As President Donald Trump plans a triumphant State of the Union address anticipating his likely acquittal by the Senate, the White House is reportedly awash in a sense of invincibility.
Trump’s certainty that he simply cannot lose could have a real impact on this year’s election. Since assuming office in January 2017, Trump has made at least 27 references to staying in office beyond the constitutional limit of two terms. He often follows up with a remark indicating he is “joking,” “kidding,” or saying it to drive the “fake” news media “crazy.” Even if Trump thinks that he’s only “joking,” the comments fit a broader pattern that raises the prospect that Trump may not leave office quietly in the event he’s on the losing end of a very close election. And unfortunately this possibility is only one of a number of potential election meltdowns we may face in November.
Trump tends to float the possibility of staying in office for extra years as an aside when speaking to a supportive audience. For example, in remarks delivered on Dec. 7, 2019, at the Israeli American Council National Summit in Hollywood, Florida, Trump told a story about how he supposedly was going to build the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem by renovating an existing building owned by the United States for about $500,000, rather than waiting years to build a new building at a worse site for $2 billion. Trump referenced GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, saying:
So we’re going to spend $2 billion. It wouldn’t be built, Sheldon, for 10 years, fif— Don’t forget: At some point, whether it’s five years from now, nine years from now, 13 years from now—I’m doing this to drive the media crazy. [Applause.] Because a lot of them say, “You know he’s not leaving, don’t you?” One of these characters—these people are so stupid. One of them said—one of them said, “You know he’s going to win, don’t you? And you know, at the end of his second term, you know he’s not leaving. He’s not leaving. You know that.” And I thought he’s a comedian. I thought he was kidding. He’s for real. So now we have to start thinking about that, because it’s not a bad idea. [Applause.]
No, but these people are going crazy. When they all scream, “Four more years, four more years,” I always say, “Make it 12 years and you’ll drive them crazy.” Twelve more years. But if I don’t get the build—
AUDIENCE: Twelve more years!
What should we make of Trump’s remarks? The most charitable explanation is that they are mostly innocuous, just intended to needle liberals. He told NBC’s Chuck Todd in June 2019 that “there won’t be a third term” and responded “100 percent. Sure,” when asked if he will accept the results in 2020. Yet just a few weeks later, he told an audience at a petrochemical plant, “Go do #thirdterm, #fourthterm. You’ll drive them totally crazy.”
Trump returns again and again to these remarks, often at campaign rallies or among sympathetic supporters. It feeds his tremendous ego by giving his followers a chance to show adoration for their dear leader; the message is that he is so indispensable he should stay in office maybe “16 more years.” He appears to love chants like “12 more years!”
Whether or not they are meant as jokes, the comments reflect Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. In March 2018 Trump expressed envy that China’s President Xi Jinping gets to be president for life. “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday,” he remarked in a closed-door speech to Republican donors at Mar-a-Lago.
The 2020 election is expected to be a close one, and it could give Trump an opening to emulate his authoritarian role models. During the 2016 election, he playfully suggested he would not accept the results of the election if he was on the losing end. As I recount in my book Election Meltdown, Trump refused to promise to abide by the results if he lost to Hillary Clinton, relying on his claim of a rigged or stolen election. On Oct. 20, 2016, at a rally in Delaware, Ohio, he declared: “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—if I win.” His dramatic pause before “if I win” was followed by Trump pointing to the crowd and offering a big smile so that everyone knew that this was his punchline.
Trump also has a tendency to describe results of elections he doesn’t like as “rigged” or “stolen.” In a Jan. 25, 2017, interview with ABC News’ David Muir, Trump claimed without evidence that 3 million to 5 million illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election, more than the popular vote victory of his rival Hillary Clinton: “And I will say this, of those votes cast, none of ’em come to me. None of ’em come to me. They would all be for the other side.”
There are a few possible scenarios that could test whether Trump might try to remain in office even if he loses, a possibility raised first by national security expert Joshua Geltzer a year ago and explored further by Dahlia Lithwick and Geltzer in September.
For example, imagine if the 2020 election comes down again to Pennsylvania’s 20 Electoral College votes. Pennsylvania recently adopted a new law allowing for no-excuse absentee balloting. Election officials expect a crush of absentee ballots, which take longer to count. Trump declares victory when he is ahead in Pennsylvania on election night, but the results of the election would not be known for days. There is reason to believe that later-counted ballots tend Democratic, and it is possible that Trump’s lead would evaporate thanks to the “blue shift” of ballots. Trump could claim that any change in the vote totals going against him is the result of Democratic “voter fraud,” an unsupported claim he has made dozens of times as well, focusing on heavily Democratic areas full of minority voters like Philadelphia.
This could happen in other states besides Pennsylvania, such as Michigan. Indeed, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and local election officials are trying to get permission to start the absentee ballot count early to prevent delays in announcing results.
We saw Trump try to prematurely call an election in 2018, as the Florida Senate and governor’s races came down to just a few thousand votes. He tweeted: “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. An honest vote count is no longer possible—ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!” There was no proof of “massively infected” ballots or a dishonest vote count.
It’s not just Trump who’s spreading fears of a stolen election, as Democrats have taken the lead with later-counted votes. Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan also called it “bizarre” as California congressional races in 2018 shifted from red to blue as hundreds of thousands of votes were counted after Election Day. And Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin waited days to concede his election to Andy Beshear, citing unexplained “election irregularities” and “harvested votes in urban communities,” which in the end amounted to nothing more than a concern that black voters showed up at the polls. These claims could be supersized in 2020.
The lack of trust in election results could go both ways. Democrats might believe Trump has won election via Florida or Georgia thanks to voter suppression, an argument that foreign actors could try to amplify on Election Day to stir up social unrest. Lots can go wrong either before or on Election Day.
But one of the most realistic scenarios, given Trump’s past remarks, is that the president and his supporters dig in if he’s ahead on election night, even if the race is not called and the later-counted ballots erase his victory. Trump’s 27 comments about staying in office beyond his constitutionally prescribed term offer little comfort that he would respect the rule of law in the event of a protracted election dispute. Those comments go more directly to whether he would leave office in 2024, but my immediate concern is what might happen in 2020. No joke.
Listen to Rick Hasen and Dahlia Lithwick discuss this and other election meltdown possibilities in a special Amicus series.