President Joe Biden holds a formal news conference in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, D.C., January 19, 2022. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In 2016, Donald Trump  argued that the presidential election was being rigged against him, even going so far as to suggest that he may not accept the results. Four years later, he acted upon this impulse when he fell short in his reelection bid.

His questioning of the legitimacy of the election was roundly condemned, especially after it culminated in the January 6 Capitol riot. Trump’s opponent and successor, Joe Biden, was particularly effusive in his criticism, comparing the riot to the Civil War and declaring that “in America, if you lose, you accept the results.”

Those past statements are out of step with the hedging rhetoric Biden used at Wednesday’s press conference. Asked if he believed the 2022 midterms would be legitimate in the event that the Democrats’ voting bill failed to pass the Senate, Biden answered “it all depends on whether or not we’re able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try to alter the outcome of the election.”

Given a chance to clarify his comments, Biden doubled down, saying “I’m not going to say it’s going to be legit.  It’s — the increase and the prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these — these reforms passed.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki and Vice President Kamala Harris attempted to clean up after their boss:

Lets be clear: @potus was not casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 election. He was making the opposite point: In 2020, a record number of voters turned out in the face of a pandemic, and election officials made sure they could vote and have those votes counted.

— Jen Psaki (@PressSec) January 20, 2022

Is President Biden really concerned that we may not have free and fair elections? –@SavannahGuthrie to @VP

— TODAY (@TODAYshow) January 20, 2022

Meanwhile, Republicans, especially those who pushed back most forcefully on Trump. Nebraska senator Ben Sasse released a statement pointing out that “instead of hemming and hawing, President Biden could have simply said that America’s elections have been and will continue to be legitimate. But he didn’t say that and now his team is lying. The Vice President is doubling down while the Press Secretary is trying to spin it. This isn’t rocket science: public officials – Republicans and Democrats – should defend public trust in self-government.”

The reaction to Biden’s comments in the press, however, was muted compared to the uproar created by his predecessor’s false claims, despite the similar dearth of evidence of illegitimacy in both cases. Indeed, many who had thrown their hands up in the earlier instance were seemingly bothered this time around.

The Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin, for example, wrote in 2016 that “efforts to discredit the election system are preposterous on their face, but injurious to our democratic system” in reference to Trump’s comments, yet Biden’s remarks on the same subject did not even merit mention in her recap of Wednesday’s press conference, which she gave Biden an “A” for and the press a “C-.”

John Harwood, a White House correspondent for CNN, wrote in December 2020 that by questioning the legitimacy of the results, “Trump undercuts America’s faith in democracy and endangers state and local officials honestly performing their election administration duties.” Responding to Biden, however, Harwood asserted that the “entire premise of Democratic push is that GOP legislators want to erode democracy, thwarting popular will, by making voting harder for political opponents.”

“If you accept that premise – as Biden does – it logically follows that success of GOP effort undercuts the legitimacy of the election,” he continues. If you’re willing to accept any premise, anything can indeed logically follow.

And at the New York Times, columnist Charles Blow accepted the premise with gusto, lamenting the defeat of the elections bills Biden said were necessary to ensure its legitimacy by comparing the present state of affairs to the beginning of the Jim Crow era.

Yamiche Alcindor an anchor for PBS, who also contributes to NBC News and MSNBC authored a 2016  Times piece comparing Trump’s preemptive undermining of the election to tumultuous and dictatorial past political arrangements in Argentina, the Philippines, and Haiti. Her analysis of Biden’s performance was somewhat different:

Pres Biden, in the longest news conference in presidential history, made news, pushed back on critics, called out lies, took responsibility for mistakes he believes he made, expressed surprise at GOP, talked foreign policy and didn’t lash out on reporters.

Quite the change.

— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) January 19, 2022

Ana Navarro-Cárdenas, a cohost on The View and CNN political commentator who recently declared her belief that “Donald Trump had not been legitimately elected” in 2016 tweeted “Biden-Harris 2024” mid-press conference. In 2016, she was less enamored with Trump’s concerns, pontificating that “I know people who come from Cuba ― and you do too ― I know people who come from Venezuela. Those are rigged elections. Yesterday I was at Mt. Vernon, and it inspired me to remember and think what those Founding Fathers went through to set up this system. Is it a perfect system? No, it’s not. But stop calling it a rigged system so you can start setting up your alibi.”

Brian Karem, a longtime White House reporter who famously interrogated the former president on election legitimacy, was similarly starstruck with the current one:

That was nearly two hours of POTUS.

He answered each question cogently and to the best of his ability.

He called on more than 20 different reporters.

He never once attacked us.

He never once avoided a question.

He never once tried to belittle us.

He stayed on point.


— Brian J. Karem (@BrianKarem) January 19, 2022

In 2016 and 2020, Donald Trump said the elections would only be legitimate if he prevailed come November.

In 2022, Joe Biden said the they’d only be so if he prevailed in Congress.

Among the starkest differences between the two claims is that the latter was so easily embraced by such vast swathes of the press.

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