What if, after having moved into the White House and gotten comfortable, Donald Trump refuses to check out when his term ends?
Preposterous, you say. No president, not even Trump, would dare to defy 200-plus years of political tradition—not to mention the Constitution—to illegally overstay. But how sure can we be that our norm-busting president won’t attempt to shatter this inviolable standard, too? He and his lawyers have already advanced the specious legal idea that the chief executive can’t be charged with obstruction of justice, thereby placing him above the law. Who’s to say that Trump’s legal advisers might construct some pretext—a national security crisis or charges of election fraud—that would place him above the Constitution and cement his place in the Oval Office?
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The fear that a president might not go at his appointed time has a precedent. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, encouraged by columnist Walter Lippmann, contemplated taking dictatorial powers at the beginning of his first administration, but then reconsidered. Almost a half-century ago, the prospect of impeachment and conviction sent President Richard Nixon’s innate paranoia to a sub-basement of suspicion and distrust. As the lights started going out around him, he raged, he drank, and raged some more. In one sober moment, he called CBS News reporter Nancy Dickerson in the middle of the night to ramble on and on about how the press was mistreating him.
According to reporter Seymour Hersh, Nixon intimates began to believe that he was contemplating some sort of a coup d’état to maintain power. An unnamed member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Hersh that in one meeting Nixon called himself “the last hope” and claimed that the “eastern elite was out to get him.” Said the four-star officer: “His words brought me straight up out of my chair. I felt the president, without the words having been said, was trying to sound us out to see if we would support him in some extra-constitutional action. He was trying to find out whether in a crunch there was support to keep him in power.”
The officer and others told Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger of their Nixon anxieties. Nixon had centralized military power in the White House, often cutting his previous secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, out of the chain of command, giving some credence to the worry that he might issue an extreme order. Schlesinger investigated what sort of countermeasure the military could take if Nixon ordered Marines or other Washington-billeted troops to block his removal after impeachment and conviction. “Schlesinger’s overriding concern, in case a crisis did arise, was the possibility that the armed forces would follow their inherent loyalty to the Commander-in-Chief,” Hersh wrote.
Ultimately, the specter of a Nixon coup inspired Schlesinger to instruct the Joint Chiefs of Staff to execute no White House order without his countersignature. Nixon never gave any such orders, and his aide-turned-biographer Jonathan Aitken later described Schlesinger’s move as “the wildest over-reaction of Watergate.” Nixon’s reaction when told the tale: “Incredible.”
Compare Trump to Nixon. Like Nixon, Trump has sought to curry favor with the military, stacking his Cabinet with generals. Former CIA Director John Brennan has called him “unstable, inept, inexperienced, and unethical,” and temper-tantrums in public and on Twitter have caused him to be branded as a hothead. Trump’s current chief of staff, John F. Kelly, has described him as “off the rails,” according to Bob Woodward’s book Fear: Trump in the White House. Woodward, who reported on Nixon’s ouster in The Final Days, compares Trump’s paranoia to Nixon’s in his new book.
Trump has repeatedly bruised the rule of law with his words and actions, so why not the Constitution? Earlier this year, when a lawful search warrant was served on his attorney, Michael Cohen, Trump said, “I just heard they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys.” This week, he claimed hyperbolically that he doesn’t have an attorney general because his AG won’t run the Department of Justice like a windup toy for him, and he called the Federal Bureau of Investigation a “cancer in our country.” This is strong meat! He claims that the special prosecutor’s investigation, which has returned eight guilty pleas and one conviction, is a “witch hunt.” He has used the presidential pardon to reward political allies such as Joe Arpaio and Dinesh D’Souza. L’Etat, C’est Moi could be incorporated into the Trump coat of arms.
Trump laid the groundwork for contesting the legitimacy of the 2020 election during the 2016 campaign, blaring his distrust of the election process nonstop. “They even want to try and rig the election at the polling booths, where so many cities are corrupt and voter fraud is all too common,” he said. In the final debate with Hillary Clinton, he declined to say whether he would accept the results of the election, a position he was still voicing on Election Day. “I want to see what happens, you know, how it goes,” Trump said. Even after winning, Trump repeatedly asserted—with no proof—that 3 million to 5 million noncitizens had voted in the 2016 election, and that their illegal ballots cost him the popular vote. Once inaugurated, he impaneled his now-abandoned Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to investigate his bogus allegations.
Trump appears to have conveyed his disparaging views about voting integrity to his political base. According to one 2017 poll, half of all Republicans surveyed favored postponing the 2020 election until new standards made it certain that only eligible American citizens could vote. Respondents who agreed with Trump’s untruths that he won the popular election and that millions of ballots were cast illegally were the most likely to support the idea of postponing the election.
This isn’t the first time the idea of postponing the federal election has surfaced. In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security asked the Department of Justice whether the government could put off an election in the case of a terrorist strike. No such legal mechanism was found, and the outrage generated by the inquiry prompted Congress to pass a resolution, 419-2, declaring that nobody could shelve an election.
So if Trump couldn’t postpone an election, could he just ignore it? The nation would erupt, of course. Even great numbers of his supporters would abandon him. But never underestimate Trump’s audacity. In 2016, he reserved the right to reject the results. The fact that he won made his rejection moot. But what scenario might play out in 2020 if Trump lost but denied the results? Would he endlessly filibuster the states for recounts? Appeal to the Supreme Court and ignore its ruling by claiming squatters rights to the White House?
Not even Trump would go that far, right? Even though he’s taught us to expect the worst from him, I’d like to think that he’d pack the Bekins van and move back to Trump Tower after losing. But what about the long shot of the House impeaching him and the Senate convicting him? Would he honor those judgments? Again, I’d like to think so, but my faith wobbles. His sense of victimhood, displayed daily on Twitter, predicts that he might interpret his constitutional defenestration as a coup by the Deep State, a coup that justified his counter-coup. Trump’s backers—see these pieces in the American Conservative and the Federalist as well as a commentary by Bill O’Reilly and an interview with Steve Bannon—have already poured the foundation for such a notion with their talk of the “coup against Trump.” Likewise, all the talk about using the 25th Amendment to remove him from office can’t help but have boosted his baseline paranoia.
The president’s cheerleading for anti-democratic authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, Xi Jinping and Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and the mutual admiration pact he’s signed with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un does not bode well for an orderly transition of power in 2020 or 2024 or whenever his eviction notice is served. Because nothing is off the table when Trump’s operating, let’s hope current Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has read deeply from the Nixon histories and has issued the appropriate order to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Rumors circulated nationwide in the spring of 1970 that Nixon had ordered the Rand Corporation to study the feasibility of suspending the 1972 election in the case of a domestic uprising. The rumors were baseless, David Greenberg writes in Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, but their intensity required a denial from Daniel Patrick Moynihan. That same year, Scanlan’s Monthly ran a memo, purportedly written by an aide to Vice President Spiro Agnew, that referred to election-canceling plans. It was most likely a hoax. Send plans to postpone the 2020 elections to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts think of themselves as a royal family. My Twitter would resign, given a chance. My RSS feed invites your attempts to impeach him.