Throughout US history, with exceedingly rare exceptions (the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, for instance), Americans haven’t had to worry about the peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next. Like having regular elections, it’s a norm that’s been taken for granted.
Donald Trump, however, is not a normal president.
And now another norm is biting the dust, thanks in part to the president’s history of questioning America’s democratic processes. Trump took office following a campaign in which he preemptively tried to explain away his possible loss by claiming the process was “rigged.” Even after he won, he alleged, without evidence, that millions of illegal ballots cost him the popular vote. Recently, Trump accused his political opponents of trying to engineer a “coup” to remove him from office, and retweeted a post calling for his term to be extended by two years.
Trump’s demeanor and behavior, combined with alarming congressional testimony from his longtime personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to go public last weekend with her concerns that even if Trump is defeated at the ballot box next year, he won’t leave office — especially if the election is close.
Instead of quashing those concerns, Trump joked about serving “10 or 14 years” during his rally in Panama City Beach, Florida, on Thursday. It wasn’t the first time he said something like that during a speech.
“Whatever we like, right?” Trump said. “Watch — it’ll be headlines tomorrow: ‘Donald Trump Wants to Break Constitution.’”
After bashing the media, Trump "jokes" about serving more than 2 terms in office. Funny how that seems to be a recurring topic for him these days. pic.twitter.com/IBtGuMkGcI— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 9, 2019
Of course, a lot of what Trump says is bluster. But it was easier to dismiss it before he became president, and given his track record, he’ll likely draw the 2020 election results in question even if he’s soundly defeated. Were Trump to go further, and attempt to stay in office by, say, resurrecting allegations of widespread voter fraud, the possibility he’ll be successful can’t be summarily dismissed — especially given the new justices he’s installed on the right-leaning Supreme Court, and the loyal support he continues to enjoy from Republicans (not to mention the nation’s top law enforcement official).
Why Pelosi is worried
Pelosi raised concerns about Trump refusing to leave office if he loses the election during an interview with the New York Times’s Glenn Thrush that was published on May 4. The interview took place amid the escalating battle between the Trump administration and Democrats about the extent to which the White House will allow Congress to conduct oversight of the executive branch, if at all.
“We have to inoculate against that, we have to be prepared for that,” Pelosi said, referring to the possibility of Trump challenging the legitimacy of a Democratic win. She cited her concern as a reason Democrats should strive to “own the center left, own the mainstream” during their 2020 campaigns, instead of running on more progressive proposals like the Green New Deal or Medicare-for-all.
Pelosi revealed that she worried about Trump questioning the legitimacy of last year’s midterm election results. She said she believes he didn’t because her party’s resounding victory — Democrats flipped 40 House seats and control of the chamber — made it too difficult for him to make a case that Republicans had been cheated.
“If we win by four seats, by a thousand votes each, he’s not going to respect the election,” Pelosi told the Times, recalling her thinking during the run-up to the midterms. “He would poison the public mind. He would challenge each of the races; he would say you can’t seat these people. ... We had to win. Imagine if we hadn’t won — oh, don’t even imagine. So, as we go forward, we have to have the same approach.”
Pelosi is not the first person who has raised concerns this year about the possibility Trump won’t willingly leave office.
In February, Michael Cohen concluded his congressional testimony by saying, without prompting, that “given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power, and this is why I agreed to appear before you today.”
While it’s true that Cohen isn’t the most credible source — he has a long and well-documented history of telling lies on Trump’s behalf, at least before their falling out after Cohen was raided by the FBI last year — his concern in this case seemed to be sincere, and tapped into a worry many Americans have about the president.
In the months between Cohen’s testimony and Pelosi’s interview, Trump escalated his authoritarian rhetoric about his political opponents by repeatedly accusing Democrats of trying to engineer “a coup” to remove him from office with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — an investigation that was actually triggered not by secretive Democratic machinations, but by Trump’s move to fire the FBI director amid an active investigation of his campaign.
“This was an illegal coup attempt on the President of the United States.” Dan Bongino on @foxandfriends True!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2019
Just days ago, Trump retweeted a post from Jerry Falwell Jr. suggesting he should have two years added to his term “for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup.”
Authoritarian leaders rewriting history to raise suspicions about coups taking place against them is a hallmark of countries like Turkey and the Philippines, but it is not the sort of thing we’re accustomed to hearing in the United States. Trump, however, continues to redefine what “normal” for American presidents to do, occasionally in destabilizing ways.
Trump has a long history of alleging that the system is “rigged” against him
Through Pelosi said she’s especially concerned about what Trump will do if he loses by a narrow margin, there’s plenty of evidence indicating he’ll try and say the outcome was rigged no matter the outcome — even if he wins.
For instance, in August 2016, when polls indicated that Hillary Clinton was ahead by 10 points over Trump in Pennsylvania, Trump was claiming at rallies that he could lose in the state only “if cheating goes on.”
“The only way we can lose, in my opinion — and I really mean this, Pennsylvania — is if cheating goes on. I really believe it,” he said.
During a rally in Altoona, Trump went as far as to urge his supporters to “go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.”
It’s difficult to remember now, but there were widespread fears in the summer and fall of 2016 that Trump would contest the election results if he lost. During interviews and at rallies, he routinely said things like, “If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised,” and pushed evidence-free conspiracies about the media and Democrats conspiring to take him down.
The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary - but also at many polling places - SAD— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2016
WikiLeaks even sent Donald Trump Jr. a Twitter direct message on Election Day 2016 urging him to tell his father to “NOT conceed [sic] and spends time CHALLENGING the media and other types of rigging that occurred — as he has implied that he might do.” But, of course, Trump didn’t lose. Even then, however, he couldn’t help but make evidence-free assertions that illegal ballots cost him the popular vote.
