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Sham Elections and Shameless Lies

The crowd that casts doubt on American votes but loves Russian referenda.
April 22, 2022
Sham Elections and Shameless Lies
(Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Every day, we learn more about politicians who conspired to overturn the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Russia is planning phony referenda to fabricate a mandate for its occupation. Both stories are dismaying, but the contrast between them raises a useful question: Do people who claim that American elections are rigged—that the presidency was stolen from Donald Trump, or that voting laws must be tightened because Democrats cheat—also protest when elections overseas really are rigged? Or do they look the other way?

The answer, in many cases, is that when Vladimir Putin and his allies engineer fake plebiscites, Trumpists who claim to stand for “election integrity”—including Trump himself—say nothing, do nothing, or defend the bogus referenda. They’re fine with fraudulent elections. They just don’t like American elections.

The question of “election integrity” brings together five storylines in this week’s news. One is in Crimea, a region of Ukraine, where Putin orchestrated a sham referendum in 2014. Another is in Belarus, where a Putin ally, President Aleksandr Lukashenko, rigged his own re-election in 2020, thereby preserving that country as a base for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The third is in southern and eastern Ukraine, where Russia is preparing local referenda to validate its occupation. The fourth is in France, where right-wing presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, another Putin ally, is defending the Crimean referendum. And the fifth is in the United States, where newly released text messages are revealing the extent to which Republican members of Congress, using fictitious allegations of fraud, tried to overturn the 2020 election.

How have Trump and his allies responded to these controversies? Let’s look at the record.

In 2014, Russia invaded and seized Crimea. To legitimize this theft, the Russians staged a referendum among Crimeans on whether to join Russia. The referendum was a farce. A United Nations investigation found that “the presence of paramilitary and so called self-defence groups as well as soldiers in uniform without insignia, widely believed to be from the Russian Federation, was not conducive to an environment in which voters could freely exercise . . . the right to freedom of expression.” The report also cited “credible allegations of harassment, arbitrary arrest, and torture targeting activists and journalists who did not support the referendum.”

At that time, Trump was a private citizen. On Twitter, he had plenty to say about Russia—Putin had become a “big hero in Russia with an all time high popularity,” he argued, while President Barack Obama had “fallen to his lowest ever numbers”—but he never challenged the referendum. Two years later, when he ran for president, Trump offered to consider recognizing Crimea as Russian territory. He indicated that he had been briefed on Crimean support for the annexation, presumably including the referendum: “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

Some other Republicans explicitly defended the rigged plebiscite. One veteran congressman, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, celebrated the referendum, calling it “self-determination” and comparing it to the American founding. He argued that Putin was just “trying to ensure the people of Crimea are not cut off from what they would choose as their destiny with Russia.” At a House hearing, Rohrabacher insisted, “The Russians are supporting the people of Crimea’s right to determine where they want to go.” (Two years later, Rohrabacher was the subject of a memorable remark from Kevin McCarthy, now the top Republican in the House of Representatives: “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.”)

As The Bulwark’s Cathy Young has pointed out, the phony Crimea referendum was just one of several orchestrated in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine. In an intercepted 2014 phone call, one of Putin’s election-riggers told another: “Just put in whatever you want. Write 99 percent.

Six years later, in August 2020, Putin’s allies fabricated another mandate. This time, it was Lukashenko’s re-election. The coercion and fraud in the Belarus election, which were directly observed and documented, triggered immediate denunciations from human rights monitors, European governments, and the U.S. State Department. But Trump, who was then president, showed no interest. When reporters pressed him about the crisis in Belarus, Trump mumbled that he supported “democracy,” and he changed the subject to police-violence protesters in the United States, calling them “anarchists” and “agitators.”

In early November of that year, two things happened. The first was the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3. The second was the release, on Nov. 5, of an investigative report on the Belarus election, issued by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The OSCE report found “overwhelming evidence that the presidential elections of 9 August 2020 have been falsified.” By contrast, over the next two months, every examination of the U.S. election—including state audits and reviews by Trump-appointed judges, the Trump Justice Department, and the Trump administration’s cybersecurity agency—found no basis to dispute the outcome.

Trump ignored the OSCE report. In his remaining days as president, he said nothing about the crisis in Belarus. Instead, he attacked the U.S. election, calling it “rigged” and “fixed.” The State Department eventually announced sanctions on Belarus, but there’s no sign that Trump played any role in that.

In January 2021, Trump summoned a mob to Washington, D.C., to stop Congress from certifying the American election. Rohrabacher, who was by then a former congressman, joined the march to the Capitol and stood outside the building as other marchers attacked it. Afterward, Rohrabacher disavowed the violence but proudly defended the march, insisting that “the election was fraudulent.” He was referring, of course, to the American election.

Trump, Rohrabacher, and other Putin apologists in the United States aren’t alone in their selective—and false—assertions of fraud. They’re joined by many right-wing politicians in Europe. One of those politicians, Le Pen, is in a runoff election for the presidency of France.

Le Pen is a longstanding ally of Trump and Putin. In 2014, she excused Russia’s invasion of Crimea and endorsed its sham referendum. In 2017, she reaffirmed that position: “I absolutely disagree that it was an illegal annexation. A referendum was held, and residents of Crimea chose to rejoin Russia.”

On the night of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Le Pen congratulated Trump as the victor even before the outcome was announced. But in 2020, when Trump lost, Le Pen stood with him in suggesting the results were fraudulent. More than a week after the election, and several days after every news organization had called it for Joe Biden, Le Pen still refused to acknowledge his victory, claiming there were discrepancies between the real and reported vote counts. She didn’t concede the outcome until after the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January.

Now, as Putin’s forces massacre civilians in Ukraine, Le Pen continues to insist that Crimea belongs to Russia. “There was never a military invasion in Crimea,” she declared on Monday, absurdly. “There was a referendum in Crimea.”

These lies—that real elections are fake, and that fake elections are real—aren’t just a threat to democracy in the United States. They’re a menace throughout the world. Today, they’re particularly dangerous in Europe. If Le Pen wins the French presidency on Sunday, she’ll sabotage NATO and support Russia’s claim to Crimea. And if Russia successfully stages phony plebiscites in southern and eastern Ukraine, it will use them to whitewash its dismemberment of that country.

On Tuesday, in an interview with India Today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed that this is the Kremlin’s plan. In Ukrainian cities controlled by Russian forces, referenda orchestrated by Russian-appointed mayors will certify that the residents have chosen to leave Ukraine and join Russia. “That’s the utmost democracy,” said Lavrov. “A referendum—people saying what they want.”

Some elections really are rigged. People who believe in democracy reject those elections. But people who defend, accept, or ignore Putin’s rigged elections, while refusing to accept a clean election in the United States, aren’t interested in democracy. They’re interested in something else.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.