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What If Trump Refuses to Accept a Biden Victory? A Look at How Electoral Chaos Could Divide Nation

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As President Trump floats the idea of delaying the election, we speak with Nils Gilman, historian and co-founder of Transition Integrity Project, which organized a bipartisan group of experts to game out what a contested November election might look like. “In every scenario except for the one where Biden won in a landslide, we ended up with severe electoral contestation, protests in the streets, crazy stories happening on social media, and the challenges went down to Inauguration Day,” Gilman says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Sunday the November presidential election will proceed as scheduled. That’s after President Trump faced bipartisan outrage last week for suggesting delaying the election. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senator Lindsey Graham and even Steven Calabresi of the archconservative Federalist Society spoke out against the president, after Trump tweeted Thursday, quote, “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” unquote. President Trump has not taken back those comments. They came as nearly all polls project Trump will lose against Joe Biden in November. Mark Meadows backed off Trump’s claim on CBS’s Face the Nation, saying, “We’re going to hold an election on November 3rd, and the president is going to win.”

This is not the first time Trump has suggested he’d oppose the election process. He was asked about accepting the November election results during an interview last month with Chris Wallace on Fox News.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election. I really do.

CHRIS WALLACE: Are you suggesting that you might not accept the results of the election?


CHRIS WALLACE: Can you give a direct answer: You will accept the election?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the many questions surrounding this year’s election, we’re joined by historian Nils Gilman. He’s vice president of programs at the Berggruen Institute and co-founder of the Transition Integrity Project, or TIP, which organized a bipartisan group of experts to game out what a contested November election might look like.

Nils Gilman, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you respond to President Trump’s tweet, which he has not taken back, no matter what Mark Meadows says? He’s talking about the illegitimacy of mail-in votes, and he’s talking about delaying the November election. This is something you’ve been talking about for a long time.

NILS GILMAN: Yeah. Well, you know, he has preached a lot of things, and it’s not clear how seriously one should take any of it, of course. I think what’s striking about this one, of course, is that it got a lot of bipartisan pushback, which is good, because obviously we don’t want to have the president not get pushback when he’s saying that he wants to delay the election. But what’s striking is how many of his tweets don’t get bipartisan, or at least Republican, pushback. So, when he says that, you know, mail-in ballots are going to be fraudulent, there’s no pushback against that from the Republicans. So I think that tells you where the limits are about what they’re willing to tolerate from the president.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what your group is doing, Transition Integrity Project, and the simulation gaming out that you did in June.

NILS GILMAN: Yeah. So, last month — or actually, I guess, in June, two months ago now — we ran a series of four, what are known in military circles as war games, which are basically simulations of possible outcomes, not so much of the election, but the aftermath of the election, between November 3rd and Inauguration Day on January 20th. So we looked at four different scenarios: Biden winning in a landslide, Trump winning in a landslide and a couple scenarios where the election was very close or actually truly ambiguous.

And we assembled a group of people who played different roles. They played — some people played Team Trump. Some people played Team Biden. Some people played Democratic elected officials, Republican elected officials. This was a bipartisan group, included people, you know, former Democratic presidential Chief of Staff John Podesta, former Republican vice-presidential Chief of Staff Bill Kristol, you know, former Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan. So it was a high-level group, bipartisan group. And we tried to find out what could potentially go wrong between Election Day and Inauguration Day.

And the results were pretty intense. In every scenario, except for the one where Biden won in a landslide, we ended up with severe electoral contestation, protests in the streets, you know, crazy stories happening on social media, and the challenges went down to Inauguration Day. The contestation was really without precedent.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. So, go through these four scenarios.

NILS GILMAN: Yeah, so, one scenario was Biden wins, wins pretty big. And by the way, you know, we started simulating the games the day after the election. So we didn’t simulate things that could go wrong on the day of the election. There’s lots of other people who are concerned with that. We were specifically focused on what could happen after the election. Are there possible ways that the transition process could be disrupted?

The reason we needed to do that was the United States has a very unusual electoral system where people don’t take office immediately after the election. There’s this 10-, 11-week period between Election Day and Inauguration Day, when the incumbent government, the lame-duck government, is still in power and still can control things.

And that was one of the things that was really striking. Trump will still control the levers of power, even if he loses the election, for 10 or 11 more weeks. And this allows him to get up to all sorts of mischief in terms of deploying the Department of Justice, the Post Office, you know, Department of Homeland Security, in ways that can disrupt the transition process.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the role of the swing states, for example, like Michigan, and what role they could play.

NILS GILMAN: Yeah. So, there’s a series of swing states — Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin are really the three striking ones — where you have a situation where there’s a split government. You have a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature. And because of the way in which election certification works, there’s a possibility to do all sorts of kind of corrupt things during that period.

So, basically, what happens is, the votes get counted, and then typically what happens is the state legislature has to certify that one side won the election, and then the governor sends a slate of electoral votes to the Electoral College, which gets counted in mid-December. And then the Electoral College sends on its results to Congress, which has to certify the results in early January.

So, because there’s this split in these swing states between the Republican legislature and the Democratic governor, you could end up with a situation — and this is what actually happened in some of the simulations that we put together — where the vote happens one way, the Republican legislature certifies it another way, and the Democratic governor decides to send in a third slate of electors. So you could end up with competing slates of electors being sent, some by the Republican legislature and some by the Democratic governor. And this, in fact, is — there’s a precedence for this. This exactly is what happened during the contested election of 1876. You had three states then — I believe it was Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana that year — that sent competing slates of electors to the Electoral College. And at that point, it becomes up to Congress to decide which of the competing slates of electors they’re going to certify as being legitimate and counting for the purposes of selecting the next president.

