“It’s really hard for anyone in the military, at any level, to say anything other than ‘Yes, sir.’ They’re not lawyers,” Rosa Brooks, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration and a professor at Georgetown Law, told me.
The potential for chaos exposes the frailties of an electoral tradition that depends on the goodwill of the two candidates involved. If one won’t cooperate, the system seizes up. The nation survived a couple of scares, but only because the loser was willing to fold. In 2000, Al Gore conceded the race when a divided Supreme Court stopped a recount in Florida, locking in George W. Bush’s narrow victory. When he bowed out, Gore ended his career in elective politics, a gesture that Trump might not be so quick to emulate.
Lawrence Douglas, an Amherst College professor, published a book this year called Will He Go? that lays out nightmare scenarios arising from a contested election: dueling claims about who won, with Congress and the courts unable to resolve the dispute. “In 2020, we have no Al Gore to save us from a complete electoral meltdown and the unrest and violence it could unleash,” Douglas wrote.
In an interview, Douglas told me: “If people really prepare to engage in constitutional brinkmanship, the system isn’t particularly designed to deal with that type of person … It depends on people having internalized the norms that make a constitutional democracy work.”
Trump’s political career is the story of norms upended. He’s denigrated war heroes and sparred with Gold Star families. Would he honor one of the nation’s most precious norms—the peaceful transfer of power—if it meant admitting failure?
When the fateful moment arrives, Trump would need to accept the same sobering reality that Gore absorbed: He lost. What some in Washington ask is whether he’d be in denial.
Read: Trump’s ‘I’m rubber, you’re glue’ campaign plan
Representative Adam Smith, the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told me that he once spoke with a senior White House official and asked about Trump’s intentions in the event of a defeat. “I said, ‘There’s a lot of concern that if your boss loses he’s not going to leave,’” Smith said. “And he said, ‘No, that’s ridiculous. Of course he would.’” Smith wasn’t reassured. “There’s a zero percent chance that he would gracefully transfer power,” he told me. “The best we can hope for is that he would ungracefully transfer power.”
Brooks, the Georgetown Law professor and former Obama official, is helping lead an informal bipartisan group called the Transition Integrity Project that is looking to ensure the election and potential transition go smoothly. More than 60 people are involved, including former governors and Cabinet secretaries. They’re planning to meet on Zoom in the next few weeks and hold “tabletop” exercises meant to think through various scenarios: a narrow Trump defeat, a clear Trump victory, and a resounding Biden victory among them. They’ll game out what might happen if Trump and his supporters use social media to intimidate the election workers tallying votes, or if he refuses to leave in the event of defeat, among other possibilities, participants told me.