Asked what he'd do if he loses, Trump hedges, despite earlier vow

"If I don't win, I don't win," Trump said five weeks ago, adding, "You go on, do other things." His new message, however, is ... different.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 22, 2017.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

In early June, Donald Trump sat down with Fox News' Harris Faulkner, who asked whether the president would agree to voluntarily exit the White House if the election doesn't go his way. The line of inquiry was itself extraordinary -- I'm not aware of any modern president even being asked such a question.

Nevertheless, Trump said in response, "Certainly, if I don't win, I don't win." The Republican added that if he comes up short, "you go on, do other things." A Politico report added at the time, "Though the president has never given any serious indication that he might not leave office if he were to lose re-election, his comments aired Friday appear to be the first time he has publicly committed to doing so."

Exactly five weeks later, Trump sat down for another Fox News interview, faced a similar question, and answered differently.

President Donald Trump is refusing to publicly commit to accepting the results of the upcoming White House election, recalling a similar threat he made weeks before the 2016 vote, as he scoffs at polls showing him lagging behind Democrat Joe Biden. Trump says it's too early to make such an ironclad guarantee.

In context, Chris Wallace initially posed a general question, independent of the election, asking whether Trump considers himself to be good and gracious in event of a defeat. It led the president to say, unprompted, "I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election. I really do."

When the host asked for a "direct answer" about whether he'd accept the results of the election, Trump added, "I have to see. Look, you -- I have to see. No, I'm not going to just say 'yes.' I'm not going to say 'no.' And I didn't last time, either."

That last point -- Trump wouldn't commit to honoring the results of the election in 2016 -- was true. He was the only major-party American presidential candidate in modern history to declare in advance of Election Day that he wasn't prepared to accept the results.

But at the time, his position wasn't altogether relevant: Trump was just a television personality without a public office. If he refused to honor the election results, it had no practical significance: the peaceful transition of power would continue whether the defeated candidate liked it or not.

In 2020, however, it's a different story. After all, Trump's obviously already in the White House. If he loses -- a distinct possibility -- and refuses to accept the results, it opens the door to a potential constitutional crisis.

For its part, Joe Biden's campaign said in a statement yesterday afternoon, “The American people will decide this election. And the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.”

On MSNBC this morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) added, “The fact is, whether he knows it yet or not, he will be leaving. Just because he might not want to move out of the White House doesn’t mean we won’t have an inauguration ceremony to inaugurate a duly elected president of the United States."

I won't pretend to know what the coming months have in store, though I often find myself thinking about what Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, told Congress during his sworn testimony in February 2019.

“Given my experience working for Mr. Trump,” Cohen told lawmakers, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”