The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Parsing Trump’s ‘there won’t be a transfer’ comments

Asked on Sept. 23 if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election, President Trump said, “We’re going to have to see what happens." (Video: The Washington Post)

As the 2016 election approached, then-candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric escalated. He would lose only if there was fraud committed against him, he said at multiple points, and he regularly derided the process as “rigged.” During the third presidential debate, Trump was asked whether he would recognize the results of the election.

“I will look at it at the time,” Trump replied. “I’m not looking at anything now. I’ll look at it at the time. What I’ve seen, what I’ve seen, is so bad.” He went on to disparage the media and elevate false claims about the risk posed by outdated voter rolls.

When he won the election anyway, this idea that he had somehow been cheated persisted. After all, he had lost the popular vote, so he has repeatedly as president asserted that somehow millions of illegal votes were cast without being detected, enough to suggest that it was he, not Hillary Clinton, who was actually the choice of the overall electorate four years ago.

This refrain is consistent with President Trump’s approach to his job: Actually, he’s very popular, but it’s not captured in polls conducted by reputable pollsters or in, say, the results of the 2018 congressional elections. It’s this smokescreen that Trump throws up to assure his followers or perhaps himself that he is what he claims to be — the voice of the people.

It’s an instinct that served him particularly poorly Wednesday evening.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a growing rumble of the sort that was manifested in 2016: What if Trump declines to concede? The threat is more dangerous now, because Trump has the power of the presidency itself at his disposal. What if the scenarios outlined by journalist Barton Gellman for the Atlantic play out, and Trump pulls every available lever to subvert popular will should it become apparent that he might lose? How close is this country to seeing its experiment collapse?

During a news briefing, Trump was asked to assuage those concerns.

“Mr. President, real quickly, win, lose or draw in this election, will you commit here today for a peaceful transfer of power after the election?” a reporter asked. He noted various incidents of violence that have occurred in recent weeks, apparently to demonstrate the elevated national temperature. “Will you commit to making sure that there is a peaceful transferral of power after the election?”

Trump’s answer was not reassuring.

“Well,” he began, “we’re going to have to see what happens.”

It’s a sharply atypical response for a president, certainly. George W. Bush or Barack Obama, for example, would probably have said something like, while I’m confident I’ll win, of course I will cede my position should that be what voters want. But they weren’t asked similar questions, to my knowledge, because they didn’t need to articulate those obvious answers.

Given his rhetoric in 2016, this was not an atypical response for Trump. To some extent he likes to accentuate this tension, to see cable news pundits gasp and to watch reporters scribble in their notepads. And, of course, he is heavily invested in suggesting that there might be some reason not to accept the results, a position that will allow him, if needed, to rail against the counting of mail-in ballots after Election Day, ballots that will almost certainly favor his opponent.

He transitioned to again bashing those mail-in ballots, as he has so often before.

“You know that.” Trump continued “I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster and—”

“I understand that,” the reporter interjected, “but people are rioting. Do you commit to making sure that there’s a peaceful transferal of power?”

“We want to have—” Trump continued, before changing direction. “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very trans — we’ll have a very peaceful—”

We’ll awkwardly interject here to illustrate how Trump’s thought process was probably playing out. His argument, which he seems perhaps to actually believe, is that mail-in ballots are subject to massive fraud, which is not at all demonstrably true. Since those ballots will be counted after Election Day, he views them (or, at least, hopes America views them) as suspect. While counting the ballots is obviously necessary to determine the will of voters, Trump argues that the inclusion of those ballots is itself an act that introduces instability and uncertainty, a factor that will erode public confidence in the count. Again, this is only because he incorrectly claims that these ballots are subject to rampant fraud, but that’s his position.

So: Get rid of those ballots, and everything’s copacetic.

But he doesn’t really finish that thought before he realizes what he’s about to say. He begins, “We’ll have a very peaceful—” But the only way to end that sentence is with “transfer of power.” And the only way you have a transfer of power is if he loses. And he can’t admit he loses. So, instead, he abruptly transitions.

“There won’t be a transfer, frankly,” he continued. “There’ll be a continuation.”

Then back to his main point — bashing mail-in votes.

“The ballots are out of control,” he said. “You know it. And you know who knows it better than anybody else? The Democrats know it better than anybody else.”

(“I don’t know that,” the reporter interjected.)

If we stop and pick this apart, it’s obviously misleading and centered on self-preservation, as surely as was his response in that 2016 debate. But the result is stark. The result is the president of the United States saying not that he’ll accept the results of the election but that “we’re going to have to see what happens.”

The result is the president saying, “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very trans-, we’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.” As though he’s advocating stepping away from voting itself or advocating that he simply be granted another four years.

It’s a fool’s errand to try to translate Trump, in part because he’ll deny what he actually meant without any qualms whatsoever. But, assuming the above distillation is accurate, it’s disconcerting for a reason other than Trump apparently embracing the elimination of democracy. It’s disconcerting because it reinforces that Trump’s interest in appearing to be victorious remains a primary concern.