Over the course of his testimony on Wednesday, Michael Cohen said many troubling things about President Trump. He said he was a racist. He said he was a cheat. He accused Trump of committing a number of felonies.
But as far as the future of the United States is concerned, he arguably saved the worst for last. In his closing statement — so late that many probably missed it — he said this: “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power, and this is why I agreed to appear before you today.”
This is a prospect that has been floated before. In fact, as a political journalist, I can tell you it’s probably the question I get asked the most. And here was a man who knows Trump very well suggesting it’s a concern that is warranted.
It’s 100 percent speculation, yes, but it’s not completely baseless. Remember toward the end of the 2016 election when everyone, including, apparently, Trump, thought he was about to lose? Trump spent weeks alleging voter fraud among voters who hadn’t even cast ballots. He even suggested if he lost, there could be no other explanation.
In light of this, critics pressed him to promise to accept the results of the election. He declined, even using it to provoke further.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to make a major announcement today,” he said Oct. 20, 2016, in Ohio. “I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters, and to all of the people of the United States, that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election . . . "
He paused for effect.
". . . If I win.”
It bears emphasizing that Trump said he was reserving the right to challenge the results through the legal system, and only if it wasn’t “a clear election result.” But this is the president who has waged an effort to undermine judges who decide things he doesn’t like. And he’s alleged a vast conspiracy among law enforcement to take him down. If the voters vote him out in part based upon that evidence — or if that process itself leads to impeachment and removal from office — is the guy who said this is a “witch hunt” just going to walk away and accept that verdict?
If it all seems unlikely, that’s because it is. Even if Trump were to try to cling to power, the odds of success seem very low. This has obviously never even been attempted, though as Jack Shafer writes, Franklin D. Roosevelt once entertained asserting dictatorial powers, and some in the military feared Richard Nixon was hinting at preventing his removal from office. “He was trying to find out whether in a crunch there was support to keep him in power,” an anonymous four-star officer on Nixon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told journalist Seymour Hersh in 1983.
To prevent his own removal, that’s essentially what Trump would have to do. Assuming he can’t game the electoral college and exhausts legal challenges to the result of the election, staying in office would probably require force of some kind and the complicity of the military. And the idea that the military would go along with this even after another person is duly elected is difficult to believe.
But the potentially ominous part of this isn’t about the (very low) odds of success; it’s what would happen in the meantime. If Trump won’t leave, and his base feels aggrieved, what if he stirs a popular uprising of some sort? Things could get messy, even as he would probably never hold power.
And some say it’s an unlikely possibility worth preparing for, given Trump’s conduct and the potential very real constitutional crisis that could result. Georgetown Law’s Joshua A. Geltzer looked at the possibility, recommending a number of safeguards against it. Apart from making sure the electoral college is shored up and that politicians are prepared to desert Trump if he doesn’t leave, he urged that the country’s military leaders be asked in their regular sworn testimony whether they would commit to making sure the military would assist in the transition of power if necessary.
Cohen isn’t a constitutional scholar, nor is he a political expert, so he can’t know how unlikely this would be to succeed. It’s also possible he was saying this for effect after a long day of testimony. But lots of people were eager to believe the things he was saying Wednesday for the very reason that he knows Trump better than all but a handful of people. His view of Trump’s character on this point would seem difficult to totally discount.
It’s easy to dismiss Trump’s attacks on elections and the investigations of his presidency as Trump merely being provocative and trying to play a political game. Cohen seems to think there is more at work here.