Fears are rising across the political spectrum that the nation is close to coming off the rails, amid uproar over recent comments by President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr ‘has brought shame’ on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump’s No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE.
Trump has twice declined in recent days to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses November’s election. His remarks are without any clear precedent.
The comments come at a time when the national fabric is being strained by a number of other factors, including the coronavirus pandemic, protests over racial injustice and a political battle over replacing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgProgressive group buys domain name of Trump’s No. 1 Supreme Court pick Democratic senator to party: ‘A little message discipline wouldn’t kill us’ Lincoln Project mocks Lindsey Graham’s fundraising lag with Sarah McLachlan-themed video MORE, who died last week.
The nation is also contending with the long-term impact of extreme polarization, and with the inevitable tensions stoked by an election that is little more than five weeks away.
Rep. Al GreenAlexander (Al) N. GreenThe Memo: Trump’s race tactics fall flat Trump administration ending support for 7 Texas testing sites as coronavirus cases spike The Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Miami mayor worries about suicide and domestic violence rise; Trump-governor debate intensifies MORE (D-Texas), who pushed for Trump’s impeachment back in 2017, told The Hill that, in light of the president’s most recent remarks, he was concerned about “unrest that can spiral out of control in this country.”
Green added: “A peaceful transfer of power is not a conservative position, not a liberal position — it is an American tradition. There are some traditions that ought to withstand the test of time. We should not try to erode that tradition, and the president’s words are eroding that tradition.”
Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloGOP wants more vision, policy from Trump at convention Mucarsel-Powell, Giménez to battle for Florida swing district The Memo: GOP cringes at new Trump race controversy MORE, a Republican who represented Florida’s 26th Congressional District from 2015 until 2019, suggested that those who did not take Trump’s threats seriously were making a mistake.
“I always take people who are in power seriously,” Curbelo said. “He certainly has the power to create a very chaotic situation in regards to the election results, and everyone should take him seriously.”
Some prominent commentators put the situation in even more strident terms.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday that he had started his career covering the Lebanese civil war and added, “I’m terrified to find myself ending my career as a journalist covering America’s potential second civil war in its history.”
Friedman also described Trump’s recent comments as a “six-alarm fire.”
Trump has been beating the drum about what he characterizes as the dangers of mail-in voting for months, despite the lack of credible evidence that postal votes are any more susceptible to fraud than voting in person.
He also equivocated during the 2016 campaign about whether he would accept the election result if he lost to his Democratic opponent, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida Hillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close Trump pledges to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, designate KKK a terrorist group in pitch to Black voters MORE.
The current furor was sparked when Trump was asked during an appearance in the White House briefing room Wednesday whether he would commit to a peaceful transition of power and replied, “We’re going to have to see what happens.”
Asked about those comments the following day, the president said: “We want to make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure it can be.”
Most experts believe the likelihood of Trump actually seeking to remain in power if he were to clearly lose to former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFormer Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump’s No. 1 Supreme Court pick Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida MORE is remote.
There is no obvious legal mechanism by which he could do such a thing, and the Constitution provides that the election’s winner will be sworn in as president on Jan. 20 next year. Any attempt to defy that process — itself an unlikely prospect — would mean Trump risking his ejection from the White House, perhaps at the hands of the Secret Service.
A Wall Street Journal editorial on Friday called the idea of Trump remaining in power in such circumstances “preposterous.”
A more plausible scenario, in the eyes of many, is Trump casting doubt on the election results and stoking resentment among his supporters with claims that victory is being stolen from him. Statements like those could pitch the nation into serious strife, even assuming Trump accedes to handing over power come Jan. 20.
In the unlikely event that no winner of the election were to be certified by Jan. 20, the presidency would pass to the Speaker of the House — which will continue to be Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocratic senator to party: ‘A little message discipline wouldn’t kill us’ Overnight Health Care: New wave of COVID-19 cases builds in US | Florida to lift all coronavirus restrictions on restaurants, bars | Trump stirs questions with 0 drug coupon plan Overnight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon’s use of COVID-19 funds MORE (D-Calif.) barring a seismic upset in November.
Biden has sought to calm nerves about what will happen in the wake of the election. The Democratic nominee told MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle in an interview conducted Friday, “I’m confident that [after] all of the irresponsible, outrageous attacks on voting, we’ll have an election in this country as we always have had. And he’ll leave.”
But Biden added: “What I am concerned about is whether he generates some kind of response in a way that unsettles the society or causes some kind of violence.”
Trump’s remarks were transgressive enough to earn implicit rebukes from some members of his own party. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocratic senator to party: ‘A little message discipline wouldn’t kill us’ House to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Republican lawyers brush off Trump’s election comments MORE (R-Ky.) insisted that, come Inauguration Day, “there will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792.”
“The president says crazy stuff,” Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseWhy a backdoor to encrypted data is detrimental to cybersecurity and data integrity McEnany says Trump will accept result of ‘free and fair election’ McConnell pushes back on Trump: ‘There will be an orderly transition’ MORE (R-Neb.) told reporters. “We’ve always had a peaceful transition of power. It’s not going to change.”
The electoral implications of Trump’s remarks may turn out to be slight, given how energized Democratic voters are about defeating him, and how fervently his base supports him.
But Curbelo, the former Florida congressman, suggested the controversy could backfire with some voters in the Sunshine State, the biggest and most crucial battleground.
In an apparent reference to immigrant communities from nations such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, Curbelo said, “There are communities in South Florida where there are a lot of families who fled countries where democratic institutions were weakened or destroyed. This could really push those voters who may not be enthusiastic about Biden. They may be wary about socialism from the left but this will make them wary of authoritarianism from the right.”
Whether Trump’s comments have that effect on the election, though, they clearly mark another voyage into uncharted waters for the nation at large.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.