President Trump for months has griped, complained and tweeted about what he says is the unfair Russia “witch hunt” investigation that has consumed nearly half of his presidency.
White House officials and others close to the president said he was joking and is not serious about trying to increase his first four-year term by 50 percent — an extension that would violate the Constitution and has no historical precedent.
But Trump’s suggestion came as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also raised concerns about the president potentially refusing to accept the legitimacy of a Democratic victory in the 2020 presidential election — saying it was important that Democrats win “big” to protect the country from such an outcome.
“We have to inoculate against that, we have to guard against that,” Pelosi told the New York Times.
The remarks underscore real anxiety within factions of the country that Trump — who repeatedly complained about a “rigged” election in 2016 — may decide to contest the legitimacy of the election in 2020 if he is defeated or otherwise argue for an extended time in office.
“Everything that he says is a trial balloon — even his, quote, jokes are trial balloons,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor who studies authoritarian rulers. “But if you look at what he jokes about, it’s always things like this — it’s the extension of his rights, it’s the infringement of liberties. And authoritarians are continually testing the boundaries to see what they can get away with, and everything he does is a challenge to Democrats to mount some response against him.”
Trump’s defenders say the president is merely being provocative, expressing his real anger over the extent to which special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe has consumed his presidency. White House aides and other friends say they have not heard Trump privately discuss the possibility of an extended term — often an early warning sign he is seriously entertaining a controversial action.
Asked about Trump’s suggestion that he receive two more years in office, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) chuckled and said, “I think y’all people are crazy.”
“When it comes to Trump, people need to dial it back a little bit,” said Graham, who added that when he once jokingly suggested Trump receive a third term, “people went nuts.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) suggested that the tweet should be viewed as an example of Trump’s understated wit, but also that it reflects a president deeply exasperated by how the Russian investigation has clouded his presidency.
“The president has sort of a dry sense of humor,” Cornyn said. “He obviously understands that’s not possible but I take his point that there’s been two years of distractions based on claims that proved not to be substantiated. So again I understand his frustration.”
Falwell himself said in an interview Monday that he and Trump had never discussed the topic before and did not speak after the president shared his tweet. He said he believes there needs to be a “day of reckoning” for those responsible for the special counsel investigation, but understands Trump is not going to extend his current term by two years.
“I know there’s no constitutional mechanism to add a couple years to his term, but he definitely deserves to be compensated, so it was a little bit tongue-in-cheek,” Falwell said.
More broadly, the idea that the special counsel investigation resulted in two “stolen” years of Trump’s presidency has already become a reelection argument for Trump and his allies.
On Sunday, Trump tweeted about his “tremendous success” in office, despite the fact that “they have stolen two years of my (our) Presidency (Collusion Delusion) that we will never be able to get back.”
And in a statement Monday, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh wrote that Trump “has been hounded mercilessly for two solid years and still has racked up tremendous wins on behalf of the American people.”
“That he has succeeded in the face of unprecedented partisan attacks is absolutely an argument for his reelection,” Murtaugh said.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley also responded, saying, “How hilariously ironic that it’s the Democrats who refuse to accept the results of a free and fair presidential election in 2016, refuse to accept the clear results of a nearly 400-page report that showed no collusion and no obstruction, but now, they have the audacity to question the president ‘accepting results?’ — give me a break.”
During the 2016 campaign, Trump frequently denounced the election as “rigged” without providing any evidence, and on multiple occasions refused to commit to accepting the results if Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton were to prevail.
During the final debate in Las Vegas, for instance, when asked if he would accept the results on Election Day, Trump twice demurred, concluding, “I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense.” Clinton called his response “horrifying,” and accused him of “talking down our democracy.”
Even on Election Day, Trump remained noncommittal, hinting in a pair of radio interviews that he might contest the election results if they were too close.
At the time, Trump’s rhetoric prompted some of his supporters to speak of revolution, calling for a “coup” and “bloodshed,” and saying if she won, Clinton should be removed from office “by any means necessary.”
Speaking to the House Oversight Committee in February, Michael Cohen — Trump’s former personal attorney who reported to prison Monday for campaign finance violations and tax evasion — expressed concern that Trump might yet again toy with not accepting unfavorable election results.
“Indeed, 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,” Cohen told the committee.
The president — who won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote to Clinton — also asserted multiple times, without evidence, that “millions of people” voted illegally in 2016, costing him the popular vote.
“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” the then-president-elect wrote in a November 2016 tweet. He made a similar claim in 2018, falsely stating that “millions and millions of people” illegally voted “many times.”
Trump was so incensed by the fact that he had not won the popular vote that he tasked Vice President Pence with heading a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to investigate what he claimed was massive voter fraud. The commission ultimately disbanded amid legal challenges and infighting, having produced no evidence of widespread fraud. But in a statement announcing the group’s dissolution, Trump nonetheless cited “substantial evidence of voter fraud.”
In other instances, Trump has more clearly adopted a lighthearted tone. During a closed-door fundraiser at his private Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida in March 2018, Trump addressed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent consolidation of power, noting with envy that Xi was now “president for life.”
“I think it’s great,” Trump said. “Maybe we’ll have to give it a shot some day.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he was not amused, calling it “extremely offensive for the president of the United States to make those types of statements even if they are intended to be in jest.”
“When you look at people who have used authoritarian practices that have brought down democracies, they have used excuses to stay in power,” Cardin added when asked why he felt such remarks were dangerous. “It may be in jest, but you still don’t do that in jest.”
Falwell, the man whose tweet started the entire drama, said he was not worried about Trump trying to upend the nation’s electoral system. He said he recalled concern among conservatives that former president Barack Obama would not vacate the White House after two terms, but that worry was unfounded.
“I always knew the Constitution would prevail and we’re still a country of laws,” he said. “I think people on both extremes, on the left and the right, tend to get a little bit hysterical when somebody is in office that they don’t like, and I think that’s all we’re seeing.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.