While Trump might refuse to vacate the Oval Office if he loses, the worst case is not Trump’s rejecting the election outcome. The worst case is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive result against him, a political analyst says.

Iran Presscommentary: In the US election year of plague and recession and catastrophized politics, the mechanisms of decision are at a meaningful risk of breaking down. Close students of election law and procedure are warning that conditions are ripe for a constitutional crisis that would leave the nation without an authoritative result. We have no fail-safe against that calamity. Thus the blinking red lights, Barton Gellman, The Atlantic writer says, whose story appears in the November issue of the magazine.

Here are parts of his writing:

“We could well see a protracted post-election struggle in the courts and the streets if the results are close,” says Richard L. Hasen, a professor at the UC Irvine School of Law and the author of a recent book called Election Meltdown. “The kind of election meltdown we could see would be much worse than 2000’s Bush v. Gore case.”

A lot of people, including Joe Biden, the Democratic Party nominee, have mis­conceived the nature of the threat. They frame it as a concern, unthinkable for presidents past, that Trump might refuse to vacate the Oval Office if he loses. They generally conclude as Biden has, that in that event the proper authorities “will escort him from the White House with great dispatch.”

The worst case, however, is not that Trump rejects the election outcome. The worst case is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him. If Trump sheds all restraint, and if his Republican allies play the parts he assigns them, he could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that un­certainty to hold on to power.

Trump’s state and national legal teams are already laying the groundwork for postelection maneuvers that would circumvent the results of the vote count in battleground states. Ambiguities in the Constitution and logic bombs in the Electoral Count Act make it possible to extend the dispute all the way to Inauguration Day, which would bring the nation to a precipice. The Twentieth Amendment is crystal clear that the president’s term in office “shall end” at noon on January 20, but two men could show up to be sworn in. One of them would arrive with all the tools and power of the presidency already in hand.

“We are not prepared for this at all,” Julian Zelizer, a Prince­ton professor of history and public affairs, told me. “We talk about it, some worry about it, and we imagine what it would be. But few people have actual answers to what happens if the machinery of democracy is used to prevent a legitimate resolution to the election.”

Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede.

This year, if election analysts are right, we know when the trouble is likely to come. Call it the Interregnum: the interval from Election Day to the next president’s swearing-in. It is a temporal no-man’s-land between the presidency of Donald Trump and an uncertain successor—a second term for Trump or a first for Biden. The transfer of power we usually take for granted has several intermediate steps, and they are fragile.

The Interregnum comprises 79 days, carefully bounded by law. Among them are “the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December,” this year December 14, when the electors meet in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to cast their ballots for president; “the 3d day of January,” when the newly elected Congress is seated; and “the sixth day of January,” when the House and Senate meet jointly for a formal count of the electoral vote. In most modern elections these have been pro forma milestones, irrelevant to the outcome. This year, they may not be.

“Our Constitution does not secure the peaceful transition of power, but rather presupposes it,” the legal scholar Lawrence Douglas wrote in a recent book titled simply Will He Go? The Interregnum we are about to enter will be accompanied by what Douglas, who teaches at Amherst, calls a “perfect storm” of adverse conditions. We cannot turn away from that storm. On November 3 we sail toward its center mass. If we emerge without trauma, it will not be an unbreakable ship that has saved us.

Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. Not during the Interregnum and not afterward. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist on exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.

Trump’s invincible commitment to this stance will be the most important fact about the coming Interregnum. It will deform the proceedings from beginning to end. We have not experienced anything like it before.

Trump’s behavior and declared intent to leave no room to suppose that he will accept the public’s verdict if the vote is going against him. He lies prodigiously—to manipulate events, to secure advantage, to dodge accountability, and to ward off injury to his pride. An election produces the perfect distillate of all those motives.

But Trump’s supporters aren’t the only people who think extra­constitutional thoughts aloud. Trump has been asked directly, during both this campaign and the last, whether he will respect the election results. He left his options brazenly open. “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. Okay?” he told moderator Chris Wallace in the third presidential debate of 2016. Wallace took another crack at him in an interview for Fox News this past July. “I have to see,” Trump said. “Look, you—I have to see. No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no.”

How will he decide when the time comes? Trump has answered that, actually. At a rally in Delaware, Ohio, in the closing days of the 2016 campaign, he began his performance with a signal of breaking news. “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to make a major announcement today. I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters, and to all the people of the United States, that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election.” He paused, then made three sharp thrusts of his forefinger to punctuate the next words: “If … I … win!” Only then did he stretch his lips in a simulacrum of a smile.

