What If Trump Refuses to Leave?

Much will depend on whether or not other Republicans accept a defeat.

Donald Trump
American president Donald Trump boards Marine One outside the White House in Washington DC, July 31 (White House/Tia Dufour)

Democrats and political experts in the United States are worried that President Donald Trump might not recognize the outcome of the upcoming election.

When over 100 former politicians and government officials, civil society leaders and journalists gamed out four election scenarios, they ended up in a constitutional crisis, “featuring violence in the streets and a severely disrupted administrative transition,” in all but one: a decisive win for Joe Biden. A close result could trigger civil and political unrest not seen in a century.

The last time a presidential candidate refused to concede was in 1876.

Laying the groundwork

Trump is laying the groundwork for a challenge by disparaging postal voting, which Democrats are more likely to take advantage of than Republicans.

Although the coronavirus pandemic makes in-person voting risky, Trump’s postmaster general, Louis DeJoy — who donated more than $2 million to Republican causes before he was appointed — has cut business hours and barred postal workers from working overtime to deliver the mail, even ballots, in time.

34 states require ballots to be mailed in by election day in order to be counted.

Although postal-voting fraud is rare — 491 cases were reported between 2000 and 2012 — Trump predicts, without evidence, that the election in November will be “the most inaccurate and fraudulent” in history.

Like a cartoon villain, the Republican leader has revealed his true scheme, stating bluntly that he is blocking Postal Service funding because without it, “you can’t have universal mail-in voting.”

Local media in swing states like Pennsylvania, which Trump won by .7 points in 2016 and where Biden is polling in first place, already report delays.

What could happen?

If Americans vote by mail on an unprecedented scale, the result of the election may not be known on the night of November 3.

Even if the Postal Service picked up and delivered all the ballots on time, it could still take days for election workers to count the votes.

In New York, it took almost two months to count all the votes from the June 23 primaries.

Trump could use the two months after the election in November, when he would still be president, to throw doubt on the result.

He could order the Department of Justice, led by the compliant William Barr, to seize mailed-in ballots.

He could call on supporters to show up at voting sites and intimidate election workers or even prevent them from entering and doing their jobs.

Or, as he recently did in Portland, Oregon, he could cite an unspecified emergency to deploy camouflaged and unmarked Department of Homeland Security troops to do the same.

The power of narrative

The Republican Party and the conservative media will play a crucial role in shaping the narrative.

If Trump loses reelection and the American right broadly accepts the result, Fred Kaplan predicts that on January 20, “all but a small retinue of security guards will abandon” the president, “the nuclear launch codes will change, his cabinet secretaries and ambassadors will lose all authority and the entire US military establishment will pivot away from ex-President Donald Trump to salute President Joe Biden.”

The Secret Service will escort Mr Trump out of the office. If a mob of Trump’s favorite sheriffs and militias block the doors and circle the White House — if, in short, a few tanks need to roll down Pennsylvania Avenue to restore order, then it will be Biden, the duly elected and sworn-in commander in chief, who gives the order.

But if other Republicans dispute a Trump loss in November, and many Republican voters are persuaded that there was widespread fraud in the Democrats’ favor, it would be much harder for nonpartisan institutions to support Biden’s claim.

Republican-led state legislatures could refuse to certify their election results. Republican governors could refuse to certify the Electoral College votes in their states. The official outcome could thus be changed — legally — and the bureaucracy, military and security services wouldn’t be able to justify disobeying Trump.

Democrats would likely challenge such a power grab in the courts. The Supreme Court may ultimately have to decide who becomes president for the second time in two decades.