Will Trump ignore the Constitution and stay in White House beyond his term?

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This past weekend President Trump contributed to rising speculation that he might not leave office when his presidency ends, retweeting Jerry Falwell Jr.’s suggestion that “Trump should have 2 yrs added to his 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup.” The White House responded that the president was joking. But Speaker Pelosi (D-Calif.) sounded the alarm: “We have to inoculate against that, we have to be prepared for that.”

Whether or not Trump is seriously contemplating such a move, it won’t happen. And it’s not because the Democrats can stop him, because as long as Republicans control the Senate, the country cannot rely on impeachment as an exit strategy. Instead, there are three conservatives who would be highly incentivized — and influential — in keeping the U.S. away from this constitutional cliff.

{mosads}One line of defense would be Vice President Mike Pence. Ridiculous? Possibly. But keep in mind Pence has wanted to be president since he was 16 years old. Joining Trump in a revoltingly illegal power grab would, in all likelihood, render him unelectable going forward.

Trump would have nothing to lose, of course; the longer he stays in office, the longer he can use the U.S. Justice Department’s “sitting president cannot be indicted” precedent to maintain power and avoid prosecution.

But Pence’s electoral ambitions hinge on Trump remaining just popular enough to give him a solid platform on which to run on his own. In a recent Washington Post / ABC News poll, 52 percent of registered voters “definitely won’t” vote for Trump in 2020. To prevail in 2024 (presumably when the next open GOP primary takes place) in an exceedingly difficult electoral terrain due to changing demographics favoring Democrats, Pence will need to maintain Trump’s minority base while winning over Trump critics. Quite simply, he cannot do this while defending breaking the law at the expense of democracy.

Would he sacrifice his lifelong dream for an extra day or week or month as vice president? Of course not.

A second line of defense would be former Gov. Nikki Haley (R). She probably has the best shot in 2024 of any presumed GOP candidate. Last April 55 percent of Democrats approved of her — an incredible statistic in an age of rampant partisanship. In Trump’s first two years she successfully threaded the needle by gaining international expertise as our United Nations ambassador, while also stepping aside early enough to maintain sufficient political distance from the president.

But if Trump ignores the Constitution and hangs around the White House beyond his term, you better believe some Republican presidential aspirants will be crying foul. And no shouts would be louder or more impactful than Haley’s.

As the GOP begins thinking seriously about its next standard-bearer, her objections would carry significant weight. An electorate that already largely distrusts Trump would become even more anti-Republican should the president refuse to leave. Haley would not sit by idly while the GOP let it happen, and the GOP would do everything it could to placate its brightest future star.

The last line of defense would be the U.S. Supreme Court — namely, Chief Justice John Roberts. In recent years he has sided with the liberal wing of the Court on enough critically important matters to suggest he’s a more independent-minded jurist than what was perceived when joining the Court in 2005.

Journalist Joan Biskupic sought to make sense of this shift in an NPR interview last month, stating that “his concern for the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, perhaps is own legacy” is driving his moderate turnabout.

If Trump refuses to leave when Constitutionally required to, Roberts would stop him. (And frankly, it’s hard to imagine any justices willingly going down in history as having abdicated their duty, but stranger things have happened).

Simply put, Roberts would not want his legacy to be one of authorizing the destruction of one of the most sacred tenets of this founding document — that elected leaders who do not win must step aside. Nothing in Roberts’ history suggests he would willfully destroy his reputation by setting such a democracy-shattering precedent.

Did Trump retweet Falwell to provoke antsy Democrats? Feed red meat to his base? Or float a trial balloon that might serve him later? Or all of the above?

Does it matter? No, in that the resulting anxiety for many Americans is the same regardless. But the motives of Pence, Haley and Roberts do matter. Roberts wants to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, while Pence and Haley want to be president, with their hopes resting largely on national support for the Republican Party — support that would plummet should Trump do the unthinkable.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. His nearly 25-year career has included stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms and for a consulting firm. He has authored three books and has shared political insights on CNN, Fox News and dozens of radio stations across the country.

Tags Donald Trump Donald Trump Mike Pence Mike Pence Nikki Haley Presidency White House

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