Robert B. Reich: Be afraid of the president who refuses to lose
By Robert B. Reich
Mar 06, 2019 at 6:00 AM
Michael Cohen, President Trump's former personal lawyer, testifies before the House Oversight Committee.
The United States is now headed by someone pathologically incapable of admitting defeat. This doesn't bode well for the 2020 presidential election.
Among the most chilling words uttered last week by Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's former personal lawyer and fixer, were "given my experience working for Mr. Trump I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power, and this is why I agreed to appear before you today."
Mr. Cohen should know better than anyone, but we already had reason to worry. In 2016, when polls showed Hillary Clinton with a wide lead, Mr. Trump claimed the election was rigged against him.
He refused to commit to honoring the election results if he lost, warning that he'd "reserve my right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result." He added that he'd accept the results of the election "if I win."
Throughout the summer of 2016, Mr. Trump's claim of election rigging was echoed on Fox News. Newt Gingrich spoke of "a long tradition on the part of Democratic machines of trying to steal elections." Rudolph Giuliani declared that "Hillary and [Tim] Kaine are right in the middle of the Washington insider rigged system."
Mr. rump's campaign manager at the time, Paul Manafort, said federal officials couldn't be trusted to prevent voter fraud, warning that "if you're relying on the Justice Department to ensure the security of the elections, we have to be worried."
By early August 2016, according to a Bloomberg poll, 56 percent of Trump supporters believed the election would be rigged. (Among all voters, only 34 percent predicted a rigged election; 60 percent rejected the idea.)
Even after the election, Mr. Trump refused to accept that he had lost the popular vote. Still claiming election fraud, he established a presidential commission to find it. When the commission came back empty-handed, he abruptly dissolved it, saying (wrongly) that it had uncovered "substantial evidence of voter fraud." No such evidence emerged.
For Mr. Trump, losing is the deepest form of humiliation, and humiliation is intolerable.
Every time he has lost a legislative or legal battle during his presidency he has blamed the other side and lashed back: shuttering the government, declaring a national emergency, whipping up his followers against recalcitrant judges, Democrats, the media or whomever he holds responsible.
Imagine it's November 2020 and Mr. Trump has lost the election. He charges voter fraud, claiming that the "deep state" organized tens of millions of illegal immigrants to vote against him, and says he has an obligation not to step down.
Only this time he's already president, with all the powers a president commands.
Traditionally, Americans have trusted our system of government enough that we abide by its outcomes even though we may disagree with them. Only once in our history, in 1861, did enough of us distrust the system so much we succumbed to civil war.
Typically, when an election is over, the peaceful transition of power reminds the public that our allegiance is not toward a particular person but to our system of government.
Five weeks after the bitterly contested election of 2000, and just one day after the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of George W. Bush, Al Gore graciously declared: "I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country."
But what happens if an incumbent president claims our system is no longer trustworthy?
Mr. Trump's emissaries have already seeded the battlefield. Last April, Sean Hannity of Fox News predicted that an attempt to impeach Mr. Trump (or presumably remove him from office any other way) would cause "fighting and dividing this country at a level we've never seen ... those that stand for truth and those that literally buy into the corrupt deep state attacks against a duly elected president."
Mr. rump's former consiglieri, Roger Stone, has warned of "an insurrection like you've never seen" and claimed that any politician who voted to oust Mr. Trump "would be endangering their own life."
Just last week, Steve Bannon, another of Mr. Trump's bottom feeders, predicted that "2019 is going to be the most vitriolic year in American politics since the Civil War, and I include Vietnam in that." He didn't make a prediction about 2020, but we can guess.
We should take seriously Michael Cohen's admonition that if Mr. Trump is defeated in 2020, he will not leave office peacefully.
Republican leaders as well as Supreme Court justices and civic and religious leaders across the land must be prepared to assert the primacy of our system of government over the will of the man who refuses to lose.