AMY GOODMAN: If it was clear that Trump lost the election, would the military, or could the military or Secret Service just walk him out of office if he wasn’t leaving?

NILS GILMAN: Yeah. I mean, obviously, at some point, you know, if he refuses to leave the White House physically and everybody agrees that he’s lost, at that point he’s effectively just a trespasser in the White House, and presumably the Secret Service would remove him. But I think the real question we have to worry about is not whether it’s totally clear and everybody agrees other than Trump that he lost. If that situation happens, I’m not too worried. You know, the situation will resolve itself in an orderly manner.

The real cause for concern is if there are competing narratives that large numbers of Americans believe about who actually won the election. And that’s actually, unfortunately, very possible, especially given how polarized the electorate is and the competing narratives about the kinds of frauds that can take place around the election. Trump is already promoting the notion of fraud. He’ll say he won, if he wins, despite the fraud. And if he loses, he’ll say he lost because of the fraud. I mean, you had the clip at the top of the hour here, when you were playing the introduction, where he says exactly that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he just has to create a plausible narrative that he didn’t lose, you say. And what would that do?

NILS GILMAN: Well, if he creates a plausible narrative — and by “plausible,” I mean something that, you know, gets picked up in social media and then gets parroted on Fox News and gets picked up maybe by The Wall Street Journal op-ed page, that the reason why he lost is because of fraud that’s happening in some of these swing states, or, as he would say, “illegals” voting or the mail-in ballots or foreign interference. There’s any number of different channels for creating a narrative that there has been fraud. And if he can do that and he can convince enough people on his side of the aisle that narrative is true, then you have a situation where there really will be two different stories about who won the election. And that obviously can create a very dangerous situation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Trump’s attack on mail-in voting comes at a time when the Trump administration is facing accusations of sabotaging the Postal Service under the newly installed postmaster general, who happens to be a Trump fundraiser, Louis DeJoy. Can you talk about what this means? Since DeJoy took office, he has instituted a number of cost-cutting measures that have slowed down the delivery of mail. The Washington Post reports there’s now a days-long backlog of mail across the country. Take it from there.

NILS GILMAN: Well, I’m not an expert about exactly what’s going on at the Post Office, so I can’t speak to that, but I can talk about what the risks are. You know, there’s going to be an unprecedented number of people voting by mail, voting absentee this year, partly because of the coronavirus epidemic making some people concerned about going and standing in line in closed quarters to go vote. So, many people are going to vote by mail. And if the mail is slow, then the mail will be delivered late, and these ballots will not arrive on election night.

One of the things Trump has also been claiming, which there was no pushback on from Republicans, is that the election should be called on election night. Well, why would he want that? Well, it’s because there’s a well-known phenomenon, among people who study these things closely, known as the “blue shift,” which is that the votes that come in late tend disproportionately to be Democratic voters, for a whole bunch of different reasons. And so, obviously, if he wants the election called on election night, that would prevent any of the votes that came in late by mail, by the mail that’s being slowed down by the Postal Service’s incompetence, from being counted. And so, it’s effectively a form of disenfranchisement of anybody who votes late or votes by mail because they’re afraid of the coronavirus or for any other reason that people might want to vote by mail.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, I mean, the front page of The New York Times today, “Lag in Tallying Mail-In Ballots Raises Alarms.” New York City is still deciding the June primary races.

NILS GILMAN: Right. I think one of the things we really need to get ready for is that we’re not going to have a traditional election night. It’s really going to be an election season. And one of the things that I think media really should be getting out, the word out, to all Americans right now is that, you know, we need to be patient, and we don’t necessarily — we won’t necessarily know the result on election night. I mean, it’s possible that Biden will win in a landslide or Trump will win in a landslide, in which case we will know. But there could be a number of different states, you know, the swing states, even though Biden is way ahead in terms of the national polls — in the swing states, the results are still pretty close, and we may not know on election night who won. And we may not know for, you know, a week or even two weeks afterwards, as these ballots trickle in and have to be counted carefully. I think it’s a responsibility of all Americans to be patient about that, because what we want, above all else, is for our democratic voting process to have integrity, for everybody who wants to vote to be able to, and for everybody who votes to have their vote counted.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm has said states should prepare for a worst-case scenario for the November election, including Trump seizing ballot boxes and using the military. Do you think that’s possible, Nils Gilman?

NILS GILMAN: I do think it’s possible. I mean, we’ve already seen what he’s done in Portland. And it’s kind of sinister, from my perspective, that even though he’s now withdrawn from Portland, withdrawn the federal forces from Portland, he has announced that they’re going to be deployed in, specifically, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee. Well, why would he pick those three cities? Well, those are blue cities in swing states — in Ohio, in Michigan and in Wisconsin. And if he can prevent and intimidate voters from voting in the biggest blue city in each of those states, that could be decisive in swinging the results in his favor.

So I do think that there’s a severe chance that the military will be used, or militarized forces — I don’t think the military itself. I think after Lafayette Square, the military itself is likely to resist being deployed that way. But we have paramilitarized federal forces that are prepared to do Trump’s bidding. And I do think that that’s a severe risk for the election.

AMY GOODMAN: Nils Gilman, I want to thank you for being with us, historian and co-founder of Transition Integrity Project, which organized a bipartisan group of experts to game out what a contested November election might look like.

When we come back, we’ll be joined by LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter. Stay with us.

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