Image courtesy of ABCNews
By Shannon Miekka
The United States is the world’s oldest uninterrupted democracy, thanks in no small part to the commitment to a peaceful transition of power between presidents. No president or candidate has ever publicly commented otherwise, until last week.
At a White House briefing last Wednesday, President Donald Trump was asked to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the upcoming election.
Trump’s response: “Well, we’re gonna have to see what happens.”
President Trump has repeatedly refused to directly commit to the long-held tradition of peaceful transfer. Instead, Trump pivoted to criticize mail-in voting, which he claims is a source of fraud, despite a lack of evidence.
He continued, “We wanna have – Get rid of the ballots, and you’ll have a very – you’ll have a very peaceful – there won’t be a transfer, frankly, there’ll be a continuation.”
It is likely that Trump will only question the results this November if he loses. This is not the first time; in 2016, he said that he would happily accept the election results – if he wins.
Trump’s comments quickly incited bipartisan backlash, including from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
McConnell tweeted: “The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792.”
On the day following Trump’s comments, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming its commitment to a peaceful transition of power. On Tuesday, September 29, the House of Representatives adopted a bipartisan resolution for the same purpose. It passed with a 397-5 vote. The five who voted against were Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Clay Higgins (R-LA), Steve King (R-IA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY).
On the same night, the House passed its resolution, Trump and Democratic nominee Vice President Joe Biden took the stage for the First Presidential Debate. Towards the end of the chaotic night, the candidates were asked about election integrity.
Moderator Chris Wallace asked, “What are you prepared to do to reassure the American people that the next president will be the legitimate winner of this election?”
After encouraging Americans to vote, Biden added, “If I win, that will be accepted. If I lose, it will be accepted.”
When asked the same question, President Trump answered, “So when I listened to Joe talking about a transition, there’s been no transition from when I won. I won that election. And if you look at Crooked Hillary Clinton, if you look at all of the different people, there was no transition.”
Trump continued by reiterating his standby rhetoric of distrust in voting by mail, calling the ballots a “disaster” several times and the election, “rigged”.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, voting by mail is more relevant than ever. Many Americans will be using mail-in ballots this election, with more than 1 million votes already cast. Because of the process, it is possible that the winner will not be known by Election Day.
Wallace asked the candidates, “Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest? Will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified?”
The president replied, “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it… I am urging my people- I hope it’s gonna be a fair election. If it’s a fair election, I am 100% on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”
Wallace responded, “Does that mean you are gonna tell your people to take to the streets?”
Trump answered, “I’ll tell you what it means. It means you have a fraudulent election. You’re not equipped to, these people aren’t equipped to handle it, number one. Number two, they cheat. They cheat. Hey, they found ballots in a wastepaper basket days ago and they all had the name, military fellas. They were military, they all had the name, Trump on them. You think that’s good?”
Again, when asked to commit to a peaceful transition of power, Trump pivoted back to accusations of fraud and continued his attack on ballots.
The peaceful transition of power is not just a tradition, it is the framework that kept America’s democracy alive.
In 1993, outgoing president George H. W. Bush wrote to Bill Clinton on his first day in office, “You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
“You lead a proud, decent, good people. And from this day you are president of all of us. I salute you and wish you success and much happiness,” Bill Clinton wrote to his successor in 2001.
“Congratulations on becoming our president… you will have an Almighty God to comfort you, a family who loves you, and a country that is pulling for you, including me,” George W. Bush said in his letter to newly elected Barack Obama in 2009.
“Congratulations on a remarkable run… Michelle and I wish you and Melania the very best as you embark on this great adventure,” said Barack Obama to President Trump in 2017.
It is unclear if the president will actually follow through on his threats against a peaceful transition. Many see his comments as another vehicle to generate controversy and engender mistrust in the election system, while others believe they could encourage riots and violence. Regardless, his refusal to firmly commit to a peaceful transfer of power is another example of how unprecedented his presidency has been.