“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump tweeted weeks after the election.
Trump again raised concerns about election rigging after his party lost 40 seats and control of the House last November, alleging that “missing or forged” ballots may have resulted in two Republican candidates in Florida (Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis) losing their elections while the result was still in dispute. But he quietly stopped talking about that after Scott and DeSantis were certified as winners, even while raising suspicious that Democrats cheated in other cases.
The thing about all of these allegations is that there’s no basis for them. Trump has repeatedly stoked fears that the generally purple and blue states without strict voter ID laws are vulnerable to massive voter fraud, but, as my colleague German Lopez explained earlier this year, there’s no evidence to back this up:
Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt studied voter impersonation. He found 35 total credible accusations between 2000 and 2014, constituting a few hundred ballots at most. During this 15-year period, more than 800 million ballots were cast in national general elections and hundreds of millions more were cast in primary, municipal, special, and other elections.
A 2012 investigation by the News21 journalism project looked at all kinds of voter fraud nationwide, including voter impersonation, people voting twice, vote buying, absentee fraud, and voter intimidation. It confirmed that voter impersonation was extremely rare, with just 10 credible cases.
But the other types of fraud weren’t common either: In total, the project uncovered 2,068 alleged election fraud cases from 2000 through part of 2012, covering a time span when more than 620 million votes were cast in national general elections alone. That represents about 0.000003 alleged cases of fraud for every vote cast, and 344 fraud cases per national general election, in each of which between 80 million and 135 million people voted. The number of fraudulent votes was a drop in the bucket.
So it’s not a surprise that Trump’s attempt to prove voter fraud is a major problem went nowhere, despite his much-hyped “election integrity” commission headed by Kris Kobach. Trump, however, is not one to let evidence, or lack thereof, stop him from pushing a politically useful conspiracy theory. If Trump does end up trying to challenge next year’s election results, it’s likely that he’ll do so at least in part by raising baseless concerns about massive voter fraud.
How Trump could resist leaving office, briefly explained
On the heels of Cohen’s testimony, Daniel Block wrote “a step-by-step guide to what might happen if [Trump] refuses to concede” for the Washington Monthly. Block operates with a premise similar to Pelosi’s — that if Trump lost in a landslide it’d be harder for him to challenge the results — and details how Trump, as long as GOP rank-and-file stand by him, could try and reverse a close election.
In short, there are a number of ways Trump could try to challenge the results, but the most likely course would be to claim — as he did following the 2016 election — that large-scale voter fraud occurred. This time, after losing, he could sue the states in which it allegedly happened.
From Block’s piece:
The Trump campaign might sue Democratic-leaning counties for alleged “irregularities” and ask that judges toss out their results. “I can imagine the litigation in Pennsylvania taking the form of saying voting booths in Philadelphia were held open an excessively long time, an unlawfully long time, or the vote counters in some Democratic-leaning county unlawfully refused to count late-filed absentee ballots,” [Mark Tushnet, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University Tushnet] said. Victory for Trump would “mean throwing out the ballots and saying that when those are thrown out, Trump gets the state’s electoral votes.” That, in turn, would allow him to remain president.
This argument, and the many others that the Trump campaign could employ, would almost certainly be specious. But Tushnet cautioned against underestimating the power of creative attorneys and motivated reasoning. The legal justification for challenging the returns would develop, he said, “in some ways that we can’t really anticipate now but that lawyers will come up with when it matters.”
The academics I spoke with cited Bush v. Gore as evidence. When the U.S. Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority shut down the Florida recount, giving the 2000 election to George W. Bush, it did so by reading the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause in an expansive manner totally at odds with typical conservative jurisprudence. The Court even told other judges that their decision could not be used as precedent.
There are other routes Trump could take to challenge the results. For example, if the election ended up being decided by the Democratic candidate prevailing in a state where the state government is controlled by Republicans (such as Florida), Trump-supporting lawmakers could pass legislation throwing out the results and giving themselves the power to appoint electors.
To be clear, none of this is likely to happen. While Republicans have been remarkably loyal to Trump thus far, it’s worth noting that 12 Senate Republicans voted earlier this year to block the national emergency declaration Trump is using to try and build his border wall. Making moves to overturn the result of a presidential election would obviously be a much larger power grab than a constitutionally dubious emergency declaration, so it stands to reason that more Republicans would stand in Trump’s way and urge him to accept the election results if he went that route.
But Trump has tilted the Supreme Court in a rightward direction with two new justices, installed a loyalist atop the Department of Justice, and has already shown a willingness to politicize law enforcement when it suits his purposes. (Remember the FBI’s extremely limited investigation of the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh?) Where there’s a will, there just might be a way — especially when you’re the most powerful person in the country.
Even when Trump is just spouting hot air, his words undermine democracy
It’s worth remembering that Trump called for “a revolution in this country” shortly after President Barack Obama was proclaimed the winner of his 2012 reelection contest against Republican Mitt Romney.
“He lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election,” Trump wrote in a since-deleted tweet, apparently (falsely) alleging that Romney was a victim of fraud. “We should have a revolution in this country!”
While Trump deleted a number of tweets from that night, other tweets from Trump’s post-2012 election meltdown live on.
This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2012
It’s one thing when a reality TV star who is best known in political circles for pushing racist conspiracy theories about Obama baselessly calls an election “a total sham and a travesty.” It’s another when that conspiracy theorist is president and uses claims of that sort in a desperate attempt to maintain his hold on power.
If the past is precedent, Trump will reject next year’s presidential elections results. Whether he rejects them in their entirety, as he did in 2012, or just in part, as was the case in 2016, likely depends on whether he wins a second term or not. But in either case, given Trump’s significant and devoted following, the damage done to America’s democratic institutions will be lasting.