Scenario: President Trump is defeated in the November, 2020 election but declares it to be rigged and refuses to leave office until another election is held.
What will happen?
A lot depends on timing. There are more than 2 months between the Presidential election and January 20, 2021, the date the administration is to be turned over. Given Trump’s usual behavior, it is most likely he would declare the election invalid immediately following the election giving time for much to happen before the turnover date.
The most likely immediate response to Trump’s announcement would be peaceful street protests by outraged citizenry. Unfortunately, peaceful protests are very often exploited by people who would vandalize property, loot businesses and/or commit violent acts against police, protesters or both, and the protests would morph into riots. Rioting would immediately be followed by police response, which, if overwhelmed, would be augmented by National Guard troops. In the worst case scenario, the President would (legally or illegally) deploy the military to quell the riots and restore “peace”. In any case, there would be substantial property damage, numerous injuries and possible deaths, and lingering distrust of our government by its people.
In the meantime, there would be discussions in Congress about immediate impeachment, but would that be relevant? If Trump declared the elections invalid, why would he not declare a second impeachment (even if convicted) invalid as he did his first impeachment? Lawsuits could be filed in court and the court could rule that the elections were valid, but Trump could simply declare that the Court had no jurisdiction and ignore the Court’s ruling.
Under this scenario, we would be faced with the problem of physically evicting Trump from the White House. Who would do that?
The President’s first line of defense is the Secret Service which reports directly to the President. Would they follow orders, or would they defer to the Court’s ruling? Most, being loyal “soldiers”, would follow orders. There would be some defections, but that would leave plenty to defend Trump against any other action.
Congress has no enforcement authority whatsoever, so it would be powerless to do anything about it other than issue meaningless edicts about abuse of power, etc.
The Court’s only enforcement authority is the U.S. Marshall Service which could attempt to serve subpoenas or even eviction notices, but they would be overwhelmed by the Secret Service and in the worst possible scenario, violence could erupt in an engagement between the two agencies.
The Metropolitan DC Police have no jurisdiction is such matters and would only be engaged in quelling public disturbances which, over time, would likely intensify as we approached January 20.
Finally, come January 21, with Trump still in the White House, all hell is likely to break loose. The Metropolitan DC Police and DC National Guard are likely to be completely overwhelmed. Virginia and Maryland governors are unlikely to support them with their own National Guard units as neither would be supportive of Trump’s coup. That leaves the military, which is the greatest reservoir of real power in the world, as the last line of defense. How would the military react to this situation? The President is the Constitutional Commander and Chief of all the military forces. Would they obey Trump?
The U.S. military, as an institution, has a long tradition of being disengaged from politics and of refusing to be deployed against its own people. However, Trump has corrupted nearly all other government institutions by appointing cronies loyal only to him with little or no regard for the Constitution or the will of the people as expressed by Congress, so why should he not co-opt the military? The answer lies in loyalties of those in charge of the military namely, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Chief of Staff of the Army, the Chief of Staff of the Navy and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force1.
There are four possible outcomes to this scenario:
The military is loyal to the Constitution and supports the eviction of Trump from the White House and the installation of the duly elected President.
The military is loyal to Trump and deploys to suppress all civil unrest.
A military coup in which it evicts Trump from the White House and establishes an indefinite, interim military government.
There are sufficient defections in the military which lead to all out civil war
Only one of these outcomes is consistent with the concept of a Constitutionally representative democracy.
Could such a thing happen in the U.S.? Americans like to think that we are a nation governed by the rule of law, but our current President has shown total disdain for the rule of law. He has trashed every agency of government that hasn’t bent to his will. He has issued orders that violate the spirit (and frequently the letter) of laws passed by Congress. He has misappropriated funds for unauthorized programs from programs he personally doesn’t like. He has trashed Congressionally approved international agreements he doesn’t like. He claims to have ultimate authority on everything and takes responsibility for nothing2. And he lies consistently on a daily basis about anything and everything. He has exhibited every personality trait of every dictator who has ever overthrown any government in history – and history is littered with such people. And yet, there are people who think it can’t happen in America.
Well, it can happen in America – and given the current President, there is a large risk that it could happen soon. So, is anyone else concerned? If so, has anyone given any thought as to what to do about it? What is the plan3?
1 There was an interesting article in a recent New Yorker magazine about Trump’s willingness to use the military for his political demonstrations and the willingness of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to go along with it. (link to article)
2 “He has declared himself above the law, preached insurrection by encouraging armed supporters to “liberate” states from the governance of duly elected officials, told police not to be ‘too nice’ while doing their job, and gloated over the ability of the Secret Service to turn ‘vicious dogs’ and ‘ominous weapons’ loose on demonstrators — to ‘come down on them hard’ if they get ‘too frisky’.” – Bill Moyers, “We Hold This Truth to Be Self-Evident: It’s Happening Before Our Very Eyes” Reader Supported News, 7 June 2020.
3 This question is frequently asked by Bill Maher of politicians who are guests on his show. So far, none have had an answer.