American democracy has been defined by the peaceful transfer of power. Donald Trump seems to have other ideas.
This is not a drill. This is not a game.
Because the President of the United States just told us that he would not commit to peacefully turning over the government to a new administration if he loses the election.
Forty-one days before the election, Donald Trump failed to affirm on Wednesday the most basic civic question any president could get. "Will you commit to making sure that there is a peaceful transferal of power after the election?"
"Well, we re going to have to see what happens," Trump said from the White House press room podium. "I ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster ... get rid of the ballots and you ll have a very ... there won t be a transfer, frankly. There ll be a continuation."This is a threat. This is a warning. And anyone who ever called themselves a patriot or a defender of the Constitution ought to condemn it immediately. But instead I expect that we will hear Republicans try to rationalize it with any of the reflexive lines they lately bleat when asked to defend the indefensible when it comes from Trump. They ll say "that s just how he talks" or "he s just trying to get a rise out of the press," or they ll call it fake news and pivot to whataboutism and somehow blame the Democrats.
Exhibit A is Attorney General Bill Barr s comments to the Chicago Tribune earlier this month. "You know liberals project," Barr said. "All this bulls**t about how the president is going to stay in office and seize power? I ve never heard of any of that crap. I mean, I m the attorney general. I would think I would have heard about it. They are projecting. They are creating an incendiary situation where there will be loss of confidence in the vote."
Projection is a helluva drug when you re living in a hall of mirrors. Because Trump has been building this case, brick by rhetorical brick, in plain sight for months -- railing without proof against an allegedly rigged election system (with Barr s help) and citing fictional fraud from mail-in ballots in tweet after tweet.In May, during a congressional special election in California (that Republican Mike Garcia ultimately won), Trump tweeted, "They are trying to steal another election. It s all rigged out there. These votes must not count. SCAM!"
This spurred one of the country s best election law experts, Rick Hasen, to tell The Guardian, "The comments are very worrisome because they increase the chances that the president s supporters would not accept the election results as legitimate should he lose in November."
In July, Fox News Chris Wallace asked the president if he would accept the election results: Trump replied "I have to see. No, I m not going to just say yes. I m not going to say no."
In August, at the Republican National Convention, Trump said, "The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election." He was telling his supporters very clearly the only way he can lose is if the election is stolen. That s setting up a pretext for chaos.
Some of the people who know Trump best have been warning about this for more than a year -- notably, his one-time consigliere, Michael Cohen, who told Congress in February of 2019: "I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power."
Until recently, I was willing to believe this was hyperbole. After all, no president could have such contempt for the country he presumably loves and the Constitution he took an oath to uphold. But Trump s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power comes the same day that a sobering analysis by Barton Gellman was published in The Atlantic. His article is called "The Election That Could Break America" and it should be required reading. Gellman focuses on the chaos that could come in the 79 days between the election and January 20th, when a president s term ends at noon, according to the Constitution.
He lays out how much of our democratic norms can be broken by a president who refuses to respect them, backed by political appointees who have been caught trying to put their thumb on the scale (the Postal Service raising questions about whether ballots could be delivered on time and DHS allegedly withholding evidence of Russia spreading disinformation against Biden come to mind) and compliant hyper-partisans in Congress who have removed all guardrails in their protection of the president.
In August, Gellman convincingly connected Trump s anti-mail-in-voting obsession to a strategic effort to delegitimize votes that are counted somewhat later than the first results.
"There are many legitimate votes that are not counted immediately every election year," Gellman wrote. "For reasons that are not totally understood by election observers, these votes tend to be heavily Democratic, leading results to tilt toward Democrats as more of them are counted, in what has become known as the blue shift. In most cases, the blue shift is relatively inconsequential, changing final vote counts but not results. But in others, as in 2018, it can materially change the outcome."
In his new piece, Gellman interviews a Trump campaign legal adviser -- who requested anonymity -- who laid it all out: "There will be a count on Election Night, that count will shift over time, and the results when the final count is given will be challenged as being inaccurate, fraudulent -- pick your word."That is the scenario that is being prepared by President Trump. We have never faced anything like it in the United States. Barring an election night blowout -- which no one expects -- we are in for days if not weeks of counting votes, given the pandemic s drive toward mail-in ballots. And that creates a context for maximum chaos and civil discord if the president is willing to do literally anything to stay in power. And Trump just told us -- again -- that he is.
At this point, it would be naïve to think that Trump would accept the legitimacy of the election if he loses. "Trump s behavior and declared intent leave no room to suppose that he will accept the public s verdict if the vote is going against him," Gellman writes. "We know this man. We cannot afford to pretend." Or, as Maya Angelou once said, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them."