Senate Republicans opposed President Trump’s assertion that he might reject a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the November election, trying to deflect his challenge to a foundation of American democracy as bravado that will not actually occur.
“The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tweeted early Thursday, following the president’s comments late Wednesday night.
He declined to further address the controversial statements. “Did you see my tweet? That pretty well sums it up,” McConnell told reporters at the Capitol.
Most Republicans tried to dodge how they would respond if the president refused to accept the results if he lost and stoked violence among his supporters, either calling it a hypothetical they would not contemplate or saying Trump just talks like that but does not follow through on such threats.
“The president says crazy stuff. We’ve always had a peaceful transition of power. It’s not going to change,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) credited the controversy to Trump’s tendency to speak in “very extreme manners occasionally” and dismissed the latest controversy as part of that trend.
A few Republicans, however, did pledge to stand up to Trump if Biden is the clear winner and the president refuses to accept the results.
“No question that all the people sworn to support the Constitution would assure that there would be a peaceful transition of power,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters.
“Well, Republicans believe in the rule of law, we believe in the Constitution, and that’s what dictates what happens,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s deputy in the leadership team, told reporters.
Trump triggered an outcry when he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election, asserting that if he doesn’t win, it will be because of fraudulent mail-in voting and not because more people voted for Biden.
“Well, we’re going to have to see what happens. You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster,” he said.
Democrats, however, have started taking the threat seriously after months of privately worrying.
Party leaders have begun preliminary talks about how to respond to a constitutional crisis in which a defeated president refuses to leave office, according to Democrats who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss these internal discussions.
“There is one way to conduct a fair and honest election — by respecting the will of the people. But there are multifarious ways to attack and undermine a fair election — and we are gearing up to fight on every front,” said Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a former constitutional law professor who has been brainstorming possible responses for weeks.
Separately, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has reached out to GOP colleagues to encourage them to hold the line for democracy. Murphy said Republicans are in denial that the president would ever ignore the results of the election. But Democrats, he said, are trying to get them to acknowledge that every absentee ballot should be counted, fearful that the president could try to head off the results by contesting mail-in ballots.
“The president’s made very clear that he’s not going to acknowledge the results. . . . His ability to get away with that will be largely dependent on whether the Republican Party goes with him, so you know a lot of what we’re doing now is just talking to our colleagues to make sure they’re ready for a potential transition,” Murphy said Thursday.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) offered a harsher assessment.
“Usually dictators don’t announce in advance what their plans are. He wants to be named a president for life, king to the country. That’s not how our democracy works. It is up to Democrats and Republicans, and independents, it is up to all Americans to make clear that we are a democracy,” she said.
In interviews, along with statements and social media posts, more than two dozen Senate Republicans pledged support for a peaceful transition should Biden win, yet Romney was the only one who, again without naming Trump, took on his statements.
“Any suggestion that a president might not respect this constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable,” Romney tweeted late Wednesday after Trump’s comments.
Many Republicans tried to blame Biden for the issue following Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that the 2020 nominee should not concede until all the ballots are counted.
“We have a Constitution and the Constitution says when the presidency ends. You ask me just from the standpoint of what the president said: It isn’t very good advice from Hillary Clinton to advise Biden about that,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) went further and accused Biden’s transition team of conducting a “war game” in which the former vice president would contest the election in state legislatures, even though such practice scenarios are now common among legal advisers in presidential campaigns.
“What I’m much more concerned about is Joe Biden’s stated intention to challenge the legitimacy of the election if he doesn’t win,” Cruz said, adding that is why he supports quickly confirming a conservative replacement after Friday’s death of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I think that’s a real threat to the legitimacy of our election and it’s one of the reasons it’s so important that we confirm the Supreme Court nominee before the election, so we have a full court able to resolve whatever legal challenges arise,” he said.
Trump’s statements again put vulnerable Republicans facing tough reelection fights in November on the defensive, trying to explain the outlandish statements of a president they cannot control and struggle to interpret for voters in their Democratic-leaning states.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), first elected to the House in 2010 when Republicans claimed the majority and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stepped down as speaker, said since his first day in Congress he has appreciated the transfer of power.
“It’s something that I’ve talked about in speeches from my very first days when Nancy Pelosi peacefully handed the gavel over to John Boehner, it’s a hallmark of our democracy,” he told reporters.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) acknowledged she has no insight into how Trump thinks.
“I don’t know what his thinking was, but we have always had a controlled transition between administrations. And I’m certain that if there’s a change in administrations, that we have the calmness as well. It’s fundamental to our democracy,” she said.