“The system would make fast work on any president who attempted to deny the results of the election”, Jonathan Turley, a Constitutional law expert at George Washington University told Politico, for a piece documenting a so-called “science fiction” scenario where Donald Trump refuses to leave office either after being beaten in 2020 or when his second term ends.
Turley is probably a smart guy, with a sense of history, which means he should know better than to make such a definitive-sounding claim. In fact, he and others who cite the strength of America’s “system” in dispensing with the notion that Trump might remain in power indefinitely are begging the question. That is, the very fact that anyone is having this conversation in the first place is proof that America’s “system” is not as strong as everyone assumed.
Trump has made a mockery of checks and balances at every conceivable turn. One could easily argue that he has exposed America’s purportedly bulletproof institutions as little more than paper tigers. He habitually tramples on press freedom, going so far as to brand unfavorable media outlets “enemy of the people” (last week he accused the New York Times of committing an “act of treason”). He has stripped former national security and intelligence officials of their security clearances in retaliation for criticizing him (in a testament to the folly of playing down Trump’s threats, Paul Ryan suggested Trump was “just trolling people” days before the president revoked the clearances of a half-dozen former officials). He effectively stripped a career civil servant of his pension for participating in investigations into the Trump campaign’s relationship with a hostile foreign power. He has threatened antitrust action against American companies in retaliation for bad press and what he claims are biased search results. He has arguably commandeered America’s central bank after spending 11 months publicly criticizing the Fed in the harshest possible terms and now appears to be on the verge of demoting its chair. He has blatantly abused his national emergency powers in the service of building a physical barrier on the border with Mexico (an idea that seemed laughable just three years ago). He has flouted congressional calls to hold an unelected royal accountable for the extrajudicial killing of a Washington Post columnist. He has engaged in a yearslong effort to obstruct a series of inquiries into his ties to Moscow and had his hand-picked attorney general render a favorable (and apparently final) judgement on a federal obstruction inquiry over the course of a weekend, despite the rather obvious fact that a comprehensive legal assessment of the 400-page Mueller report (which documents nearly a dozen instances of possible obstruction) should have taken considerably longer than the 36 hours William Barr waited before declaring Trump innocent of obstruction. He has asserted executive privilege, stalled, sued and otherwise gone to extraordinary lengths to stymie Congress in its multi-faceted efforts to hold his administration accountable and uncover possible evidence of criminality. And so on and so forth.
The balance of evidence quite clearly suggests that Trump is not, in fact, a man who believes in the “system” that most experts still assume prevents him from serving more than two terms.
As Politico reminds Americans, Trump has repeatedly suggested he will serve a third (or fourth of fifth) term. In a recent tweet, Trump asked, “do you think the people would demand that I stay longer?”
That, Politico notes, sounds a lot like something the president said at a rally in Pennsylvania last month, where he suggested he might just decide to live in the White House for decades. Here is the quote:
We ran one time and we’re 1-and-0. But it was for the big one. Now we’re going to have a second time. And we’re going to have another one. And then we’ll drive them crazy. And maybe if we really like it a lot — and if things keep going like they’re going — we’ll go and we’ll do what we have to do. We’ll do a three and a four and a five.
Trump’s base eats that kind of rhetoric up. In addition to being undereducated and thus not necessarily apprised of why it is America’s system works, Trump voters believe the “system” (in a general sense of the word) has failed them. Importantly, Trump’s base doesn’t differentiate between, at a 30,000-foot level, capitalism, globalization and cronyism (the “systems” which have actually failed them) and, more narrowly, the “system” of checks and balances which keeps a US president from becoming a dictator. The waters are muddied further by the fact that Trump’s base views capitalism favorably despite their having, in many cases, been destroyed by it.
If these voters are more than happy to let Trump run roughshod over international alliances and a post-War economic order that’s greased the wheels of global trade and commerce, there is every reason to believe large swaths of the electorate would be wholly on board with Trump serving more than two terms, as long as they are willing to suspend disbelief by telling themselves that Trump is the only man capable of righting the “wrongs”.
What, if not stripping Congress of any and all power and reducing everyone else in Washington to a rubber stamp for MAGA policy initiatives, does “drain the swamp” mean?
In March of 2018, Trump showered China’s Xi Jinping with praise and suggested America should do away with term limits. “He’s now president for life, president for life. And he’s great”, Trump said, at a closed-door fundraiser in Florida. “And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday”. The crowd applauded.
Last month, Trump famously endorsed Jerry Falwell Jr.’s suggestion that the president have two years added to his first term to make up for “time stolen by [a] failed coup”.