Trump’s refusal to concede—his mere denial of defeat—will have cascading effects.

In actual war, not the political kind, concession is optional. The winning side may take by force what the losing side refuses to surrender. If the weaker party will not sue for peace, its ramparts may be breached, its headquarters razed, and its leaders were taken captive or put to death. There are places in the world where political combat still ends that way, but not here. The loser’s concession is therefore hard to replace.

We have no precedent or procedure to end this election if Biden seems to carry the Electoral College but Trump refuses to concede. We will have to invent one.

A proper despot would not risk the inconvenience of losing an election. He would fix his victory in advance, avoiding the need to overturn an incorrect outcome. Trump cannot do that.

But he’s not powerless to skew the proceedings—first on Election Day and then during the Interregnum. He could disrupt the vote count where it’s going badly, and if that does not work, try to bypass it altogether. On Election Day, Trump and his allies can begin by suppressing the Biden vote.

Trump believes, with reason, that he is less likely to win reelection if turnout is high at the polls. This is not a “both sides” phenomenon. In present-day politics, we have one party that consistently seeks advantage in depriving the other party’s adherents of the right to vote.

Just under a year ago, Justin Clark gave a closed-door talk in Wisconsin to a select audience of Republican lawyers. He thought he was speaking privately, but someone had brought a recording device. He had a lot to say about Election Day operations, or “EDO.”

At the time, Clark was a senior lieutenant with Trump’s re­election campaign; in July, he was promoted to deputy campaign manager. “Wisconsin’s the state that is going to tip this one way or the other … So it makes EDO really, really, really important,” he said. He put the mission bluntly: “Traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes … [Democrats’] voters are all in one part of the state, so let’s start playing offense a little bit. And that’s what you’re going to see in 2020. 

The 2020 presidential election will be the first in 40 years to take place without a federal judge requiring the Republican National Committee to seek approval in advance for any “ballot security” operations at the polls.

The order had its origins in the New Jersey gubernatorial election of 1981. According to the district court’s opinion in Democratic National Committee v. Republican National Committee, the RNC allegedly tried to intimidate voters by hiring off-duty law-enforcement officers as members of a “National Ballot Security Task Force,” some of them armed and carrying two-way radios. According to the plaintiffs, they stopped and questioned voters in minority neighborhoods, blocked voters from entering the polls, forcibly restrained poll workers, challenged people’s eligibility to vote, warned of criminal charges for casting an illegal ballot, and generally did their best to frighten voters away from the polls. The power of these methods relied on well-founded fears among people of color about contact with police.

Trump’s crusade against voting by mail is the strategy of a man who expects to be outvoted and means to hobble the count.

Trump has denounced mail-in voting often and urgently, airing fantastical nightmares. 

In part, Trump’s hostility to voting by mail is a reflection of his belief that more voting is bad for him in general. 

But Trump’s crusade against voting by mail is a strategically sound expression of his plan for the Interregnum. The president is not actually trying to prevent mail-in balloting altogether, which he has no means to do. He is discrediting the practice and starving it of resources, signalling his supporters to vote in person, and preparing the ground for post–Election Night plans to contest the results. It is the strategy of a man who expects to be outvoted and means to hobble the count.

The battlespace of the Interregnum, if trends hold true, will be shaped by a phenomenon known as the “blue shift.”

Two things began to change about 20 years ago. The overtime count got bigger, and it trended more and more blue.

Obama would have won the presidency anyway, but shifts of that magnitude could have changed the outcomes of many a closer contest. Hillary Clinton picked up tens of thousands of overtime votes in 2016, but not enough to save her.

It was the Florida Senate race in 2018, however, that seized Trump’s attention that year. On Election Night, Republicans were leading in tight contests for governor and U.S. senator. As the blue shift took effect, Ron DeSantis watched his lead shrink by 18,416 votes in the governor’s race. Rick Scott’s Senate margin fell by 20,231. By early morning on November 12, six days after Election Day, Trump had seen enough. “The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged,” he tweeted, baselessly. “An honest vote count is no longer possible—ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”

Trump was panicked enough by the blue shift in somebody else’s election to fabricate allegations of fraud. In this election, when his own name is on the ballot, the blue shift could be the largest ever observed. Mail-in votes require more time to count even in a normal year, and this year there will be tens of millions more of them than in any election before. Many states forbid the processing of early-arriving mail ballots before Election Day; some allow late-arriving ballots to be counted.

