Will Donald Trump step down if he loses re-election in 2020? Scholars echo Nancy Pelosi's concerns

"I think Trump will do everything he possibly can to hold on to his power," Allan Lichtman tells Salon

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 6, 2019 12:16PM (EDT)

Nancy Pelosi; Donald Trump (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Alex Brandon)
Nancy Pelosi; Donald Trump (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Alex Brandon)

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi predicted this weekend that President Donald Trump may not step down from power if he is defeated in the 2020 election.

"We have to inoculate against that. We have to be prepared for that," Pelosi told The New York Times on Wednesday after cautioning that unless Democrats defeat Trump by a margin "so big" that the legitimacy of the election is beyond dispute, the president could challenge the outcome.

After discussing how she felt the Democrats could best run up a large margin against Trump — by running a center-left campaign and avoiding impeachment, which she believes would hit a dead end due to Republicans controlling the Senate — the House speaker described her fears during the 2018 midterm elections that Trump would challenge individual House races where Democrats won unless the party prevailed by a large margin.

"If we win by four seats by a thousand votes each, he’s not going to respect the election," Pelosi recalled thinking. "He would poison the public mind. He would challenge each of the races; he would say you can’t seat these people. We had to win. Imagine if we hadn’t won — oh, don’t even imagine. So, as we go forward, we have to have the same approach."

As the Times added:

In recent weeks, Ms. Pelosi has told associates that she does not automatically trust the president to respect the results of any election short of an overwhelming defeat. That view, fed by Mr. Trump’s repeated and unsubstantiated claims of Democratic voter fraud, is one of the reasons she says it is imperative not to play into the president’s hands, especially on impeachment.

Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor of history at American University, reiterated Pelosi's worries, telling Salon, "I think Trump will do everything he possibly can to hold on to his power."

"Remember Trump cannot be embarrassed— cannot be shamed. You can't appeal to morality, because he has none. You can't appeal to compassion, he has none. You can't appeal to the law, he doesn't care," Lichtman added. "And if he thinks he can get away with it — absolutely, he will do anything.

Lichtman's concerns were also echoed by Laurence H. Tribe, the Carl M. Loeb university professor and professor of constitutional law at Harvard University.

"President Trump has sent troubling signals that he might well contest the results of any presidential election he fails to win — and any House or Senate election his preferred candidate fails to win," Tribe told Salon by email. "Trump has even retweeted his agreement with the absurd and indeed radically anti-constitutional claim by Jerry Falwell Jr. that Trump’s first two years as president were 'stolen' from him by the supposedly illegitimate Mueller probe into Russia’s attack on the 2016 election. The 'argument,' though I hesitate to call it that, claims that Trump is 'owed' an extra two years as 'reparations' for the distraction of the investigations into what went awry in 2016."

Tribe added: "History teaches that would-be dictators should be taken at their word when they declare an intent to remain in power regardless of election results. That’s a strong reason for patriotic citizens of all political persuasions to work toward an electoral landslide that would minimize Trump’s opportunity to cling to power. But nothing could reduce the probability of that abnormal behavior on Trump’s part to zero. If Trump refuses to leave, even judges appointed by him could well align with the legitimate winner’s predictable request for an emergency injunction to pry him from his lair in the White House. If Trump defies judicial orders to give up power — including the nuclear codes — there could well be a military coup, backed by tens of millions of citizens taking to the streets, leading to Trump’s forcible ouster. Failing that, there might be a massive popular uprising, backed by Fox along with the other cable networks and social media platforms, that could well erupt in terrible bloodshed. However, one defines a 'constitutional crisis' — a much-overused term — Trump’s refusal to abide by the electoral outcome would certainly qualify as such a crisis."

Lichtman also told Salon he questions the wisdom of Pelosi's approach of not wanting to impeach the president.

"Nancy Pelosi seems to think history celebrates not Catherine the Great, but Catherine the Faint-Hearted. She is leading the Democrats down the fool's path of playing not to lose and of being afraid — a path that has always caused Democrats to lose. This is a truly turning point — historic moment in the history of the United States. We have a rogue president. She's absolutely right about that, but we have a rogue president who cannot be checked by what Nancy Pelosi is proposing," Lichtman said. "The only way to check this president is to hold him accountable, to strike at his power and his brand — and that can only be done by beginning an impeachment investigation. The argument that the House should not impeach because the Senate might not convict is constitutionally unsound, politically unsound and morally bankrupt. It is not the responsibility of the U.S. House to look into a crystal ball and figure out what the Senate may or may not do."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a professional writer whose work has appeared in multiple national media outlets since 2012 and exclusively at Salon since 2016. His diverse interests are reflected in his interview, including: President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (1999-2001), animal scientist and autism activist Temple Grandin, inventor Ernő Rubik, comedian Bill Burr ("F Is for Family"), novelist James Patterson ("The President's Daughter"), epidemiologist Monica Gandhi, theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, voice actor Rob Paulsen ("Animaniacs"), mRNA vaccine pioneer Katalin Karikó, philosopher of science Vinciane Despret, actor George Takei ("Star Trek"), climatologist Michael E. Mann, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (2013-present), dog cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson (2012, 2016), comedian and writer Larry Charles ("Seinfeld"), Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman (2000), Ambassador Michael McFaul (2012-2014), economist Richard Wolff, director Kevin Greutert ("Saw VI"), model Liskula Cohen, actor Rodger Bumpass ("SpongeBob Squarepants"), Senator John Hickenlooper (2021-present), Senator Martin Heinrich (2013-present), Egyptologist Richard Parkinson, Rep. Eric Swalwell (2013-present), media entrepreneur Dan Abrams, actor R. J. Mitte ("Breaking Bad"), theoretical physicist Avi Loeb, biologist and genomics entrepreneur William Haseltine, comedian David Cross ("Scary Movie 2"), linguistics consultant Paul Frommer ("Avatar"), Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (2007-2015), computer engineer and Internet co-inventor Leonard Kleinrock and right-wing insurrectionist Roger Stone.

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