I have written this piece for Slate. It begins:
As President Donald Trump plans a triumphant State of the Union address anticipating his likely acquittal by the Senate, the White House is reportedly awash in a sense of invincibility.
Trump’s certainty that he simply cannot lose could have a real impact on this year’s election. Since assuming office in January 2017, Trump has made at least 27 references to staying in office beyond the constitutional limit of two terms. He often follows up with a remark indicating he is “joking,” “kidding,” or saying it to drive the “fake” news media “crazy.” Even if Trump thinks that he’s only “joking,” the comments fit a broader pattern that raises the prospect that Trump may not leave office quietly in the event he’s on the losing end of a very close election. And unfortunately this possibility is only one of a number of potential election meltdowns we may face in November….
The 2020 election is expected to be a close one, and it could give Trump an opening to emulate his authoritarian role models. During the 2016 election, he playfully suggested he would not accept the results of the election if he was on the losing end. As I recount in my book Election Meltdown, Trump refused to promise to abide by the results if he lost to Hillary Clinton, relying on his claim of a rigged or stolen election. On Oct. 20, 2016, at a rally in Delaware, Ohio, he declared: “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to make a major announcement today. I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters, and to all the people of the United States, that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election—if I win.” His dramatic pause before “if I win” was followed by Trump pointing to the crowd and offering a big smile so that everyone knew that this was his punchline.
Trump also has a tendency to describe results of elections he doesn’t like as “rigged” or “stolen.” In a Jan. 25, 2017, interview with ABC News’ David Muir, Trump claimed without evidence that 3 million to 5 million illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election, more than the popular vote victory of his rival Hillary Clinton: “And I will say this, of those votes cast, none of ’em come to me. None of ’em come to me. They would all be for the other side.”
There are a few possible scenarios that could test whether Trump might try to remain in office even if he loses, a possibility raised first by national security expert Joshua Geltzer a year ago and explored further by Dahlia Lithwick and Geltzer in September.
For example, imagine if the 2020 election comes down again to Pennsylvania’s 20 Electoral College votes. Pennsylvania recently adopted a new law allowing for no-excuse absentee balloting. Election officials expect a crush of absentee ballots, which take longer to count. Trump declares victory when he is ahead in Pennsylvania on election night, but the results of the election would not be known for days. There is reason to believe that later-counted ballots tend Democratic, and it is possible that Trump’s lead would evaporate thanks to the “blue shift” of ballots. Trump could claim that any change in the vote totals going against him is the result of Democratic “voter fraud,” an unsupported claim he has made dozens of times as well, focusing on heavily Democratic areas full of minority voters like Philadelphia.
This could happen in other states besides Pennsylvania, such as Michigan. Indeed, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and local election officials are trying to get permission to start the absentee ballot count early to prevent delays in announcing results.
We saw Trump try to prematurely call an election in 2018, as the Florida Senate and governor’s races came down to just a few thousand votes. He tweeted: “The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible—ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!” There was no proof of “massively infected” ballots or a dishonest vote count.