President Donald Trump is for the first time publicly declaring a “delay”
WASHINGTON – They met virtually on Zoom, four days out of two weeks in June, to hold simulations known in the military and intelligence communities as “war games”.
There were 67 players – many of them high-profile critics of President Donald Trump – including law professors, retired military officers, former senior US officials, political strategists and lawyers.
Instead of mapping a geopolitical conflict, the group looked ahead to the November 3 election, less than 90 days away, and explored how the race between Trump and Joe Biden could turn into a post-election crisis.
John Podesta, a former senior aide to President Barack Obama and former Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton, played Biden. Two outspoken Republican critics of Trump, David Frum and Bill Kristol, played the president.
After elaborating various scenarios, the group said its conclusions were “alarming”: in an election that took place amid a pandemic, recession and growing political polarization, the group found a substantial risk of battles. lawsuits, a disputed outcome, violent street fights and even a constitutional impasse.
“We assess with a high degree of probability that the November elections will be characterized by a chaotic legal and political landscape,” the Transition Integrity Project, which organized the “war games”, said in a report this week.
“The winner may not be known, and we believe likely not to be, on ‘election night’ as officials count the ballots in the mail,” the report said. “This period of uncertainty offers an opportunity for an unscrupulous candidate to question the legitimacy of the trial and to organize an unprecedented assault on the outcome.”
Trump predicts an ‘election disaster’
In the six weeks since the tabletop exercises, the organizers of the group said their fears of a messy outcome have only grown. Last week, Trump pitched the idea of delaying the election, even though it was quickly rejected by both Democrats and Republicans. And as several states seek to expand mail-order voting due to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has repeatedly warned of fraud, suggesting that this year’s presidential run will be the “biggest election disaster in history.”
“He’s trying to create as many pre-narratives as possible to assert that the results aren’t legitimate,” said Nils Gilman, who co-founded the Transition Integrity Project last fall with Rosa Brooks, professor of law and politics. at Georgetown University.
“He wants to create fear, uncertainty and doubt so that people feel frozen and paralyzed, and then the man of action, Trump himself, can step in and seize the moment,” said Gilman, a scholar at the Berggruen Institute. a think tank focused on governance.
In its 22-page report, the Transition Integrity Project warned of tactics Trump could employ to stop ballot counting in the mail: lawsuits calling for injunctions, closure of the U.S. Postal Service, or censorship and seizure order. deemed fraudulent.
Yet, while concerns were primarily centered on actions Trump might take, the project found that a scenario where Biden narrowly loses the constituency while winning the popular vote could lead to outrage on the left, resulting in mass protests that they challenge the election result and perhaps even the impasse.
In addition to Podesta, Frum and Kristol, attendees included former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile, former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele, and former Michigan Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm.
How will the candidates, the media and the bureaucracy react?
Participants interpreted the consequences of four scenarios: a decisive victory by Biden, a narrow victory for the Democratic candidate, a close election victory for Trump but a popular vote loss of 5 percentage points and the possibility that the outcome remains in doubt. for weeks due to a deluge of mail order votes.
They split into groups – representing Biden’s campaign, Trump’s campaign, the media, federal bureaucracy including military, Democratic officials, and Republican officials – and predicted how they thought each would react after the election.
Every scenario, save for a landslide victory by Biden, ended in violent protests and a constitutional crisis.
“The goal was to clarify what might happen,” said Brooks, a former Defense Department official. “We don’t have a chance to say, is there a 1% chance that these negative results will occur or an 80% chance? But the collective wisdom is that they have a high enough chance that we can’t afford not to think about them at least. “.
Describing one of the most dire scenarios, the group said a constitutional impasse could occur if the Trump or Biden campaign exploited legal ambiguities in battlefield states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and North Carolina that have Democratic governors and Republican-controlled states. . Legislatures.
If branches of opposing states certified competing voter lists, it would lead to a situation unprecedented in modern US history.
