US Election 2020: What happens if Trump refuses to go?

Nick Whigham
·Assistant News Editor
·5-min read

While some pundits are predicting an electoral wipeout for US president Donald Trump, anything less and he likely won’t go quietly into the night.

Mr Trump has repeatedly declined to say whether he will commit to a peaceful transition of power, prompting a quiet army of lawyers and political operatives to ready themselves for a post election fight.

A team of bipartisan political operatives made up of former government and military officials, as well as constitutional academics and legal experts, quietly met in June to war game the worst case scenarios for the upcoming US 2020 election.

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.

US President Donald Trump arrives to board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
US President Donald Trump has sparked concerns he will not accept the election result should he lose.

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.

In a research paper the group sought to understand how the Trump team could undermine, stall or cast doubt over the election result.

“An incumbent running for re-election can use the powers of the presidency to great advantage, particularly if traditional norms are viewed as unimportant and the incumbent is willing to take the risk that a court will eventually rule his actions to be unlawful,” the group wrote.

“The exercise identified the following presidential powers as most likely to be misused to manipulate electoral outcomes or disrupt the transition: the President’s ability to federalise the national guard or invoke the Insurrection Act to deploy active duty military domestically; his ability to launch investigations into opponents; and his ability to use Department of Justice and/or the intelligence agencies to cast doubt on election results or discredit his opponents.”

President’s defiance would be a ‘losing game’

While arguably far-fetched, the measures noted by the group would be more successful at fomenting social unrest and division than swaying an election result.

But the problem, at least in part, is that the system is governed by norms and isn’t great at responding if the person who is supposed to be its chief proponent decides to disregard the rules entirely.

Professor Don Debats, head of American Studies at Flinders University, thinks it’s not a scenario worth worrying over.

“I think that would be a losing game,” he told Yahoo News Australia, regarding the notion of Mr Trump trying to cling to power.

Supporters of President Donald Trump wave flags.
Supporters of President Donald Trump wave flags and hold signs at a New Jersey rally on Wednesday. Source: Getty

“His term expires on the 20th of January,” suggesting there was little he could effectively do following a clear election loss.

“The White House is a small house, probably not big enough for two presidents.”

While the Trump team could pressure Republican leaders in tightly contested races to engage in shenanigans such as voter suppression, ultimately it is the US Congress that will decide the vote in the Electoral College system.

A tight contest could see legal challenges in the courts, but such an outcome would likely be dealt with by the January deadline for Congress to meet and officially elect the president.

Could the military get involved?

As tensions increased in recent months, a top US military officer told Congress the armed forces will have no role in carrying out the election process or resolving a disputed vote.

“I believe deeply in the principle of an apolitical US military,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in written responses to several questions posed by two Democratic members of the House Armed Services Committee.

“In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law US courts and the US Congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the US military. I foresee no role for the US armed forces in this process.”

Asked if the military would refuse an order from the president if he was attempting to use military action for political gain rather than national security, Mr Milley said: “I will not follow an unlawful order.”

 Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, has vowed not to get involved. Source: Getty

Donald Trump facing electoral wipeout

Veteran US political campaign strategist Joe Trippi believes Mr Trump is facing a resounding electoral defeat in a few weeks time.

While many are focused on the surprise result of 2016 – and a potential repeat of misleading poll numbers – Mr Trippi thinks a more probable comparison is the 1980 election which saw an unpopular first term president Jimmy Carter thrown out of office in a landslide.

“In 1980 we had a very unpopular president,” he told the ABC’s Planet America on Wednesday, recalling high unemployment rates and the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis.

“And if you look now, we have a bad economy, we have a crisis in which every night the television networks are reporting higher numbers [of coronavirus cases].”

At the time, Mr Trippi was working for the incumbent Democrats. “We were basically saying [challenger] Ronald Reagan was too old, he’s too crazy right-wing, he’s gonna have his finger on the button and in the end as people saw him in the debates, as we got closer to election day, people thought ‘he seems a lot safer than what they’re saying’.

“And there was a big move in the end to Reagan.

“I see that same exact scenario playing out in our election now [in favour of Biden], and I don’t see anything changing that.”

While Mr Biden is very much a known quantity in US politics, his polling numbers did appear to improve slightly following the disastrous first presidential debate.

Similar to 1980, the incumbent president’s polling has proved stubbornly low and Joe Biden leads by about 10 percentage points in national surveys.

“When it gets above five per cent, it’s almost impossible to lose the electoral college,” Mr Trippi noted.

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