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Trump cites a misleading Obama quote to say Russia didn’t interfere in the election

Obama was talking about voter fraud — not Russia.

Donald And Melania Trump Arrive At White House Ahead Of Inauguration Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

President Donald Trump tweeted a quote from former President Barack Obama on Tuesday morning as part of his continual attempts to downplay Russian interference in the 2016 election. There’s just one problem: The quote is taken vastly out of context and therefore misleading.

“There is no serious person out there who would suggest somehow that you could even — you could even rig America’s elections, in part, because they are so decentralized and the numbers of votes involved,” Obama said during a press conference at the White House in October 2016. “There is no evidence that that has happened in the past or that there are instances in which that will happen this time. And so I’d invite Mr. Trump to stop whining and go try to make his case to get votes.”

Obama’s remarks were in reference to the then-Republican presidential candidate’s claims that widespread voter fraud would rob him of the election, and his encouragement of his supporters to monitor polling places — and not at all about Russian interference in the election. (Numerous studies have found that voter fraud is very rare in the US.)

Trump has repeatedly downplayed and doubted Russian meddling and its effects on the American political process in 2016 and beyond. “That’s because he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win and he didn’t want to ‘rock the boat,’” Trump wrote of Obama’s 2016 remarks. “When I easily won the Electoral College, the whole game changed and the Russian excuse became the narrative of the Dems.”

Trump repeatedly focused on “voter fraud” in 2016 — which is rare

In the days leading up to the 2016 Obama remarks Trump cited on Tuesday, Trump had tweeted that the election was being rigged by the “dishonest and distorted media” and at many polling places. “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day,” he wrote.

Trump’s focus on voter fraud in 2016 specifically targeted urban areas with diverse populations. “Voter fraud is all too common, and then they criticize us for saying that,” he said at a Colorado Springs rally in October. “But take a look at Philadelphia, what’s been going on, take a look at Chicago, take a look at St. Louis. Take a look at some of these cities, where you see things happening that are horrendous.”

One of Trump’s advisers, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, on television had accused Democrats of “cheating” in elections. “I’m sorry. Dead people generally vote for Democrats rather than Republicans,” he said. The Trump campaign in August 2016 launched a campaign to recruit “election observers,” sparking fears of voter intimidation and suppression.

The comments Trump cited on Tuesday were about that — Obama’s response to Trump’s claims that the election was rigged and calls for supporters to monitor certain areas on the day of the election.

“It’s unprecedented,” Obama said of Trump’s claims when a reporter asked about them in October 2016. “It happens to be based on no facts; every expert, regardless of political party, regardless of ideology, conservative or liberal, who has ever examined these issues in a serious way, will tell you that instances of significant voter fraud are not to be found.”

He pointed out that elections are run by state and local officials, and that some of the states Trump might question, such as Florida, largely had other Republicans overseeing election sites. “The notion that somehow if Mr. Trump loses Florida, it’s because of those people that you have to watch out for, that is both irresponsible and, by the way, doesn’t really show the kind of leadership and toughness that you want out of a president,” he said.

Obama encouraged Trump to “stop whining and go try to make his case to get votes.” He went on to say that if Trump were to win the election, he would expect Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to concede graciously and that his administration would welcome the Trump administration for a peaceful transition of power. Which is exactly what happened.

Trump blames Obama for a lot of things — including, increasingly, Russia

As evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election and its continued efforts to meddle in US politics becomes next to impossible to deny, Trump is trying out a new tactic in dealing with the matter: blaming Obama.

After special counsel Robert Mueller handed down indictments to 13 Russian individuals and three companies for their role in meddling in the 2016 election on Friday, Trump fired off a series of tweets placing the blame on Obama. “Obama was President, knew of the threat, and did nothing,” he tweeted on Sunday. “Why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?” he asked on Monday.

While it is certainly fair to wonder about the Obama administration’s response to Russian meddling and what might have been done, it’s probably not fair to place all the blame on Obama — and certainly not with a quote about an entirely unrelated issue.