Review of the 1876 elections
Legal experts compared a similar scenario to the 1876 election, when Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, beat Democrat Samuel Tilden after both parties in three states, Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana, had initially won victories. Hayes emerged the winner after appeasing the Southern Democrats by agreeing to withdraw federal troops from the South and ushering in the end of the Reconstruction.
Under federal law, voters meet on December 14 to cast their states’ votes for president and vice president. Congress then meets on January 6 to count them. Historically, it’s a formality, but conflicting lists would put Congress in the middle of a fight.
Edward Foley, a war games legal advisor, said the “real risk” would arise if Congress were divided, as it is today. He envisioned a situation where Vice President Mike Pence, acting as President of the Senate, says the vote is complete and Trump has been re-elected and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says he is not.
“If it turns out that there are real partisan fighting in battlefield states after election night, it could get very complicated,” said Foley, a professor of election law at Ohio State University.
The date to watch: January 6th
Leftist circles often ponder what would happen if Trump openly refused to leave the White House even if he were considered the underdog.
The Transition Integrity Project predicted that the military or intelligence would escort the president on January 20 if Congress named Biden the winner on January 6 and Trump refused to accept the result. But war games never got to this point. The biggest problem, the group said in its report, is getting through January 6 without a deadlock.
“Outside of this war game, we have seen role players exercise power in no uncertain terms,” said retired Major General Paul Eaton, a 30-year-old military officer and senior adviser to Vote Vets, an alignment group. progressive who defends military veterans.
He said he felt “a naive boy” because he expected “political protocols” and “normal” behavior to regulate the outcome. “But in the last three years we have seen anything but normal behavior on the part of the president of the United States.”
Attorney General William Barr, who echoed Trump’s concerns about voting by mail, told the US House Judiciary Committee last week that he himself will step down if “the results are clear.” But Barr said he “has no reason to think” that the elections will be rigged.
Ari Fleischer, former press secretary of President George W. Bush, denounced a scenario spread by the Transition Integrity Project: that Trump, asking for help from the Justice Department or the post office director, could try to take the cards in the mail.
“It strikes me in the Trump era to be one of the most irresponsible statements I’ve ever heard,” said Fleischer, who was not part of the war games. “I’m perfectly willing, and I often do, to criticize Donald Trump, but this is pernicious. This is beyond calling. You talk about being divisive.”
He called the suggestion that Trump might not accept the election results “dangerous”.
“Where is the evidence that this is what Trump is going to do according to his accusers? If the results are clear, the results are clear,” Fleischer said.
Fleischer said that not accepting results is different from not conceding a goal in an extremely tight match, such as the one in 2000 when Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore. The biggest risk to the 2020 election, he said, is not Trump rejecting a result, but that the rush boils down to absent votes in a handful of states unaccustomed to large-scale postal voting.
Feelings of “illegitimacy” could surround the election
A study by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group found that nearly 1 in 4 voters – 22% of Democrats and 21% of Republicans – said a certain amount of “violence” would be justified if the candidate they do not support wins the House. Bianca.
Nearly a third of Americans, 29%, said it would be appropriate if Trump loses but refuses to step down because he claims he has credible evidence of illegal voting. Increasing numbers of Democrats, 58 percent, said it would be wise to ask for an electoral replacement if Biden wins the popular vote but loses the constituency.
“It indicates the illegality that would surround the election,” said Larry Diamond, a senior member of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who helped lead the study.
Brooks acknowledged that the simulations were “totally artificial in a million ways”. For starters, he said it is possible that players, by taking part in a betting-free game, have pushed the limits further than would actually happen. But he said it was the best they could do to simulate real-world circumstances in real time.
“More likely than not,” he said the US will have “more or less normal elections” in November with the loser conceding.
But Brooks said: “Events are likely to unfold very quickly after election day. Those who have thought about what can be done and what the legal options are, and so on, are in a much better position than they are. who think, ‘Oh that probably won’t come out.’ “
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