GOP pushback doesn't end suspicions about Trump and a peaceful transition
President Trump's most recent refusal to commit to accepting the results of the election propelled several other prominent Republicans on Thursday to insist there will be a peaceful end to one administration and start of another come January, no matter who wins in November.
"There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792," vowed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who like the others in the party who spoke out still declined to identify Trump's alarming equivocation by name.
Beyond that, one of Trump's most overt threats yet to subvert a bedrock aspect of American democracy, should he lose in November, drew a whole range of responses and raised all manner of so-far unanswerable questions.
To be precise about what Trump said Wednesday evening at a white House press briefing, here is the short exchange he had with Brian Karem of Playboy.
"Will you commit to making sure that there is a peaceful transferal of power after the election?" the reporter asked. The president replied: "Well, we're going to have to see what happens. You know that I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster."
"I understand that but people are rioting," Karem then said. "Do you commit to making sure that there's a peaceful transferal of power?"
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"We want to have, get rid of the ballots and we'll have a very peaceful — There won't be a transfer frankly, there'll be a continuation," Trump answered. "The ballots are out of control. You know it, and you know who knows it better than anybody else? The Democrats know it better than anybody else."
None of the four newspapers with broad national circulation -- the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and USA Today — decided his comments merited front page coverage on Thursday. But the story did erupt across the Internet and on social media platforms, particularly Twitter.
The breakdown was predictable, with Democrats and democracy reform activists decrying Trump's comments in apocalyptic terms and a handful of Republicans seemingly disagreeing with Trump but in mostly tepid language and without naming the president.
"This is how democracy dies," tweeted Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who was the top prosecutor at Trump's impeachment trial. "A president so desperate to cling to power that he won't commit to a peaceful transition of power. That he seeks to throw out millions of votes. And a Republican Party too craven to say a word. But we will fight back. America belongs to the people."
Sen. Michael Bennett of Colorado, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination this year, tweeted that "members of all parties must condemn this open assault on our democracy. No context can excuse this. No talking points from the podium tomorrow can erase it. We are well past the point where partisanship must give way to patriotism."
Of greater interest was which senior congressional Republicans would say anything that even approached criticism of Trump. They included Mitt Romney of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rob Portman of Ohio from the Senate, and Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Steve Stivers of Ohio from the House.
"Fundamental to democracy is the peaceful transition of power," Romney said in the most forceful pushback. "Any suggestion that a president might not respect this constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable."
The rest were as restrained as McConnell, who also tweeted that "the winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th." Rubio, for example, promised that "as we have done for over two centuries we will have a legitimate & fair election. It may take longer than usual to know the outcome, but it will be a valid one."
Among the democracy reform groups, Public Citizen tweeted: "The president is openly and explicitly considering a coup to hold onto power. Make no mistake: Autocracy is at our doorstep."
Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn used Trump's words as a fundraising tool, urging supporters to help finance the group's "efforts for a legitimate, transparent, and trustworthy election this year.
After reactions, questions
All that rhetoric aside, Trump's comments raised the same three questions that often follow his most provocative declarations: What precisely did he mean, is the threat serious and how could he do what he's talking about?
Parsing the meaning of his words can be tough because the president makes so much news seemingly off the cuff, to reporters or on Twitter, and he can be imprecise if not self-contradictory.
In this case, "the ballots are a disaster" is presumably a reference to the many millions of additional absentee ballots this year because of the coronavirus pandemic — the subject of a steady barrage of statements and tweets since March in which Trump has asserted without evidence that widespread voting by mail will lead to widespread fraud.
And what about his statement that if we "get rid of the ballots" there won't be a transfer of power, just a continuation? This may reflect his often-stated view that without a surge of mailed votes he is sure to win a second term. But could it also be something new and dramatic — his advocating against tabulating mailed ballots.
If it's the latter, Trump and White House officials and campaign supporters may argue that his comments were obviously a joke or were being misinterpreted, as has often happened when his statements have been challenged.
Questioning the seriousness of his threats has provided steady work for Trump watchers. In May, Politico media writer Jack Schafer wrote that the president threatens "with the frequency other people take out the garbage" and then went on to review a litany of the greatest hits of his hollow threats.
But a reason to take him seriously this time, other commentators have pointed out, is that this is not the first time Trump has said he may not give up power without a fight.
When he narrowly lost the first GOP nominating contest four years ago, for example, his evidence-free allegation about the Texas senator who prevailed was: "Ted Cruz didn't win Iowa, he stole it." He claimed later in the 2016 campaign that the vote was sure to be rigged, and even after his upset victory in the Electoral College was secured he asserted without a shred of proof that the only reason he lost the popular vote was that at least 3 million illegal ballots had been cast for Hillary Clinton.
Chilling descriptions of how Trump might maneuver to hold power, no matter what the result in November, are being churned out with increasing frequency by journalists and election experts.
The Atlantic recently published one such account. Since far more Democrats than Republicans are apparently planning to vote by mail, it says, when the first returns of people who voted in person are counted on election night they may well show Trump ahead in both the popular vote and Electoral College. If he continues his attack on the legitimacy of mailed ballots, he could create enough of a cloud of uncertainty that more than one slate of electors may be produced in closely contested states with decisive numbers of electoral votes — meaning the election ends up in the hands of Congress or the Supreme Court.
Election law professor Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine, made a similar argument in a Slate article published Wednesday, titled: "I've Never Been More Worried About American Democracy Than I Am Right Now."
"The idea is to throw so much muck into the process," he wrote, "and cast so much doubt on who is the actual winner in one of those swing states because of supposed massive voter fraud and uncertainty about the rules for absentee ballots, that some other actor besides the voter will decide the winner of the election."
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