President Trump is refusing to concede the election, and many in the Republican Party are echoing his false claims of voting irregularities. It's yet another example of Trump trampling the democratic norms that have kept this country functioning for more than 200 years. Boston College History Professor Heather Cox Richardson discussed Trump's behavior and that of his Republican colleagues with GBH All Things Considered Host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: I'm sure there have been transitions that have been rocky, but has there ever been a presidential transition like this?
Heather Cox Richardson: No, there hasn't been. And yes, sometimes they are rocky, but this one is one for the books.
Rath: You write a daily newsletter that takes all of this in from a historical perspective. It's essential reading. For people who don't subscribe, your last entry I think was posted at midnight. It was funny, because you were finally getting caught up on your sleep, but you had a take for us still, and a line, which was Trump is going to smash and grab all he can on the way out, but he is on the way out. Let's take the first part of that. What's the "smash and grab" and what do you expect that to look like?
Richardson: This is actually very interesting to me, because everybody is focusing on the fact he is refusing to concede an election that is lost — and let's be very clear about this: this election is not close. As we know, Joe Biden has won it by the most of an outside challenger since FDR. That's in the popular vote. And of course he has won the Electoral College as well. This is not a squeaker, and all of Trump's challenges to the different votes in the different states have come up empty, where he has won zero of, so far, 12 challenges. The courts have thrown them all out. So he is going out, and I could break that down for you more, but this is really not a squeaker.
So the question is, what is he doing? Why is he creating this chaos?
And one of the things that has jumped out to me is many of the changes that he is making now, which is also very rare in a transition period, are personnel changes in our defense and in our arms trade. So, for example, there is now on the table what looks to be about a $25 billion exchange of military technology from us to the United Arab Emirates, including our F-35 fighters, which are the most up-to-date military material in the world. You have to wonder why he is doing that now when members of both parties in Congress don't want it to happen, and whether or not this desire not to be seen as a loser is actually covering for something else. The fact that there's so much going on in defense now, and in fact there's so many personnel changes in the Pentagon, for example. The people who are going in are people who are close associates of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of California — Kash Patel, for example.
Something is going on. It's not just him saying, 'I don't want to be a loser.' It's not just him saying, 'I didn't lose this election.' He is both creating a reality for his followers to say, 'Oh, he didn't actually lose,' but at the same time, Trump has always been about distraction and grabbing a lot of money, and I have no reason to think that his personality dramatically changed a week ago. I am still looking for distraction and grabbing money.
Rath: It's really interesting because a lot of people, especially after the firing of Defense Secretary Esper and Trump replacing other senior leadership at the Pentagon, we have people nervous about something truly radical like military law, a coup, something like that. It sounds like you're seeing something else at play here.
Richardson: Personally, I am not worried about a military coup. I think the military was very clear last summer that it wanted no part of that at all. He is not touching the military part of the Pentagon. He's touching the political appointees. One of the people who stood against that transfer of our military to the UAE was Secretary of Defense Esper. So the fact that he is out right when this is on the table is not a huge surprise to me. There's also the question of the release of classified information, because, of course, as you know, Donald Trump is trying very hard to create the illusion that he, in fact, did not have anything to do with Russia in 2016, which is of course not what even the Republican Senate has concluded. He is threatening to release a lot of intelligence that our defense experts say, 'Please don't do that, you can't release that material because it's going to really cripple us by letting foreign countries know how we have obtained that intelligence.'
That is a very hot fight going on right now in the Pentagon, and one of the things he has done by getting rid of the appointees that were in there and stopping that and replacing them with Devin Nunes' people including Kash Patel, is basically, I think, trying to weight the scales so that we get these intelligence dumps that he thinks are going to exonerate what happened in 2016. That's my guess. I mean, I have inside sight, but it is significant that the people going in are people who are connected in one way or another with the 2016 Russia investigation.
Rath: We know Esper, who was fired, opposed releasing that classified information you're talking about. Apparently so does Attorney General William Barr. We've seen some unusual things already at the Justice Department. Do you think we could see more on that side?
