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 TrumpHeadaches intensify for Democrats in Florida Stormy Daniels set to testify against former lawyer Avenatti in fraud trial Cheney challenger wins Wyoming Republican activists' straw poll 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 GinsburgBiden says Roe v. Wade under attack like 'never before' Second gentleman Emhoff acts as public link to White House Former colleagues honor Reid in ceremony at Capitol 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. GreenLobbying world Ilhan Omar to Biden: 'Deliver on your promise to cancel student debt' Deportations of Haitians spark concerns over environmental refugees 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 CurbeloProtecting the freedom to vote should be a bipartisan issue Former lawmakers sign brief countering Trump's claims of executive privilege in Jan. 6 investigation A conservative's faith argument for supporting LGBTQ rights 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 ClintonNo Hillary — the 'Third Way' is the wrong way The dangerous erosion of Democratic Party foundations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat 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 BidenUS threatens sweeping export controls against Russian industries Headaches intensify for Democrats in Florida US orders families of embassy staff in Ukraine to leave country 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. 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. Such statements 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 PelosiHouse has the power to subpoena its members — but does it have the will? Man who threatened to kill Ocasio-Cortez, Pelosi pleads guilty to federal charges The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems look to repackage BBB into salvageable bill MORE (D-Calif.), barring a seismic upset in November.
Biden has sought to calm nerves about what will happen following 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 McConnellBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team McConnell says he made 'inadvertent omission' in voting remarks amid backlash These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 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 SasseBen SasseBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team Sinema scuttles hopes for filibuster reform Democrats outraged after Manchin opposes Biden spending bill 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 or not 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.