What happens if Trump refuses to concede US election now Biden has won?

US will enter uncharted territory if the president refuses to leave White House 

Joe Middleton
New York
Tuesday 17 November 2020 17:21
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Biden warns 'more people may die' if Trump refuses to co-operate on transition
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Joe Biden has won the 2020 US election, but Donald Trump is determined to stay in power.  

Mr Trump falsely declared victory on the night of the election and vowed to go to the Supreme Court to stop vote counting - confirming some Americans’ worst fears that he would undermine the democratic process. 

Now that Mr Biden has won the US election, what happens if the president refuses to leave the White House?

This isn’t the first time the question has become one of national importance: Each time the president has suggested he will only accept the results of an election if they were in his favour, media outlets have explored the constitutional limits he would face in disputing his dismissal from the Oval Office.

Mr Biden has prepared his own army of attorneys and constitutional law experts to counter the president's legal challenges on everything from expanded mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic to alleged instances of voter fraud, which Mr Trump has claimed without evidence.

Mr Biden has insisted federal officials “will escort [Mr Trump] from the White House with great dispatch” if he loses the election. 

Follow live: Latest Trump news and updates

The Democrat took the lead over Mr Trump in the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Nevada on 7 Nov., winning the White House.

According to the Associated Press’s latest count, Mr Biden won 290 electoral votes, defeating Mr Trump, who won 214. 

What’s perhaps most concerning about the president refusing to concede is how the country lacks precedent for dealing with such a scenario.

The peaceful transition of power is a bedrock of American society, and in past examples of contentious elections, resolutions had been made long before any refusal to concede. 

In the past, when the presidency was in any way contested, cooler heads have prevailed in the interest of the peaceful transfer of power.

Two people embrace in Atlanta, Georgia

Richard Nixon conceded to John F Kennedy in 1960 amid several accusations of vote rigging for the Democrat, for instance. Vice president Al Gore accepted the Supreme Court’s ruling that George Bush had won the 2000 presidential election even though there were significant questions about the integrity of the results in Florida.

Paul Quirk, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, previously told The Independent it would put law enforcement in an awkward position.  

“At some point, the question would become: whose orders do law enforcement obey? Because it would ultimately become a matter of the use of force in one direction or another.”

The US constitution makes no mention of how a president should be removed if they lose an election and refuse to hand over power to their opponent. So, it is hard to say if anyone would have the appetite to send the FBI, or navy seals, or whatever law enforcement agency, storming into the West Wing to arrest a recently defeated Donald Trump.

Read more: How many US presidents have lost out on a second term?

Joshua Sandman, a professor of political science at the University of New Haven, said he did not think Mr Trump would ever refuse to leave office after an election because it would destroy the president’s legacy.

Still, he suggested intense congressional and political pressure would force Mr Trump out of office quickly.

“The first line of defence would be the congress, and his party pressuring him out, telling him he must resign or leave,” Mr Sandman says. “If he wants to stay in the White House, he would stay in the White House. But, again, hypothetically you don’t need that. The White House is symbolic. It’s not a seat of power, necessarily.”

He adds: “All of these are, it’s sort of a work of science fiction. It’s all hypothetical.”

In an interview with The Independent in 2019, Ross Baker, an American political expert at Rutgers University in New Jersey, made a chilling prediction of what would happen if Mr Trump lost re-election by a very narrow margin.

He imagined a scenario where the popular vote was won by less than 1 per cent nationwide, and where there was a near tie in the electoral college. On 4 November 2020, America could wake up to tweets from the president calling the previous day’s results a fraud, and saying there is no way he did not win by huge margins. Meanwhile, Fox News would be welcoming pundit after pundit toeing that presidential line.

Should that happen, Mr Baker said he imagined a scenario in which the House of Representatives got to decide the electoral college based upon each state’s delegation

“It would certainly be a constitutional crisis to the first magnitude,” Mr Baker he said.

The margins by which Mr Biden defeated Mr Trump appear wide enough to prevent Mr Baker’s nightmare scenario. 

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