Gov. and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said Trump would only accept a “legitimate” result, while anything else would betray those who “died” for freedom, as Robert Costa of The Washington Post tweeted.
Asked by CNN’s Dana Bash about whether Trump would accept the results of the election, Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway insisted he will because “he’s going to win this election and they will be easy to accept.”
In an interview with Fox News, Trump’s senior communications adviser Jason Miller brought up Gore in the 2000 election as an example of not accepting the results of the election. He joked that “no one has ever conceded an election before the election actually takes place.”
Miller said Trump was “putting those who might want to commit voting fraud on notice.”
Trump has gone off on tangents about the election being “rigged” at multiple times during both the primary and general election cycles.
In recent weeks, Trump has claimed that millions of dead people are registered to vote and are casting ballots, in addition to a large percentage of immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Trump received a boost to his claims just this week when conservative activist James O’Keefe released an undercover sting video of a Democratic operative, who was soon fired, making bold claims about a voter fraud conspiracy. However, some of O’Keefe’s past sting videos have been discredited over his use of deceptive editing tactics to produce an intended narrative.
Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist and founder of the Potomac Strategy Group, told Business Insider in an email that Trump’s refusal to simply say that he would accept the result of the election was a “disaster,” even though he had what the strategist thought was “an excellent debate.”
“The question is whether voters will truly care,” he wrote. “It’s not new information; he’s been saying the election is rigged for weeks, if not months. The chattering class and the establishment will decry his refusal, but I’m not sure it cuts out in heart of the country.”
But he called the refusal “irresponsible and destabilizing.”
“A similar situation occurred in Mexico in the past decade and it led to massive protests in the capital city for months,” he said. “There is no question that our elections are legitimate. Any suggestion to the country is not just wrong, it is detestable, undermines our democracy and is fundamentally un-American.”
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