Will Trump leave peacefully?

Americans are justly proud of our history of the peaceful transition of leadership following elections.

Scores of nations can’t make that boast, about their past or about their present. Street demonstrations with hundreds or thousands of citizens protesting the refusal of leaders to hand over power to duly elected successors are commonplace on today’s TV news broadcasts. Sometimes the protests devolve into violence, with police, army or paramilitary armed forces trying to roll back angry citizens.

It’s not as though controversial transitions have been unknown in the United States. 

In the 1824 election, with four candidates seeking the presidency, no one won a majority of the popular or the electoral vote, although Gen. Andrew Jackson led both categories.

The other three candidates were Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford and Speaker of the House Henry Clay. 

Under the Constitution, when no candidate wins a majority of the electoral votes, the selection goes to the House of Representatives. 

The Constitution also states that in that situation, the House shall select the president from among the three candidates with the most electoral votes. So Clay, who had the fewest electoral votes, had to drop out. As he did so he threw his support to Adams, with whom he agreed on several national issues.

As speaker of the House, Clay commanded great influence in that body, and his support for Adams carried the day despite Jackson’s lead in both the popular and the electoral vote. 

The situation was ripe for public outrage, especially given Jackson’s personal popularity in the western states. And Jackson’s supporters were further enraged when Adams appointed Clay as secretary of state, generating cries of a “corrupt bargain” between the two.

And Jackson’s strength was particularly great with the military, whom he had commanded during the War of 1812 and more recently in battles with Native American tribes.

But despite potentially tinderbox conditions, Adams succeeded President James Monroe with no threat of violence. The Constitution’s provisions for succession remained unshaken. 

Jackson had to wait until 1828 to be elected with no controversy.

We’ve had other instances of disputed elections, for instance in 1876 between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden and in 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore. In both cases the eventual loser received the most popular votes, as was also the case in the 2016 election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

But in each case the losers accepted their defeat after the final decision was made, by the Electoral College, the Supreme Court or Congress.

Therefore I’ve been pretty shocked to hear recent rumblings that if President Trump were to lose a close and controversial election in 2020, he might try to retain his office.

Let me say up front that I don’t share that view. Trump has given no indication that he would take steps unilaterally to declare the election null and void, nor that he would try to overrule a Supreme Court decision that declares him the loser. Nor do I think the military would back him up on such a claim.

Some of Trump’s fringe supporters have recently tried to gin up the theory that Democrats are conspiring to steal the 2020 election. They don’t say how such a thing could be accomplished. 

But Trump still claims he actually won the popular vote in 2016 after what he calls “millions of illegal votes” are discounted. He offers no specifics about where those illegal votes were voted.

In any event, he appears to be setting the table for accusations of illegality by his supporters in 2020 just in case the election is close.

I sat in on a recent get-together of a dozen longtime political analysts in Iowa, including respected journalists, former officeholders and seasoned party leaders. I was startled when the topic of the presidential succession came up. Several in the group expressed their concern that Trump might try to hold on to power if he loses.

If that concern gains traction across the nation in coming months, Republican leaders, and Trump himself, should dispel the idea promptly. 

Given the intensity of feeling on both sides in today’s politics, nothing good can come from allowing the idea to fester.

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