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(15,680 posts)
Thu Jul 9, 2020, 01:57 PM Jul 2020

Trump could lose and not leave. But Cabinet members who try to help face prison. [View all]

With November fast approaching, here’s a recurring question that can’t easily be dismissed as alarmist fretting or grim humor: What if President Trump loses his bid for reelection but refuses to concede and instead clings to power? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed this concern last year, saying “we have to inoculate against that.” So did Trump’s prison-bound former lawyer Michael Cohen. Testifying before Congress, Cohen said, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” Even Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic rival, doesn’t discount the possibility that Trump would make himself difficult to dislodge, but he suggested that others in government would get the job done: “I promise you, I’m absolutely convinced that they will escort him from the White House with great dispatch.”

If Trump does try to hang on to a presidency he’s lost, however, he can’t actually do very much all by himself. Running the executive branch requires help. Thankfully, there are laws that stop others from using the authorities of the executive branch on behalf of anyone other than the legitimate president. If William P. Barr, for example, tried to exercise the powers of the attorney general after a Trump loss, he could be subject to criminal prosecution.

The circumstances matter. If Trump legitimately wins on Election Day, he wins — so be it. And if he loses, well, American tradition calls for a peaceful transfer of power to one’s successor. But given Trump’s rampant tradition-busting, there’s more than a little reason to worry that he’ll continue to reassert baseless claims that there was election fraud via mail-in ballots or foreign election interference favoring the Democrats, even after he has failed to persuade lawfully constituted authorities of such fantasies. Whatever Trump’s excuse, it would require little imagination to suppose that he would claim some need to retain power at least long enough to investigate whatever election irregularity he’s claiming, such that, come Jan. 20, 2021, he and Biden would be advancing competing claims to be America’s legitimate president.

But while there’s a reasonable fear that Trump could take such an appalling and dangerous step, any such effort would have a serious vulnerability. A president cannot run the executive branch alone. We’d like to think that, even if Trump himself refuses to face the music, officials throughout his administration would not follow his lead. And if they were to waver in their commitment to our constitutionally prescribed methods for transferring power, we’d hope they’d be encouraged to do the right thing by virtue of the fact that there are federal statutes that make it unlawful for others to exercise executive branch authorities on behalf of someone who’s not actually the president.


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