Nov 22, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Longtime diplomat says Trump conspiracies hurt U.S. more than Russia, China

Nicholas Burns
Burns during Senate testimony in 2015. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

A longtime diplomat and Joe Biden adviser tells Axios that the United States has lost international credibility as President Trump spreads conspiracies while challenging his losing election results.

Why it matters: Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor who previously served presidents from both political parties as a former ambassador and undersecretary of state, says the president's baseless challenges have undercut the U.S. as a beacon of democracy and critical voice against governmental overreach in other nations.

  • "Donald Trump is doing more damage to American democracy than Russia or China or Iran or North Korea could ever do with their cyberattacks on us," Burns said in a Friday night interview with Axios from his home in Westport, Massachusetts.
  • "I think it's the most serious threat to our democracy in my lifetime," said Burns.

Between the lines: Burns served Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who made Burns his ambassador to NATO among other posts.

  • Burns stressed he was speaking to Axios in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the Biden team.
  • But he is an important part of Biden's kitchen cabinet — advising the president-elect during the campaign and joining a high-level briefing with Biden and other top foreign policy and national security advisers on Tuesday.

The big picture: The intelligence community talks a great deal about foreign influence campaigns, but Burns says he can't imagine a more acute threat to the social fabric than what Trump and Rudy Giuliani are doing right now.

  • "This is the first time in the history of the country where the clearly defeated candidate has refused to concede and refused to conduct a peaceful and orderly transition," said Burns. "That's the core of our democratic experience in America, that we have peaceful transitions."
  • "The outrageous and outlandish and completely irresponsible claims he's making with no facts behind them is poisoning the atmosphere in an already divided nation," Burns added.
  • Trump's lawyer Sidney Powell has floated, without evidence, that Trump actually won the election in a landslide because millions of votes were stolen from him. Her allegation: that Trump is the victim of an international "communist" conspiracy in which countries such as Venezuela and Cuba have manipulated American voting machines to switch millions of votes from Trump to Biden.

The consequences: 77% of Trump supporters say Biden's victory was due to fraud, according to a recent Monmouth University poll. That's tens of millions of Americans who believe this election was stolen and will likely consider Biden an illegitimate president.

  • Like many other foreign policy and national security experts, Burns saw this poll and is profoundly disturbed about its implications — not just for social cohesion inside the U.S. but for America's ability to project power abroad.
  • Trump is "making it extraordinarily difficult for the next president, for Joe Biden, because ... a lot of our power in the world comes from our credibility as a democracy ... that we can be a model and an example to others," Burns added.
  • "And Donald Trump is destroying that right now with what he's doing to divide us, even further after the election."
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