At the same time, Trump is notoriously litigious. It is a virtual guarantee that he would sue in the event he lost the 2020 election. We are, after all, talking about a man who continues to allege massive voter fraud in the 2016 election despite having won.
An attorney who specializes in election law told Politico last week that challenging the results of an election in multiple states would entail “a massive undertaking”. He added that you’d have to prepare “months in advance” in order to do it successfully. You can be absolutely sure the Trump campaign will have such preparations in place.
Nancy Pelosi recently told The New York Times that she worries Democrats won’t win in 2020 by a margin large enough to dissuade Trump from challenging the results. “Pelosi does not believe President Trump can be removed through impeachment — the only way to do it, she said this week, is to defeat him in 2020 by a margin so ‘big’ he cannot challenge the legitimacy of a Democratic victory”, the Times wrote on May 4. “We have to inoculate against that, we have to be prepared for that”, Pelosi told the paper.
But it goes beyond lawsuits. Trump would almost certainly attempt to wield the bully pulpit (which he’d still have for two months following the election) to whip his base into a frenzy. He’d likely allege a “deep state” conspiracy to “rig” the vote. If he paired that with some of the same voter “fraud” allegations he rolled out in 2016, Trump would have a potent message that would surely resonate with a base that’s notoriously vulnerable to conspiratorial narratives.
Earlier this month, Trump claimed pollsters were rigging the early numbers against him. “The Fake News has never been more dishonest than it is today. Their new weapon of choice is Fake Polling, sometimes referred to as Suppression Polls”, he tweeted on June 12. He continued:
Had it in 2016, but this is worse. The Fake (Corrupt) News Media said they had a leak into polling done by my campaign which, by the way and despite the phony and never ending Witch Hunt, are the best numbers WE have ever had.
Days later, he fired a handful of polling firms, including one outfit that was close to the president’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale. As CNN notes, Trump also fired Adam Geller, a pollster for the Trump campaign in 2016.
In August of 2017, a poll showed half of Republicans would support Trump postponing the 2020 election.
Bear in mind that when Trump leaves office, he will almost surely be indicted for something, by somebody, somewhere. As Politico notes, “the president will lose his immunity from criminal prosecution the moment his successor is sworn into the White House and several Democratic presidential hopefuls have suggested their Justice Department would be hard-pressed not to bring charges against Trump for obstructing justice, using the evidence in special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report.” And that’s to say nothing of everything Trump-related pending in New York. One imagines the president isn’t particularly enamored about the prospect of going to jail in his late seventies.
To be sure, Republicans are going out of their way to dismiss the possibility of Trump refusing to leave office as ridiculous. “There’s no chance of anything like that possibly happening. That’s just hysteria”, Rep. Steve Chabot, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, told Politico. “No way would that ever happen”.
Somewhere, Sinclair Lewis is laughing.
One by one, Trump has turned powerful Republican lawmakers into groveling sycophants and those who haven’t made the transformation have resigned or “retired” (e.g., Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, both of whom clashed with Trump). Lindsey Graham’s obsequious demeanor towards the the president borders on religious fervor, a bizarre state of affairs considering Graham once told CNN that the best way to “make America great again” is to “Tell Donald Trump to go to hell”.
GOP lawmakers who challenge Trump are branded “dog catchers“, “losers” and “toxic“. Republican lawmen and intelligence officials who question Trump are called liars, leakers and traitors. In December of 2017, the president seemingly suggested Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (who is now running for president) offered him sexual favors for money. Trump even went so far as to ask Andrew McCabe, to his face, how it felt to have a “loser” for a wife. (Trump denies saying that)
It doesn’t help that Trump’s campaign refuses to answer the question. Asked directly by Politico whether Trump would concede in 2020 if he loses, the president’s reelection campaign literally would not provide a straight answer. Instead, they suggested the real threat to democracy is Stacey Abrams. “This question would be better asked of Stacey Abrams, who still refuses to accept that she lost the governor’s race in Georgia”, the campaign said.
In November, Fox’s Chris Wallace asked if Trump could “envision a situation well into your second term where you think that you’re so good for the country and so essential for the progress of the country that you would try to amend the Constitution so you could serve a third term”.
Trump said “No.” “Just won’t happen”, the preisdent added. “I think the eight-year limit is a good thing, not a bad thing””.
A former Secret Service official cited by Politico called the prospect of Trump refusing to leave office “Almost a question for science fiction movies”.
One person who doesn’t see it that way is Michael Cohen, who, in February, warned Congress that far from “science fiction”, his experience with Trump suggests that a peaceful transition of power is not likely.