Byron York: The election deniers of 2016

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 26, 2024

By Byron York

Former President Donald Trump and some Republicans famously rejected the results of the 2020 election. Trump called the election rigged. He encouraged the Jan. 6 protest at the Capitol that turned into a riot. And he and his supporters filed dozens of lawsuits to challenge Joe Biden’s narrow victories in some key states. Trump lost them all; in the end, his legal effort to change the 2020 result was a resounding failure.

But Trump’s work was amateur hour compared to the lawfare practiced by Democrats seeking to undermine the results of the 2016 election, the one that made Donald Trump president of the United States. What is perhaps most remarkable is that eight years later, it’s still going on.

The leading edge of 2016 denialism was, of course, the Russia investigation, which Trump calls the Russia hoax. Turbocharged by the Hillary Clinton/DNC-financed Steele dossier — which was an actual hoax — the widespread political and media clamor for a criminal investigation of Trump overwhelmed the first months of his presidency and led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller in May 2017. Mueller’s search for Trump-Russia “collusion” ended two years later when Mueller admitted he could not establish that any conspiracy or coordination ever happened. Although a number of figures around Trump were charged with unrelated or process crimes, Mueller never charged Trump or anyone associated with him with scheming with Russia to fix the 2016 election. 

After all the hysteria, speculation, media talk and dark accusations, “collusion” was … nothing. Nevertheless, collusion die-hards still maintain that Trump conspired with Russia and that Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 election might have tipped the vote to Trump over Clinton. One of those die-hards is Hillary Clinton herself, who in 2019 said, “You can run the best campaign, you can even become the nominee, and you can have the election stolen from you.”

All that might seem like ancient history except for The People of the State of New York v. Donald J. Trump. Last year, Alvin Bragg, the elected Democratic district attorney of Manhattan — he was elected on a platform that included going after Trump — filed 34 felony counts against the former president, all based on allegedly false bookkeeping. Normally, those charges, even if warranted, are a misdemeanor, and these were long past the statute of limitations. But Bragg found a way to turn them into felonies.

What Bragg did was to charge Trump with falsifying business records “with intent to commit another crime.” The problem was, Bragg did not specify that other crime, although his prosecutors gave the judge “theories” about what they called Trump’s 2016 “election interference.” By the time of opening statements last month, prosecutors still had not settled on a specific secondary crime, but they had developed a full-blown conspiracy theory about the 2016 election. And it’s not some sort of narrative that critics characterize as a conspiracy theory — it’s a real conspiracy theory.

“This case is about a criminal conspiracy and a cover-up,” prosecutor Michael Colangelo said at the beginning of the prosecution’s opening statement. (You may know Colangelo’s name because he is the high-ranking Biden Justice Department official who joined Bragg’s team for the purpose of prosecuting Trump.) Colangelo continued: “The defendant, Donald Trump, orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 election; then he covered up that criminal conspiracy by lying in his New York business records over and over and over again.”

Colangelo went on to weave a tale in which Trump, then-National Enquirer chief David Pecker and Trump lawyer Michael Cohen “formed a conspiracy … to influence the presidential election by concealing negative information about Mr. Trump in order to help him get elected.” 

“You had three parts of this conspiracy,” Colangelo told the jury. “You had the agreement to run positive coverage; you had the agreement to attack his opponents; and then the core of the conspiracy was David Pecker’s agreement to act as the eyes and ears for the campaign in an effort to locate damaging information about the defendant and then take steps to try to bury it to help Trump get elected.” 

Reading this, you might notice one thing about this conspiracy: Nothing that Colangelo described was illegal. Maybe it was shady, maybe it was ethically challenged, but it was not illegal. And yet Trump is now facing 34 felony charges and a maximum sentence of 136 years in prison. This Democratic conspiracy theory has turned into something very, very serious.

“It was election fraud, pure and simple,” Colangelo said. And then he added something heard from conspiracy enthusiasts everywhere: “We will never know, and it doesn’t matter, if this conspiracy was the difference-maker in a close election.” That of course, implies that it might have been the difference-maker, thereby surely warming the hearts of Clinton and her dead-ender followers everywhere.

It’s worth noting that for all Colangelo’s talk, Trump is not charged with conspiracy. He is not charged with corrupting the election, whatever that might mean. As the former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy wrote: “In point of fact, there is no such information-suppression conspiracy crime in the law, and the indictment against Trump does not charge a conspiracy.” And yet that phantom accusation is the basis for elevating Trump’s alleged misdemeanors into a charge that could imprison him for the rest of his life.

In casual conversations recently, it has become clear that some Republicans have had a difficult time wrapping their head around what Bragg and Colangelo are doing. A 2016 election conspiracy? Didn’t that sort of thing end with Mueller? How could Democrats focus so feverishly on Trump’s 2020 election denial while doing some of the same stuff themselves, only on the much more serious level of trying to send Trump to prison? It might be hard to believe, but it is happening.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner where this originally appeared. For a deeper dive into many of the topics Byron covers, listen to his podcast, The Byron York Show, available on the Ricochet Audio Network at and everywhere else podcasts are found.