Even those who’ve come to expect the worst from Donald Trump were taken aback this week when he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in the event of an election defeat. The president added that if officials would simply “get rid of the ballots,” there would be “a continuation” of his hold on power.
Not surprisingly, reporters had a few questions about this at yesterday’s White House press briefing. Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany had a specific phrase she used several times.
“The President will accept the results of a free and fair election…. The President will accept the results of a free and fair election. He will accept the will of the American people. I’ve answered your question. He will accept the results of a free and fair election.”
At first blush, this may have seemed like a satisfying resolution. The United States will soon administer national elections — indeed, in much of the country, voting is already underway — in a free and fair system, and according to the president’s chief spokesperson, the Republican incumbent is committed to accepting the results.
But the phrasing matters: McEnany didn’t say Trump would honor the results of our elections; she instead added caveats and fine print, insisting that he would only honor the results of “a free and fair election.” The problem, of course, is that this posture leaves it up to the president to decide what he considers “free and fair” — and he’s already told Americans he considers his own country’s system to be “rigged.”
In other words, Trump still hasn’t committed to the peaceful transfer of power that’s been a hallmark of the American system for more than two centuries.
Indeed, not long after the press briefing wrapped up, the president himself told reporters during a brief Q&A, “We want to make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be.” (In his next breath, Trump whined a bit about Hillary Clinton for reasons that weren’t entirely clear.)
All of which leaves us in a difficult position: Trump touched off a crisis of sorts on Wednesday, and the White House doubled down on his position a day later.