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What if Trump won’t accept 2020 defeat?

On Twitter last weekend, President Donald Trump pondered, “do you think the people would demand that I stay longer?” | Evan Vucci/AP Photo

In 2016, Donald Trump waffled over whether he would accept the election results if he lost.

Since then, Trump has repeatedly joked about staying in office beyond the two terms the Constitution allows. Jerry Falwell Jr., Trump’s most prominent evangelical supporter, has suggested Trump should get two years tacked on to his first term as “pay back” for the Mueller investigation. The president’s own former lawyer, Michael Cohen, has warned that “there will never be a peaceful transition of power” should Trump fail in his reelection bid.

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The scenarios all seem far-fetched — “It’s almost a question for science fiction movies,” cracked a former top Secret Service official — but the constant drumbeat nonetheless has people chattering in the halls of Congress and throughout the Beltway: What if Trump won’t accept defeat in 2020?

And one scenario in particular has Democrats nervous: the lawsuit-happy Trump contests the election results in court.

“It’s been a worry in the back of my mind for the last couple years now,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat. California Rep. Ted Lieu, a frequent Trump critic and early impeachment inquiry supporter, acknowledged the same concern but said he trusted law enforcement “would do the right thing” and “install the winner” of the election. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has told her party to prepare for the possibility that Trump contests the 2020 results.

Constitutional experts and top Republican lawmakers dismiss the fears as nonsense, noting there are too many forces working against a sitting president simply clinging to power — including history, law and political pressure.

Nancy Pelosi

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has told Democrats to prepare for the possibility that Trump contests the 2020 results. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

“That is the least concern people should have. Of all the silly things that are being said, that may be the silliest,” said Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt, who presided over the 2016 inauguration ceremony and expects to do so again in 2020. “The one thing we are really good at is the transition of power.”

Constitutional law expert Jonathan Turley said a lingering incumbent would simply become irrelevant once the new and duly elected president is sworn in. At that point, the defeated president is nothing more than a guest, “if not an interloper,” in the White House, the George Washington University professor noted.

“The system would make fast work on any president who attempted to deny the results of the election,” he said.

But a court battle over a presidential election is not unprecedented. And Trump has shown a willingness to tie up his disputes in winding litigation. The Democratic National Committee and Trump’s campaign were in court all the way up to Election Day 2016, fighting over charges of voter intimidation and ballot access.

“All candidates have a right to contest results in federal court,” Turley said. “It’s not up to the candidate to decide if an election is valid. It’s not based on their satisfaction or consent. They have every right to seek judicial review.”

Even so, contesting the results of the election in more than one state would be “a massive undertaking,” said Bradley Shrager, a lawyer specializing in election litigation who has worked with several Democratic campaigns. He added that “given the time frames to launch recounts and election contests, you’d have to be preparing months in advance to be able to do that.”

There are also deadlines for submitting an official electoral vote tally, Shrager said, so a legal battle wouldn’t drag out indefinitely.

Still, Pelosi’s comments nodded to the Democratic suspicion that Trump will put up a fight. She argued the Democrats’ must win by a margin so “big” that Trump can’t challenge the results.

The sentiment, Democrats say, is fueled by Trump’s cavalier attitude toward presidential term lengths.

Trump continues to talk up the prospect that he could serve past the constitutionally mandated period. On Twitter last weekend, Trump pondered, “do you think the people would demand that I stay longer?” The line mirrored language he used at a rally in Pennsylvania last month where he talked about living in the White House for 20 years.

“We ran one time and we’re 1-and-0. But it was for the big one. Now we’re going to have a second time. And we’re going to have another one. And then we’ll drive them crazy,” Trump said. “And maybe if we really like it a lot — and if things keep going like they’re going — we’ll go and we’ll do what we have to do. We’ll do a three and a four and a five.”

Trump also promoted Falwell Jr.’s line from May that the president should get two extra years “as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup”, retweeting the Liberty University president.

The president has long casually toyed with the idea that he could stay in office beyond the constitutionally set maximum.

