Breaking with the tradition at the foundation of American democracy and two centuries of his predecessors, President Donald Trump again declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the November 3 presidential election.
“We’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump said at a September 23 news conference, responding to a question about whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power. “You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.”
It is highly unusual that a sitting president would express less than complete confidence in the American democracy’s electoral process. But he also declined four years ago to commit to honoring the election results if his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, won.
Senior White House reporter Brian Karem, who pitched the question to Trump, remarked on Twitter: “This is the most frightening answer I have ever received to any question I have ever asked. I’ve interviewed convicted killers with more empathy. @realDonaldTrump is advocating Civil War.”
Trump suggested that if states got “rid of” the unsolicited mailing of ballots there would be no concern about fraud or peaceful transfers of power.
“Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation. 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.”
His current Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, was asked about Trump’s comment after landing in Wilmington, Delaware.
“What country are we in?” Biden asked incredulously, adding: “I’m being facetious. Look, he says the most irrational things. I don’t know what to say about it. But it doesn’t surprise me.”
Trump has been pressing a campaign against mail-in voting this November for months by tweeting and speaking out critically about the practice. More states are encouraging mail-in voting to keep voters safe amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The president, who uses mail-in voting himself, has tried to distinguish between states that automatically send mail ballots to all registered voters and those, like Florida, that send them only to voters who request a mail ballot.
Trump has baselessly claimed widespread mail voting will lead to massive fraud. The five states that routinely send mail ballots to all voters have seen no significant fraud.
Julian Castro, who served in Barack Obama’s cabinet, tweeted: “In one day, Trump refused a peaceful transition of power and urged the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice to hand him an election if the results are contested. This is fascism, alive and well in the Republican Party.”
In a July interview, Trump similarly refused to commit to accepting the results.
“I have to see. Look … I have to see,” Trump told Chris Wallace during a wide-ranging July interview. “No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time either.”
The Biden campaign responded later on September 23: “The American people will decide this election. And the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.”
The American Civil Liberties Union also protested Trump’s remarks. “The peaceful transfer of power is essential to a functioning democracy,” National Legal Director David Cole said. “This statement from the president of the United States should trouble every American.”
Trump made similar comments ahead of the 2016 election. When asked during an October debate whether he would abide by the will of voters, Trump responded that he would “keep you in suspense.”
It is unlikely that any chaos in states with universal mail-in voting will cause the election result to be inaccurately tabulated, as Trump has suggested.
The five states that already have such balloting have had time to ramp up their systems, while four states newly adopting it — California, New Jersey, Nevada and Vermont — have not. Washington DC is also newly adopting it.
Of those nine states, only Nevada is a battleground, worth six electoral votes and likely to be pivotal only in a national presidential deadlock. California, New Jersey, Vermont and DC are overwhelmingly Democratic and likely to be won by Biden.