What might a ruthless incumbent do that has never been tried before?

Suppose that caravans of Trump supporters, adorned in Second Amendment accessories, converge on big-city polling places on Election Day. They have come, they say, to investigate reports on social media of voter fraud. Counter­protesters arrive, fistfights break out, shots are fired, and voters flee or cannot reach the polls.

Then suppose the president declares an emergency. Federal personnel in battle dress, staged nearby in advance, move in to restore law and order and secure the balloting. Amid ongoing clashes, they stay to monitor the canvass. They close the streets that lead to the polls. They take custody of uncounted ballots in order to preserve evidence of fraud.

“The president can’t cancel the election, but what if he says, ‘We’re in an emergency, and we’re shutting down this area for a period of time because of the violence taking place’?” says Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. If you are in Trump’s camp and heedless of boundaries, he said, “what I would expect is you’re not going to do one or two of these things—you’ll do as many as you can.”

With every day that passes after November 3, the president and his allies can hammer home the message that the legitimate tabulation is over and the Democrats are refusing to honor the results. Trump has been flogging this horse already for months. In July he tweeted, “Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later!”

Trump’s strategy for this phase of the Interregnum will be a play for time as much as a concerted attempt to squelch the count and disqualify Biden votes. The courts may eventually weigh in. But by then, the forum of the decision may already have moved elsewhere.

According to sources in the Republican Party at the state and national levels, the Trump campaign is discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority. With a justification based on claims of rampant fraud, Trump would ask state legislators to set aside the popular vote and exercise their power to choose a slate of electors directly. The longer Trump succeeds in keeping the vote count in doubt, the more pressure legislators will feel to act before the safe-harbor deadline expires.

The Trump-campaign legal adviser I spoke with told me the push to appoint electors would be framed in terms of protecting the people’s will. Once committed to the position that the overtime count has been rigged, the adviser said, state lawmakers, will want to judge for themselves what the voters intended.

In Pennsylvania, three Republican leaders told me they had already discussed the direct appointment of electors among themselves, and one said he had discussed it with Trump’s national campaign.

This would be a genuine constitutional crisis, the first but not the last of the Interregnum. “Then we get thrown into a world where anything could happen,” Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute says.

The next move would belong to Vice President Mike Pence

Two men are claiming the presidency. The next occasion to settle the matter is more than three weeks away.

January 6 comes just after the new Congress is sworn in. Control of the Senate will be crucial to the presidency now.

Pence, as president of the Senate, would hold in his hands two conflicting electoral certificates from each of several swing states. The Twelfth Amendment says only this about what happens next: “The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and the House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted.”

The Trump team would take the position that the constitutional language leaves those questions to the vice president. This means that Pence has the unilateral power to announce his own reelection and a second term for Trump. 

If Democrats win back the Senate and hold the House, then all roads laid out in the Electoral Count Act lead eventually to a Biden presidency. The reverse applies if Republicans hold the Senate and unexpectedly win back the House. But if Congress remains split, there are conditions in which no decisive outcome is possible—no result that has a clear force of law. Each party could cite a plausible reading of the rules in which its candidate has won. There is no tie-breaking vote.

Trump has possession of the White House. How far will he push boundaries to keep it, and who will push back? It is the same question the president has posed since the day he took office.

A series of exercises were conducted this summer by a group of former elected officials, academics, political strategists, and lawyers. In four days of simulations, the Transition Integrity Project modeled the election and its aftermath in an effort to find pivot points where things could fall apart.

I called Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown professor who co-founded the project. She did not know how the story turned out. In half of the simulations, the participants did not make it as far as Inauguration Day.

“We got to points in the scenarios where there was a constitutional impasse, no clear means of resolution in sight, street-level violence,” she said. “I think in one of them we had Trump invoking the Insurrection Act and we had troops in the streets … Five hours had gone by and we sort of said, ‘Okay, we’re done.’ ” She added: “Once things were clearly off the rails, there was no particular benefit to seeing exactly how far off they would go.”

The US political system may no longer be strong enough to preserve its integrity. It’s a mistake to take for granted that election boards and state legislatures and Congress are capable of drawing lines that ensure a legitimate vote and an orderly transfer of power. We may have to find a way to draw those lines ourselves.

Only once, in 1877, has the Interregnum brought the country to the brink of true collapse. We will find no model in that episode for the US now.

That is an unsettling precedent for 2021. If our political institutions fail to produce a legitimate president, and if Trump maintains the stalemate into the new year, the chaos candidate and the commander in chief will be one and the same.

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