It is a question that has been bothering me for many months now: What if Donald Trump is defeated in November 2020, or impeached before then, but refuses to leave office?
Last week we discovered it’s a question that also bothers Trump’s former personal lawyer. In his concluding statement before the House Oversight Committee, Michael Cohen issued this ominous warning: “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.”
To be clear: Since the first handover of the White House from one party to another, back in 1801, there has never not been a peaceful transition of power in the United States. There have been close calls — including the Compromise of 1877 and, of course, George W. Bush vs. Al Gore in 2000 — but the system has always worked. Even Richard Nixon, to whom Trump is oft-compared, conceded to John F. Kennedy in 1960, despite numerous accusations of vote-rigging by the Democrats. “In our campaigns,” the then-sitting vice president told Congress, “no matter how hard they may be, no matter how close the election may turn out to be, those who lose accept the verdict and support those who win.” In 1981, Ronald Reagan referred to the “orderly transfer of authority” in the U.S. as “nothing less than a miracle.”
Enter, however, Donald Trump. The 45th president of the United States has made clear that he does not give a damn about political, legal, or constitutional norms; his only concern is with winning at all costs. When running for office in 2016, he refused to commit to accepting the result of the presidential election. After emerging victorious, he baselessly claimed to have “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” In the wake of the 2018 midterms, he ridiculously suggested that Republican losses were a result of “potentially illegal votes” involving people changing their clothes to vote multiple times, and falsely accused Democrats of trying to “steal” the Senate and gubernatorial elections in Florida.
Trying to STEAL two big elections in Florida! We are watching closely!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2018
Trump has been laying the groundwork for 2020. Think about it: Why would a president who has violated a number of U.S. laws, traditions, and norms — from obstructing justice, to defying the emoluments clause, to threatening the free press, to inciting violence — show any deference to Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution?
Consider this scenario: On the morning of November 3, 2020, it becomes clear that Trump has lost both the electoral college and the popular vote to the Democratic candidate, whoever they may be. The president, however, rather than calling his Democratic opponent to concede, holds a rally with his supporters at which he declares himself the winner, tells the crowd “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” slams the “fake news” media, and claims “millions and millions” of people voted illegally for the Democrats. He denounces a “deep state” coup and warns of “violence.”
Do you really think this isn’t possible? That this potential scenario shouldn’t make us all very afraid?
This is a man, after all, who point-blank refused to accept that he lost the popular vote when he won the presidency in 2016 — so why should we assume that he would accept the result of an election that he loses? On Tuesday, Kayleigh McEnany, the national press secretary for Trump’s re-election campaign, even tweeted out a statement that “desperate Democrats know they cannot beat President Trump in 2020… that they have zero chance of winning legitimately.”
Remember, there are multiple reasons why Trump might cry foul and refuse to concede come 2020, and why he might also believe he could get away with it.
First, there is his personality. Trump is a malignant narcissist who values himself and his own advancement over everyone and everything else. Using and abusing his presidential powers to protect his prestige and position would be “very tempting” for him, to quote professor Bandy Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine and editor of the 2017 book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”
“When you have extreme narcissism,” Lee told me on my podcast, “Deconstructed,” last month, “the danger of it is that one can quickly go to resorting to violence and resorting to extreme measures to move away from the possibility of humiliation and to project force.”
Second, there’s the possibility of prison. Right now, Trump is protected by Justice Department guidelines that say a sitting president cannot be indicted or prosecuted. Got that? A sitting president. Not a former president. As Trump supporter Chris Christie told CNN last week, prosecutors from the Southern District of New York are trying to build a case “against the president for when he leaves office.” So why agree to leave office?
Third, there are the president’s friends and allies, who will be loudly urging him to stay on and fight while whipping up grassroots fervor on his behalf. Asked about the prospect of impeachment, in September 2017, for example, Trump confidant Roger Stone responded, “You will have a spasm of violence in this country, an insurrection like you’ve never seen.”
In December 2017, Stone and fellow far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — who Trump has praised as “amazing” — filmed themselves at a shooting range and posted the video to Jones’s YouTube channel with the title “Roger Stone Prepares For Civil War After Trump Is Removed From Office: LIVE AUTO GUNFIRE.”
How about Fox News? We know the far-right cable network exerts massive influence over this president — to quote from a recent Vox headline, “Fox News demanded a government shutdown — and got one.” Fox hosts have accused the “deep state” of plotting to “destroy the presidency of Donald Trump”; denounced a “coup” attempt against the president; and suggested Justice Department officials be “led out in cuffs.” Why wouldn’t they demand Trump hang on, and tell their viewers to back the (defeated) president?
Could we rely on congressional Republicans to rediscover their backbones and insist he stand down? Don’t. Be. Silly.
Would the generals step in? Maybe. But how would the Secret Service react?
And what do the Democrats plan to do if Trump uses his presidential bully pulpit, in the weeks and months after the election, to incite riots and spread falsehoods about illegal immigrants and the “deep state”? Would leading media organizations, obsessed as they are with both sides-ism, have the courage to call out a GOP dictator-in-waiting?
These are some of the questions that at least need to be asked right now — even if there might not be any obvious answers. We have to listen to Cohen. This is not a drill, and there is no reason to believe Trump will go quietly if he is defeated. There is every reason, however, to believe he and his allies will incite hysteria and even violence. Those who assume otherwise haven’t been paying attention.