In March 2018, Trump praised the ruling Communist Party of China for abolishing presidential term limits. Then, a month later, he publicly pondered why he couldn’t be in office for 16 years, an apparent reference to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who died during his fourth term. The 22nd Amendment, ratified a few years after Roosevelt’s death, prohibited future presidents from serving more than two consecutive elected terms.

It’s not just talk of extending term limits that have raised questions about the president’s respect for the next cycle. During the 2016 campaign, Trump stoked fears among his supporters that the election would be “rigged” and he refused to state during his final debate with Hillary Clinton that he’d concede to his Democratic opponent if she won.

His crusade extended into Election Day when, just before 5 p.m., Trump incorrectly tweeted that “Utah officials report voting machine problems across entire country.” In fact, the problems were just in one county. And even after being declared the 2016 winner, Trump continued to state without evidence that “millions” of people voted illegally, fueling questions about whether he would have taken this argument to court if the result hadn’t gone his way.

When asked whether Trump would commit to conceding the 2020 election if he lost, the Trump reelection campaign turned the issue back on Democrats. It was Stacey Abrams, the rising Democratic star, who actually refused to concede defeat in her bid for the Georgia governorship, an aide noted.

“This question would be better asked of Stacey Abrams, who still refuses to accept that she lost the governor’s race in Georgia, or Hillary Clinton, for that matter, who still whines that her coronation was stolen,” the aide told POLITICO. “It’s also irrelevant, because President Trump will be re-elected in 2020.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The stakes for Trump in 2020 are high. If he loses, the president will lose his immunity from criminal prosecution the moment his successor is sworn into the White House. And several Democratic presidential hopefuls have suggested their Justice Department would be hard-pressed not to bring charges against Trump for obstructing justice, using the evidence in special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report. Federal prosecutors in New York have also been reviewing potential campaign finance violations.

Confronted with Trump’s past remarks, Republicans remain largely unmoved.

“As untraditional a president as he is, I think he understands if you lose an election you lose an election and the other person wins,” said Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot, a senior member of the powerful House Judiciary Committee. “There’s no chance of anything like that possibly happening. That’s just hysteria. No way would that ever happen.”

Chabot recalled getting similar questions about President Barack Obama holding on to power — serving more than two terms — before the 2016 election. “I didn’t want to laugh it off because these were my constituents. But I’d explain to them there’s no chance of that happening,” he said.

Unlike Obama, though, Trump has fanned the concerns with his rhetoric. He could also put all the scuttlebutt to rest if he wanted to, said John Q. Barrett, a St. John’s University law professor.

“He’s to blame at least in the minimal sense that he doesn’t shoot this down and say all the unequivocal, constitutionally obedient stuff that any president would say,” said Barrett, who served as an associate under Reagan-era independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. “Trump could pour a bucket of water on all this right away.”

The GOP may not take the idea seriously now. But they would be key to convincing Trump to concede in 2020 should the president resist an Electoral College loss, said Steven Levitsky, a comparative political scientist and professor of government at Harvard.

“No matter what the actual mechanisms are (which laws, which police), the key here is the Republican Party,” he said in an email.

The onus, Levitsky said, would fall to GOP leaders including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to “come out and say, ‘Enough is enough, Trump lost.’”

Republicans to date have often given Trump the benefit of the doubt on controversial statements and actions. But Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, said he is confident that even a GOP that has embraced all-things Trump would rebuke a lame duck Trump if he refused to respect the election results.

“Even my Republican colleagues, who are not willing to impeach, have said to me that they would not stand for a president defying a court-certified election result, nor would they stand for a president running for more than two terms,” he said.

Khanna added that he was more concerned with the integrity of the election itself, and “the shenanigans that could happen in the counting of the votes in these states.”

“It’s important to make sure that we have strong election protection lawyers in polling places around the country to prevent further interference, and verification on election night of each state’s results as they come in,” he said.

Despite giving assurances Trump would not cause problems if he lost, lawmakers can’t help but recall the most recent contested presidential election as an example of a close race that could become a model for an upside down 2020 race.

“I feel quite confident that whoever wins the next election will be president,” Chabot said. “Now, of course, that being said, then you have the 2000 Bush-Gore election. That was nuts.”

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