Richardson: Barr is really interesting. Where did he go for the last three weeks? It's unclear to me where Barr is going to stand in any of this because Barr has politicized the Department of Justice extraordinarily, of course. And yet, in a moment when it seemed like his voice would be one that could be very useful, he went silent. So it's unclear to me at this point what Barr is up to. If you'd asked me three weeks ago, I would have had a very strong opinion. Right now, I can't read the recent silence. He really kind of went underground after the September 26 celebration of Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination, and we didn't really see him. He went and he toured around police departments touting Operation Legend that was responsible for the deployment of troops in cities this summer, but he was really out of the national spotlight. So why he did that, and why he walked away from the national spotlight at that moment is still, to me, a mystery.
Rath: Let me put another why to you. A lot of people are questioning why such a large part of the Republican party is backing President Trump along these lines when it would seem to some observers that in the long-term, that would be more damaging for them.
Richardson: Remember that even though we think of them as a monolith, the "Republican party," in quotation marks, has a lot of different people with a lot of different interests. So at least some of what is going on is that the Republican party wants desperately to make people in Georgia feel that the presidential election is still hot so they can turn out voters for the January 5 runoff between the two senate candidates. Both of those races in Georgia are still on the table, and they will determine the outcome of who is in control of the Senate going forward. So they're interested in doing that. Other Republicans are eager to be able to grab Trump voters in 2024. You can already see people jockeying to grab them. And I think other Republicans are honestly very, very concerned about what's going to happen when a Democratic administration begins to dig into the files of the past four years. They're concerned about what might come to light. So I think there's a bunch of different attitudes about why they might sign on to Trump. We also know they're simply waiting for him to go and trying not to rock the ship until he does.
Rath: Let me throw a big question at you before we let you go, and that's just looking forward, Joe Biden has signaled that he wants to restore many of the presidential standards that President Trump has broken. Is it that simple, or are there ways in which Donald Trump may have irretrievably damaged the presidency?
Richardson: Nothing is irretrievable. I think in the long-term, what has what has been damaged beyond repair is our world leadership. We walked away from the table and nobody is going to invite us back in the position that we had four years ago, and that just is what it is. You can say that's good or it's bad. It is, and I don't see that being fixed. What's happening domestically, there will be huge changes, but they are long overdue. Remember, it's been a very long time since we amended the Constitution, for example. And while that might make some people recoil, we have traditionally amended the Constitution not infrequently, and it just hasn't happened for a long time. So I think that there's going to be a lot of change.
I will say, coming out of the box, one of the things that this this election has really highlighted is, of course, Democratic problems with, for example, the Electoral College, which is threatening to give us permanent minority rule, which simply can't be in a democracy, whether you're Republican or Democrat. We can't have a government that doesn't represent the majority of the people because people will no longer have faith in it. But there is also very clearly in this election something we have not talked about enough, and that is that we must address the issue of voter suppression, because if you look at what happened with the United States Postal Service, if you looked at what happened in who slowed down the mail, if you look at what happened in Texas, where they got rid of drop boxes for ballots in Democratic counties, if you look at what happened in in Florida, where about 1.5 million people that the legislature voted to restore their voting rights did not get those voting rights restored because of a subsequent law from the legislature — I'm sorry, the people wanted it, but the legislature passed a law that was essentially a poll tax.
We are in a position of a national political situation that looks increasingly like the one in the Democratic South after the Civil War, when we turned into a one-party state. And that's not a democracy, that's a dictatorship or an authoritarian government, and that's not OK. So I think first on the table is getting rid of voter suppression across the nation, in the south and the west and the north, to make sure that everybody can vote. Once we've done that, I think we're going to be in a very different position going forward in 2024. But this is, of course, what Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was referring to the other day when he said that if people are allowed to vote, we will never have another Republican president. That's exactly what they're afraid of and why the Republican Party has so doubled down on voter suppression rather than attracting more voters.