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January 17, 2017

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What’s most risky: breaking tradition or electing Trump?

In making what is likely to be the most consequential decision of this transition period, Donald Trump couldn’t resist petty vindictiveness.

Mitt Romney was briefly touted as the front-runner to become secretary of state. After meeting with Trump over a meal, he pronounced himself “very impressed” by the man he had described as “a phony, a fraud” during the campaign.

Trump did not accept this graciously. Citing a Trump friend, The Washington Post reported that the president-elect “enjoyed watching his dinner partner appear to grovel for the post.”

Memo to Trump’s Republican critics: Your initial instincts about Trump were right. Remember that catering to this man will bring only pain and humiliation.

Memo to those claiming that everyone should give Trump a chance now that the people have spoken: Actually, “the people” didn’t make Trump president. They preferred Hillary Clinton by at least 2.8 million votes. If Trump takes office, it’s the Electoral College system that will do it. And the post-election Trump has been as abusive and self-involved as he was during the campaign. The opposition’s job is to stand up and prevent or mitigate the damage he could do to our country.

Memo to the Electoral College that votes today: Our tradition — for good reason — tells you that your job is to ratify the state-by-state outcome of the election. The question is whether Trump, Vladimir Putin and, perhaps, Clinton’s popular-vote advantage give you sufficient reason to blow up the system.

I don’t raise this lightly. The costs of breaking with 188 years of tradition would be very high. Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist 68 explaining the Electoral College is widely cited by those who want electors to stage an anti-Trump revolt. But we shouldn’t pretend the Electoral College as described by Hamilton bears any resemblance to the system we have used since the 1828 election, when statewide election of its members became almost universal.

Yet, defenders of the Electoral College cannot claim that following the state results is an explicit “constitutional” obligation. The Constitution makes no mention of popular election of electors, leaving the manner of their selection to the states. It’s worth asking why the national popular vote should be seen as meaningless while the state-by-state popular vote should be regarded as sacred.

The best response is that, as the National Conference of State Legislatures reports, 29 states and the District of Columbia have statutes that try to bind electors to their voters’ preference. But these cover only 15 of the 30 states Trump carried (plus an elector from Maine), and the popular vote shows that turning on Trump would not be a rejection of the public will.

Moreover, one passage from Federalist 68 seems eerily relevant to the present circumstance. Hamilton wrote that the electors could be a barrier against “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” Hamilton asked: “How could they better gratify this than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”

The CIA’s finding that Russia actively intervened in our election to make Trump president is an excellent reason for the electors to consider whether they should exercise their independent power. At the very least, they should be briefed on what the CIA knows, and in particular on whether there is any evidence that Trump or his lieutenants were engaged with Russia during the campaign.

It’s not irrelevant that Trump said last July of Clinton’s emails: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” By publicly inviting a foreign power to intervene in our election, Trump put himself ahead of the nation’s interest in holding an election that would be untainted by foreign meddling. It is one of many reasons why conscientious electors might decide that Trump is unfit to be president and may even be a danger to the country.

It will be entirely understandable if 270 or more of the electors pledged to Trump decide they are agents of their state’s voters, not independent actors. They can argue, fairly, that rejecting Trump would threaten the stability of our institutions. But the threat Trump presents to those institutions is why electors need to think hard before they make this decision.

And if Trump prevails, as expected, this is also why vigilance rather than acquiescence is the primary duty of those unwilling to forget everything we believed about him before Nov. 8. He’s done nothing to change our minds. Just ask Mitt Romney.

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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