President Trump’s insistence on saying the opposite of whatever the press demands is a source of more than a little of his political success as well as many self-defeating blunders. An example of the latter is his answer Wednesday to a deliberately tendentious question about whether he would commit to “a peaceful transferral of power.”
The media and intelligentsia have worked themselves into a frenzy over imaginary fears that Mr. Trump will somehow remain in office by force if he loses the 2020 election. “Well we’re going to have to see what happens,” he said when asked to disavow this fantasy. “I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.”
Start with the obvious: The notion that Mr. Trump could stop a peaceful transition of power is preposterous. On Jan. 20 his term legally ends. If Congress hasn’t certified an Electoral College winner on that date—or settled a tie— Nancy Pelosi will be President if she is still House Speaker. GOP House and Senate leaders have already repudiated Mr. Trump’s remarks. If he tried to remain after Joe Biden was certified as the winner, his political support would collapse.
As for the notion that Mr. Trump could execute a coup—he’s been warring with his own security agencies as long as he’s been in office. He’s been denounced by dozens of retired generals, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff apologized for appearing with him publicly during the unrest in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Trump’s real point is that he wants to reserve the right to contest dubious election practices, such as post-election litigation to count disputed or late or unsigned ballots. Democrats are already in court in multiple states asking judges to rewrite state election laws, as we’ve been reporting (see nearby).
The rule of law is vital to free and fair elections, and Mr. Trump is right not to forswear his legal options. Yet his reckless comments give credence to Democratic hysteria, and he should clarify his views if he doesn’t want to lose more voters who think he lacks the temperament or self-control for the office.
As for a peaceful transition, last month the
New York Times
reported that Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, participated in an election “war game” in which states threatened secession after a Trump electoral victory. No less an authority on defeat than Mrs. Clinton said recently that Joe Biden “should not concede under any circumstances,” in expectation of a drawn-out fight. Mr. Biden has predicted that Mr. Trump might try to steal the election. Who’s really plotting the coup?
Mr. Trump was also investigated relentlessly by his own government after taking office—an investigation sparked in part, we have since learned, by opposition information provided by the Clinton campaign that hasn’t been substantiated and may have been Russian disinformation.
But Democrats’ bad behavior is no excuse for Mr. Trump to join them in undermining democratic legitimacy. And he made another mistake Wednesday by suggesting that confirming a new Supreme Court Justice could help him in a post-election legal fight. “This scam that the Democrats are pulling,” he said, “will be before the United States Supreme Court.” He added: “I think it should be eight-nothing or nine-nothing, but just in case it would be more political than it should be, I think it’s very important to have a ninth Justice.”
This answer hands Democrats a ready-made line of attack in Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Senate Democrats will charge that Mr. Trump’s nominee is being installed to help him steal the election. They’ll also demand that she recuse herself from election-related cases.
We’ve been warning about ill-conceived mail-in voting plans and extended ballot deadlines orchestrated by Democrats and liberal interest groups. The worry isn’t that these would “rig” the election but that they would make litigation and complaints of election theft more likely. The Supreme Court may have to rule, however reluctantly, on ballot questions. Mr. Trump’s comments hurt his nominee, the Court, and maybe his own interests.
The sad reality is that Democratic opinion leaders have been waiting for a Reichstag fire moment from the minute Mr. Trump took office. Their thirst to be vindicated has grown more intense as his term draws to a close. Perhaps they want to save face after misunderstanding their country and its citizens so fundamentally for four years. Mr. Trump should stop fueling their destructive ideas, because the legitimacy of election results is the bedrock of American democracy.
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Appeared in the September 25, 2020, print edition.
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