A bipartisan group of some 100 political, ex-governmental, and election experts is warning that Donald Trump will employ every means possible, including violence in the streets, to hold on to the presidency if he is defeated on November 3 by former vice president Joe Biden.
The warning came in an August 3 report by the Transition Integrity Project (TIP) that was developed after a series of 2020 election crisis scenario planning exercises in which teams playing the role of Trump and the Republicans and Biden and the Democrats played out what emerged as likely strategies and actions with respect to the election.
In the exercise, conducted via Zoom for four days in June, Biden was played by John Podesta, a former top aide to President Barack Obama and former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. Republican Trump critics David Frum and Bill Kristol portrayed the president.
"We assess with a high degree of likelihood that November's election will be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape," the TIP report said. "We also assess that the President Trump is likely to contest the result by both legal and extra-legal means, in an attempt to hold onto power."
The concept of "election night," is no longer accurate and indeed is dangerous. We face a period of contestation stretching from the first day a ballot is cast in mid-September until January 20. The winner may not, and we assess likely will not, be known on "election night" as officials count mail-in ballots. This period of uncertainty provides opportunities for an unscrupulous candidate to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process and to set up an unprecedented assault on the outcome. Campaigns, parties, the press and the public must be educated to adjust expectations starting immediately.
A determined campaign has opportunity to contest the election into January 2021. We anticipate lawsuits, divergent media narratives, attempts to stop the counting of ballots, and protests drawing people from both sides. President Trump, the incumbent, will very likely use the executive branch to aid his campaign strategy, including through the Department of Justice. We assess that there is a chance the president will attempt to convince legislatures and/or governors to take actions-including illegal actions-to defy the popular vote. Federal laws provide little guidance for how Congress should resolve irregularities when they convene in a joint session on January 6, 2021. Of particular concern is how the military would respond in the context of uncertain election results.
The administrative transition process itself may be highly disrupted. Participants in our exercises of all backgrounds and ideologies believed that Trump would prioritize personal gain and self-protection over ensuring an orderly administrative handoff to his successor. Trump may use pardons to thwart future criminal prosecution, arrange business deals with foreign governments that benefit him financially, attempt to bribe and silence associates, declassify sensitive documents, and attempt to divert federal funds to his own businesses.
The report said developments since June when the TIP exercises were conducted have "only confirmed that there is every reason to be concerned that our electoral rules and norms are under threat."
It pointed out that in an interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace, Trump suggested he might not abide by the results if he loses. Moreover, the report noted that Trump employed Homeland Security agents in Portland "to suppress racial justice protesters," indicating his "appetite to deploy federal agents even against the will of local elected officials." Then, he announced plans to deploy those agents to Democratic cities in swing states, raising the specter of electoral intimidation.
The TIP report noted that Trump has suggested the election should be postponed because of confusion caused by the massive use of mail-in ballots, a practice that he has tried to block, and that he has demanded that the results be announced immediately on Election Day, before all mail-in ballots can be counted. Then, TIP added, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has warned that foreign countries are again trying to interfere in the election.
The report also warned of likely violence in the streets, predicting that Trump will seek to mobilize his followers to protest adverse election results, claiming fraud, and Democrats will counter with their own demonstrations creating the potential for conflict. And, it suggested Trump would encourage Republican governors to call their elections even before all of the votes, particularly, mail-in ballots, are counted.
Mitigation Action Urged
But the report said those risks can be mitigated, urging all stakeholders to take action now to prepare. It made these recommendations:
Plan for a contested election. If there is a crisis, events will unfold quickly, and sleep-deprived leaders will be asked to make consequential decisions quickly. Thinking through options now will help ensure better decisions. Approach this as a political battle, not just a legal battle. In the event of electoral contestation, sustained political mobilization will likely be crucial for ensuring transition integrity. Dedicated staff and resources need to be in place at least through the end of January.
Focus on readiness in the states, providing political support for a complete and accurate count. Governors, Secretaries of State, Attorneys General and Legislatures can communicate and reinforce laws and norms and be ready to confront irregulars. Election officials will need political and public support to see the process through to completion.
Address the two biggest threats head on: lies about "voter fraud" and escalating violence. Voting fraud is virtually non-existent, but Trump lies about it to create a narrative designed to politically mobilize his base and to create the basis for contesting the results should he lose. The potential for violent conflict is high, particularly since Trump encourages his supporters to take up arms.
Anticipate a rocky administrative transition. Transition teams will likely need to do two things simultaneously: defend against Trump's reckless actions on his way out of office; and find creative solutions to ensure landing teams are able to access the information and resources they need to prepare for governing.
All of this presents a frightful and potentially disastrous election process that could discourage many Americans from voting to avoid any possible trouble. That would be the worst possible outcome. We must vote, and we must not allow this tyrant to send our country into dictatorship and anarchy.
Vote like your life and those of your children and grand children depends on it. Because they do.