In Washington DC, people are getting nervous.
With less than 100 days until the US election, there is a growing fear Donald Trump will not accept the result cast by the American people at the ballot box – a situation that could push a fragile democracy to breaking point.
Washington insiders including former military officials have “war gamed” the president’s refusal to leave the White House following the November election, and it’s not pretty.
According to The Boston Globe, a team of bipartisan political operatives made up of former government and military officials, as well as constitutional academics, quietly met last month to play out a range of troubling scenarios.
What was once an unthinkable outcome, is now something Donald Trump continues to hint at as he loses ground in the polls.
The group, calling themselves the Transition Integrity Project, delivered a bleak prognosis in the hypothetical event that Mr Trump refused to hand over the keys to the Oval Office.
In what was jokingly described as a Washington version of Dungeons and Dragons, the team of experts imagined how Mr Trump’s White House could use the arms of the federal government such as the Postal Service, the Justice Department, federal agents, and the military to defiantly hold onto power.
“All of our scenarios ended in both street-level violence and political impasse,” Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor and former Defense Department official who co-organised the group told the Boston Globe.
The problem, at least in part, is that the system isn’t great at responding if the person who is supposed to be its chief proponent decides to disregard the rules entirely.
“The law is essentially ... it’s almost helpless against a president who’s willing to ignore it,” Ms Brooks said.
In any event, Democrats would likely take to the courts to challenge any of the president’s arguments to delay vacating his post while protests would fill the streets – which may still be occupied by disgruntled demonstrators from the last wave of protests that swept the country.
The transition process is governed by norms more so than laws, according to Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program at the Carnegie Foundation.
If the election is close and Mr Trump tries to cast doubt on the validity of the result – something he seems to be preparing to do – he could spark a constitutional crisis that leads to a protracted legal battle.
“No, the president cannot cancel or postpone the election,” Ms Kleinfeld posted on Twitter on Thursday.
“But he can make it feel illegitimate and get armed supporters to refuse to accept it. Is that what he's leading to?”
Trump talks about delaying the election
Even before the Transition Integrity Project guys were meeting, the attorney general for a state 4,300 kilometres away from the White House had began quietly preparing to sue if the president tried to delay the election – something he doesn’t technically have the power to do.
Back in March, Washington State attorney general for Washington state, sent an email to supporters warning President Donald Trump might use the pandemic to push back election day.
At the time, the note was lambasted by Republicans who suggested it was an absurd notion, calling it political grandstanding.
And then on Thursday (local time), Trump suggested that very thing.
“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” he tweeted.
The dates of presidential elections – the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in every fourth year –are enshrined in federal law and would require an act of Congress to change.
The Constitution makes no provisions for a delay to the January 20, 2021 presidential inauguration.
The necessary change in law would need to be passed by Congress, an unthinkable outcome, particularly given Democrats control the House of Reps and moat Republicans would also be very unlikely to support such a thing.
Despite the president’s continued assertions, there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud through mail-in voting in the country, even in states with all-mail votes. Five states already rely exclusively on mail-in ballots, and they say they have necessary safeguards in place to ensure that outside influences doesn't disrupt the vote.
The ever mercurial president has since denied he wants to postpone the election.
"I don't want to delay. I want to have the election,” he told reporters. “But I also don't want to have to wait three months and then find out that the ballots are all missing, and the election doesn't mean anything."
Given the circumstances, unless it’s a landslide in November, it’s not going to be a quick and clean election. But just how messy it gets, remains to be seen.
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