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Top Republicans Are Attacking Hakeem Jeffries as an ‘Election Denier.’ Here’s Why That Label Is Misleading

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In recent days, some top Republicans have called Rep. Hakeem Jeffries an “election denier,” starting a line of attack against the New York Democrat after he was chosen to lead his party as House Minority Leader next year.

“The newly elected incoming leader of House Democrats is a past election denier who basically said the 2016 election was quote ‘illegitimate,'” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor on Thursday, “and suggested that we had a quote ‘fake president.'”

The Republican National Committee’s (RNC) Twitter account also posted a tweet on Wednesday referring to Jeffries as an “election denier.”

McConnell and the RNC are referring to comments Jeffries made in the wake of the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. In tweets, news interviews, and House hearings, Jeffries called to question the legitimacy of Trump’s election because of Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 race, and accused Trump of colluding with Russia to win the election. (A special counsel investigation that concluded in 2019 did not find sufficient evidence that Trump or his campaign conspired with Russia.)

The term “election denier” has taken on a particular meaning, however, after Trump’s failed re-election campaign. The phrase has come to be associated with Republicans who claim the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, assert without evidence there was fraud in 2020 voting, and cast doubt on secure voting systems—claims that lead to the deadly January 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Calling Jeffries an “election denier’ is misleading and conflates different issues. “Casting unfounded doubt on the outcome of an election is irresponsible when either party does it,” says Rachel Orey, associate director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. “But I think it’s important to remember that the culture around elections was quite different before 2020.”

Prior to the 2020 election, many Democrats pointed to evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, the fact that Trump won the Electoral College but did not win the popular vote, and used talking points calling Trump “not my President.” But the actions taken by Trump and his supporters leading up to 2020 election and after were unprecedented. Trump stoked false conspiracies of voter fraud, filed more than 60 election-related lawsuits, and pressured officials to interfere with election results. Since then, recent polls have shown that more than half of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen.

On Twitter, the RNC has called Jeffries an “election denier” and shared threads, screenshots, and video clips of Jeffries calling the 2016 election of Trump “illegitimate.” Its website also contains a blog post called “13 times Hakeem Jeffries denied election results.” Jeffries’ claims mostly centered around the evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election and Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into whether Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia.

Prior to Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, Jeffries told MSNBC that there was a “cloud of illegitimacy” around the election, and said Russians, the FBI, and the “fake news industry” interfered with the 2016 election. “[Trump] didn’t win the popular vote. He lost the popular vote. The majority of the Americans didn’t vote for him, they voted against him,” Jeffries added. “The notion that a foreign power could have interfered with American democracy in a way that could have altered the results is a unique threat to the Republic and that’s a serious thing for each member to have to consider and to weigh.”

“The more we learn about 2016 election the more ILLEGITIMATE it becomes,” Jeffries tweeted in February 2018. “America deserves to know whether we have a FAKE President in the Oval Office #RussianInterference.”

Jeffries has so far not publicly commented on Republicans resurfacing his past comments.

“In this day and age, it’s incredibly easy for public servants to post something online, and a couple years down the road have it come come back up in public discourse,” Orey says. “But I think that as the nature of threats to democracy shift, we all need to be vigilant and make sure that we are placing democracy first and politics second.”

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Write to Jasmine Aguilera at jasmine.aguilera@time.com