Leading Republicans have sought to quell fears that Donald Trump could stoke violence in an attempt to cling to power if he loses the US presidential election – though they stopped short of rebuking Trump directly.
The president sparked fresh anger and disbelief on Thursday after he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday evening, before renewing a baseless complaint about mail-in ballots.
“Get rid of the ballots and we’ll have a very peaceful … there won’t be a transfer, frankly – there’ll be a continuation,” he said, referring to voting by mail instead of in person during the pandemic, and his chances of re-election.
It was one of Trump’s most stark and chilling warnings yet that he has no intention of conceding defeat to Democratic rival Joe Biden in November, raising fears of weeks of chaos and even an inauguration day in January 2021 that could see both men expecting to be sworn in.
Hillary Clinton, beaten by Trump in 2016, tweeted: “Trump’s refusal to commit to the peaceful transfer of power is the behavior of a desperate would-be dictator who’d cling to office even if it meant destroying our democracy. It’s pathetic. But because he is the president, we should take his threat seriously.”
Some Republicans, long criticised for allowing and enabling Trump to trample on political norms, did seek on Thursday to reassure the public that, in the event of a Biden victory, the transfer of power will go ahead.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, tweeted: “The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792.”
Senate judiciary committee chairman Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally and golf partner, told Fox News: “I can assure you it will be peaceful. Now we may have litigation about who won the election, but the [supreme] court will decide and if the Republicans lose, we will accept that result. But we need a full court.”
Graham is a key figure in the congressional confirmation process for Trump’s supreme court nominee, to be announced on Saturday, to replace the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the sole Republican to vote to remove Trump from office at his impeachment trial earlier this year, drew comparisons with a crisis in Europe, tweeting: “Fundamental to democracy is the peaceful transition of power; without that, there is Belarus. Any suggestion that a president might not respect this Constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable.”
They were joined by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Congresswoman Liz Cheney, chair of the Republican conference in the House of Representatives and daughter of former Republican vice president Dick Cheney.
“The peaceful transfer of power is enshrined in our Constitution and fundamental to the survival of our Republic,” Cheney posted on Twitter. “America’s leaders swear an oath to the Constitution. We will uphold that oath.”
But there were alarming signs of dissent on the Republican side. Thomas Massie, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, tweeted ominously: “In the spring, stores sold out of hand sanitizer and toilet paper. This fall, they sold out of ammo.”
Trump, who trails Biden in national opinion polls, has long sought to cast doubt on the integrity of the election, claiming that mail-in voting would be rife with fraud. This has been debunked by numerous studies.
A record number of Americans are expected to vote by mail this year to avoid spreading or catching Covid-19. Polls suggest, however, that Democrats are more likely to use this method than Republicans.
Trump recently floated the idea of postponing the election because of the pandemic, which he has no constitutional power to do. Similarly, on that occasion, McConnell and other Republicans were swift to dismiss the idea.
His latest attempt to stoke fear and instability led to an incredulous Biden asking reporters: “What country are we in? I’m being facetious. I said, what country are we in? Look, he says the most irrational things. I don’t know what to say.”
Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, told CNN of the president: “This man has no honesty, honor, values or faith in the American system.”
The American Civil Liberties Union also registered its concern. David Cole, national legal director, said: “The peaceful transfer of power is essential to a functioning democracy. This statement from the president of the United States should trouble every American.”