Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the 1876 presidential election ended in a compromise.
U.S. President Donald Trump is doubling down on claims that the upcoming election could be rigged, leading experts to sound the alarm over what could be the country’s first non-peaceful transition of power.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Trump would not commit to a peaceful transfer, should he lose to Democratic candidate Joe Biden on Nov. 3.
“Well we’re going to have to see what happens,” he said. “You know that I’ve been complaining about the ballots, the ballots are a disaster.”
“There won’t be a transfer, frankly,” he said. “There’ll be a continuation.”
On Friday, Trump again sowed doubt about the election results, saying the only way he would lose is “if there’s mischief.”
“And it’ll have to be on a big scale, so be careful,” he said during a campaign rally. “And we do want a very friendly transition, but we don’t want to be cheated and be stupid.”
Trump has repeatedly claimed that the use of mail-in ballots amid the novel coronavirus pandemic will result in a “rigged election,” despite experts saying the practice is safe.
Matthew Lebo, chair of political science at Western University said he was “not surprised” by Trump’s comments.
Lebo said he has a “really hard time believing” that Trump will concede if he loses.
“I don’t expect that at all,” he said.
Lebo explained that after the votes are counted by the states, the results are presented to a joint session of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.
“The vice-president — who is also the president of the Senate — will receive the electoral votes. They each will have been certified by the different states,” he explained, “And if there’s more than 270 of those electoral votes for Biden, then that makes Biden the winner, at that point would Donald Trump say ‘congratulations’ or would he say, ‘no, I was cheated?'”
Lebo said Senators can challenge the results from each state.
“It could be that there’s a state where Joe Biden had the most votes and Donald Trump says ‘no, lots of people in that state cheated, and if they hadn’t cheated, I wouldn’t have won, and therefore that state’s electoral votes should count for me.'”
He said if Republicans agree, then the issue may be taken up by the courts.
However, if it takes longer than until Jan. 21 to determine a winner, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will become president, Lebo explained.
The most peaceful way we could see a transition of power is if Biden wins by a large enough margin that “convinces Republican elites that they cannot support Trump.”
He said if Trump loses and is unable to provide evidence that there was widespread cheating, Republicans will have to force him out.
“It’s going to be up to the Republicans to say ‘no, you lost, it’s time to go,’ and then welcome President Biden,” he said.
“And that’s a funny thing to imagine.“
But, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a tweet on Thursday, said the winner of the election will be inaugurated on Jan. 20.
“There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792,” he wrote.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, too said a peaceful transition of power is “fundamental to democracy.”
“Any suggestion that a president might not respect this Constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable,” he wrote in a tweet Wednesday.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune also weighed in, saying “Republicans believe in the rule of law.”
“And we believe in the constitution,” he wrote. “The constitution is very clear about what happens after the election.”
Chris Edelson, an American University professor told the New York Times Trump’s comments represented a unique threat to democracy.
“It’s impossible to underscore how absolutely extraordinary this situation is — there are really no precedents in our country,” he told the paper.
“This is a president who has threatened to jail his political opponents,” he said. “Now he is suggesting he would not respect the results of an election. These are serious warning signs.”
Lebo echoed Edelson’s remarks, saying this would “absolutely” be an unprecedented situation.
He said in 1876 the U.S. saw a “messy election” that resulted in “compromise” that ended Reconstruction, which was northern occupation of southern states following the Civil War.
But Lebo said nothing similar has happened for more than 100 years.
Only one U.S. presidential election, the 2000 contest between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, has had its outcome determined by the Supreme Court.
Lebo said Gore “could have” contested the results in Florida again, but he chose not to, instead conceding to Bush.
However, Alex Conant, a Republican strategist, told the Los Angeles Times the idea of a president refusing to leave office after losing is “obviously alarming,” but that he doesn’t think many Republican officials think that it is a “serious threat.”
“This is more about spinning a loss than trying to maintain power,” he told the paper. “But comments like this will not help him with the election. It’s motivating to Democrats and a turnoff to suburban swing voters who just don’t like the chaos of Trump’s presidency.”
“If this election is about Trump refusing to leave office if he loses, Republicans are going to get crushed.”
If Trump refused to leave the office would the military step in?
In a letter last month, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. armed forces will have no role in carrying out the election process or resolving a disputed vote.
“I believe deeply in the principle of an apolitical U.S. military,” Milley said in written responses to several questions posed by two Democratic members of the House Armed Services Committee.
“In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law, U.S. courts and the U.S. Congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the U.S. military,” he wrote. “I foresee no role for the U.S armed forces in this process.”
What’s more, U.S. Navy Capt. Brook DeWalt, a spokesman for the Pentagon told CNN on Thursday: “The Department of Defense does not play a role in the transition of power after an election.”
–With files from the Associated Press and Reuters