That Donald J. Trump is refusing to give a concession speech, the only candidate in modern history not to do so, should not have come as a surprise. From the day in 2015 when he first launched his bid for the presidency by talking about “rapists” and “drug dealers” from Mexico, and then through the four years of his corrosive, divisive presidency, Trump has proved immune to the bounds of decency or what might normally be considered “presidential” behavior.
And he telegraphed his unwillingness to admit defeat when he visited his campaign office in Virginia on Tuesday, Nov. 3, just hours before the polls closed. “Winning is easy. Losing is never easy,” he told his staffers, most of them unmasked and crowded together. “Not for me it’s not.”
In the days leading up to the official call of the election on Saturday, when Joe Biden crossed the 270 Electoral College vote threshold and recorded 75 million popular votes, the most of any candidate in American history, the Trump campaign filed more than half a dozen lawsuits challenging the results, with more expected to come.
And Trump, even as the votes against him continued to mount, stuck to his stance that he was not losing the 2020 presidential race. On Thursday, when it looked increasingly clear that Biden was on his way to victory, MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson confirmed that Trump aides were having a hard time deciding who would break the news to the president. “I had one person close to the White House tell me, ‘No one is willing to tell King Lear the truth,'” Jackson, MSNBC’s White House correspondent, told her colleague Stephanie Ruhle.
On Friday morning, when it looked like the networks were on the verge of calling the election for Biden, Kaitlan Collins, CNN’s White House correspondent said that she too had been told that Trump was unlikely to concede, and discussions were being held among his aides as to how to convince him to do so. “I’m actually being told by sources that, in recent days, the president has said he has no plans to concede this election to Joe Biden, even if his path to victory is effectively blocked, which it could be by a Biden win in Pennsylvania or in somewhere like Georgia,” Collins said. “But despite that the president has said that he has no plans to concede this election as he has continued to push this baseless claim that the election is being stolen from him.”
On Saturday morning, Trump doubled down on his defiance, tweeting as he headed for the golf course a message of victory that was immediately flagged by Twittter:
I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2020
Later in the day, once the Biden victory was called, his legal team continued to assert they would challenge the election, with Trump surrogates fanning out to the various Fox channels and Rudy Giuliani holding a bizarre press conference in the parking lot of a Pennsylvania landscaping company that was quickly parodied on Saturday Night Live.
Does it matter that Trump refuses to concede?
There, of course, is no Constitutional requirement that an incumbent president concede an election he has lost. But Timothy Naftali, a history professor at New York University recently told Time magazine there were important symbolic reasons to do so. “Rituals have a purpose, and traditions have a purpose,” Naftali said. “The reason here is that what you want most of all is for the person who’s elected to be viewed legitimately by all Americans as their head of state. And if you have a candidate who doesn’t concede, it’s as if he’s saying, to in this case over 70 million people, ‘You were cheated.’”
There have been some memorable concession speeches in recent years, from Al Gore’s in 2000, when the Supreme Court handed the presidency to George W. Bush, to Hillary Clinton speaking movingly in 2016 about not being able to “shatter that highest and hardest glass ceiling” but acknowledging the Electoral College had decreed a different outcome and that the country must accept it. “I still believe in America and I always will,” she told her supporters. “If you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”And in 2008, after a bitter campaign against Barack Obama, John McCain pledged his heartfelt support for the first Black man to be elected president of the United States. “In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance.” McCain said, adding, “I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.”
We can expect nothing like that from Donald Trump in the days and weeks to come.
Instead, the president, the first incumbent to lose a re-election bid since George H. W. Bush in 1992, vows to fight on. In a statement issued on Saturday, shortly after Biden was declared the new president-elect, Trump said Biden was trying to “falsely pose” as the winner. “The simple fact is this election is far from over,” the president said, “Beginning Monday, our campaign will start prosecuting our case in court to ensure election laws are fully upheld and the rightful winner is seated.”
So far, almost every legal expert—even a few who have appeared on the normally Trump-friendly Fox News—have agreed there is no credible evidence to suggest that any voter fraud has occurred.
Of course, the election isn’t entirely official until Dec. 14, when the Electoral College meets to formally certify the 2020 results. States allow the popular vote to determine the appointment of electors, but the Trump administration could try to persuade Republican state legislatures and governors to send alternate or additional electors. Then it would be up to Vice President Mike Pence, the Senate president, to figure out what to do with the doubled-up votes. If, for some reason, neither candidate got the required 270, the decision goes to the House. There, each state delegation gets one vote; currently, in 27 states, a majority of delegates are Republican. That is a nightmare scenario not seen since the 1876 contest between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden, and not one that anyone really expects to happen in 2020.
But how how far will Trump take his refusal to accept the election results? Vanity Fair reports that some members of his inner circle are fearful that Trump might actually refuse to leave the Oval Office, denying his defeat to the bitter end. “A few members have reportedly grown worried that, eventually, someone will have to sit Trump down and explain that little Donny’s not going to be president anymore—and at this point, it seems unlikely anyone will be able to get through to him short of slapping him across the face and screaming, ‘YOU LOST! IT’S OVER!'”, the magazine wrote in an online piece last week. “Yes, this is an actual thing allies of the president of the United States are actually grappling with.”
The Biden campaign has voiced little concern at the prospect of Trump clinging to power. “As we said on July 19, the American people will decide this election,” campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. “And the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.”
So, when all is said and done, it appears likely that the Trump presidency will end not in tragedy but in farce.Rachel Maddow perhaps summed it up best on MSNBC on Saturday, after Joe Biden had been declared the new president-elect and Donald Trump, playing golf at the time, continue to insist he had a actually won the election.
Saying that she had expected that Trump might refuse to concede, no matter the outcome, and that she had initially feared what that unprecedented historic moment would feel like, Maddow said her actual reaction was much different.
“I thought it would be scary or, at least, it would feel like it would sort of shake the foundations of the republic a little bit for the incumbent president, who is still the commander in chief of the military, who still commands the executive branch of the United States government, for him to defy an election result and say, ‘No, no, no, I’m still president,’” Maddow told her MSNBC colleague Lawrence O’Donnell.
“Now that Trump is in fact doing it,” she added, “it just feels laughable; it feels small and pitiful and irrelevant.”