One of the most foundational principles of this republic is the peaceful transfer of power from one presidential administration to the next.
Stretching across this country's history, every presidential candidate has accepted the outcome of an election. Not only have defeated incumbents voluntarily packed up and left, they have without exception prepared the way for their successor, recognizing the duty to country that surpasses party and personal regrets.
That may be in jeopardy now. President Donald Trump, asked point blank at a news conference whether he would unequivocally commit to a peaceful transfer of power, refused to do so, saying, "We'll have to see what happens."
He also attacked the legitimacy of the election process, saying authorities should "get rid of the ballots," and that if they did so, "there wouldn't be a transfer [of power], frankly. There will be a continuation."
This idea that the only legitimate and acceptable outcome is his re-election has become a dominant theme for Trump.
Supporters have tried to dismiss or downplay his statements. They shouldn't. This is part of a continuing thread, and Trump's comments should be taken seriously. His continuing efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the election process itself are a cue to his base to reject any outcome that fails to end in his re-election.
"It is totally unprecedented," said Eric Janus, constitutional law expert at Mitchell Hamline Law School and former president and dean of William Mitchell Law School. Controversy and uncertainty about elections is not uncommon, he said, "but we have always had an orderly transfer."
For those who put their faith in the Constitution, Janus has words of warning: The Constitution, he said, "is just a piece of parchment with writing on it. It is only as strong as our practices and norms make it. ... What is so destructive about the president's behavior right now is he is undermining norms built piece by piece for over 200 years. It is incumbent on all of us, and in particular on all of our leaders, to speak up very forcefully in support of those norms."
That is precisely why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's perfunctory assurance that the winner of the Nov. 3 election would be inaugurated on Jan. 20 falls short of the mark. McConnell and others have sought to reassure that an orderly transfer will take place without denouncing the president's assaults on the integrity of the electoral system.
Asked about the safety of voting by mail — a necessity in the midst of a pandemic — FBI Director Christopher Wray, testifying under oath Thursday before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said, "We have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it's by mail or otherwise."
Others have noted again and again that there simply is no evidence of such fraud. But instead of putting the matter to rest, Wray's testimony only elicited personal attacks from the White House directed at Wray, a Trump appointee. These are all disturbing signs that should not be dismissed lightly.
"Our democracy depends on a strong set of informal norms that we all agree on, no matter what our political persuasion," Janus said. "Everyone has to be speaking up. Leaders have to be speaking up. Republicans need to be speaking up. We need to speak with one voice, that we are watching, and will ensure every vote is counted and that the will of the people is carried out."