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Cardella: Will Trump leave?

Is it possible that if Donald Trump loses his bid for re-election, he’ll refuse to leave office? The short answer is yes. This is not some silly scenario dreamed up by the liberal media. There are ample reasons to believe that this president could be the first in our history to refuse to leave office if defeated.

The president is already laying the basis for declaring the 2020 election invalid. Trump has seized upon the need for Voter ID. The reason is to prevent what he claims is widespread fraud. Study after study has shown that in-person voting fraud is virtually nonexistent. During a recent press briefing (that was supposed to be about COVID-19), the president ranted that mail-in voting is rife with fraud. Again, he offered no evidence. There is none. In fact, voting by mail has had bipartisan support. Only five states currently vote by mail, including Republican Utah. Trump himself voted by mail in 2018 and the last election. Because of social distancing and sheltering in place, the current pandemic may require mail-in ballots. The sight of Wisconsin voters being forced to risk their health to vote in person because of a Republican legal challenge to a temporary postponement order by the governor was not only disturbing, but backfired politically.

As a minority party, Republicans seem to have determined that their best chance to win elections is to suppress voter turnout by any means. Keep the vote down. In a candid moment, Trump admitted as much. But the president’s constant false attacks claiming mail-in voter fraud has a singular purpose. If he loses, Trump can challenge the legitimacy of the results. And in so doing, refuse to relinquish his office.

Some Democrats seem to think that if Trump loses by landslide proportions, Trump can’t challenge the results. But I find it far from certain that Trump will go quietly, even if he does lose in a landslide. His considerable ego has likely convinced him that defeat is synonymous with a rigged election, no matter how big the margin.

This brings us back to the central question — what happens if Trump loses the election, but won’t leave? The Constitution provides that upon inauguration, the new president becomes commander in chief. For Trump to successfully stay in office might require the force of our Secret Service or military to remove him. Trump likes to boast that the military loves him. He points to his support for increases in the military budget as evidence. But Trump has also routinely bashed his generals and decimated the U.S. Navy’s command structure. He has been sharply criticized by his former Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis. Even if Trump is popular among the ranks, envisioning troops defying superiors and the Constitution seems like a bridge too far.

Would congressional Republicans support Trump’s refusal to leave? While some observers say yes, I think political reality says differently. And if the Democrats keep the House and flip the Senate — a clear possibility — Republican opposition would be worthless. What would Republicans gain by supporting an unwinnable constitutional crisis? Trump is not a young man. Remaining in power would thwart the ambition of other politically ambitious Republicans. The GOP would probably face tremendous fallout from angry voters in future elections. If only for politically selfish reasons, Republicans could well feel that the cost of possibly keeping Trump in office for another four years isn’t worth the fallout from a constitutional crisis.

What if Trump took his electoral challenge all the way to the Supreme Court? Would this newly conservative Court — with two Trump appointees as members — overturn the election results and rule in Trump’s favor? While it would be foolish to rule out that possibility, I think Trump would have to provide some proof that the results were illegitimate. As matters stand, such proof doesn’t exist.

There could also be personal reasons in play. If Trump refused to relinquish power, his White House could wind up under siege. What would life be like for Melania and Barron under those ugly conditions? The Trumps would likely become pariahs. Prisoners inside the White House.

Only the naïve would expect Trump to be gracious if he loses. He likely will blame his loss on the usual suspects — invalid votes cast by dead people and the “fake” news media. But in the end, I think he’d have no choice but to accept the election results. Trump would, no doubt, claim that he was leaving office only for the good of the nation. Tout his “successes.” Inflate his legacy. And remind us, as he has so often during these four years, that he had a pretty good life before becoming president.

I don’t expect a defeated Trump to vanish from the public scene. He loves the limelight too much. Trump will be a frequent presence on television. Maybe form his own television network. Star in a reboot of THE APPRENTICE. Become a constant critic of the new president. Trump could cause problems for Republicans more than for Democrats. The GOP will likely attempt to distance the party from a Trump brand that no longer sells.

Eventually we’ll lose interest in Trump. Time moves on. Other events will capture our attention. Books chronicling the Trump years will ultimately wind up in sales bins.

And historians will be left to debate what these last four years were all about.

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