Why many Americans fear Donald Trump is preparing to ‘steal the election’

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But the streets are deserted outside the US Capitol building where up to a million people were expected to gather. The benches are empty of ­dignitaries. The Lincoln Bible is locked away in a vault. Instead of standing on the dais at noon to swear in the new President, the Chief Justice is buried under reams of legal paperwork in his Supreme Court chambers. Outside the courthouse a crowd of 250,000 people shout in angry protest: ­warring factions clashing with flying fists and placards as soldiers and tanks struggle to keep them apart.

Less than three miles away inside the White House sits Donald Trump, defeated in the November presidential election – but refusing to leave.

This surreal nightmare scenario, ­unthinkable in modern history, in recent days has taken several chilling steps toward becoming a dystopian reality, as America now asks itself: What happens if Donald Trump loses the election, but won’t go?

Trump confessed in mid-July that he might not accept the results of the election set for November 3, less than 100 days away.

“I have to wait and see,” he said, raising the spectre of declaring himself the winner despite electoral votes to the contrary.

“I’m not going to just say yes, I’m not going to say no.”

Trump shocked the nation on Thursday, suggesting that the ­election be postponed, allowing him to hold on to power indefinitely.

“Delay the election,” he said, claiming – without a shred of evidence – that postal ballots will lead to “the most fraudulent election in history”.

And Trump, aged 74, has ­spoken repeatedly about extending his presidency beyond his two-term limit of 2024, even into the next decade, for up to “16 years”, ignoring the fact that this would be illegal.

Trump praised Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan when they extended or eliminated fixed terms, and hailed China when it removed the two-term limit on its presidency in 2018.

“He’s now President for life,” Trump said of Xi Jinping. “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”

Trump could win November’s election, of course. But as he trails in every major poll, the US economy nose-dives and Covid-19 deaths top 155,000, critics fear that a ­vanquished President could adopt the stance taken by dictators, emperors and czars before him, refusing to relinquish power.

“This President is going to try to steal this election,” says his Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden, aged 77. “It’s my greatest concern.”

A Trump defeat holds the potential for “a complete electoral meltdown and the unrest and violence it could unleash”, says Amherst College professor Lawrence Douglas, author of the recent book Will He Go? which ­envisages the President digging in his heels.

Denying the election results could be easy for the President who had consistently ­rubbished scientifically proven dangers of coronavirus and global warming, and ­conveniently refused to accept the evidence of Russian interference in his unexpected 2016 election victory over Hillary Clinton which was uncovered by 17 US intelligence agencies.

Critics accuse Trump of repeatedly flouting democratic norms by undermining an ­independent judiciary, a free press, the equal powers of Congress, and rules against self-dealing, while displaying the barest ­minimum of truth-telling. “This President is a wannabe dictator,” says Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters, of California, citing Trump’s unprecedented recent use of the US military to attack and seize peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon.

“What’s going on… is practice for what could happen with the President if he decides that he’s not going to step down and he’s going to stay in the White House.”

Tony Schwartz, co-author of Trump’s bestselling book The Art of The Deal, says: “He’s a psychopath. Anything goes for Trump. The minute he leaves office his life, for all ­practical purposes from his perspective, is over. Losing that is unthinkable. Trump will do everything he possibly can to steal this election.”

Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Adam Smith, says: “There’s a zero percent chance that he would gracefully transfer power. The best we can hope for is that he would ungracefully transfer power.” But the worst-case scenario is that Trump refuses to leave office, inciting armed resistance by his ­supporters, possibly bringing America to the brink of civil war.

If he loses to Biden by a narrow margin, many fear that Trump could claim the election was rigged by fraudulent postal ballots and Chinese election interference. Never mind that Trump and almost every member of his family have happily used postal ballots in the past.

This is the same conspiracy-loving Trump who claimed in 2016: “The election is absolutely being rigged… there is large-scale voter fraud.” Although that was before he won by the ­narrowest of margins.

Trump’s latest protestations of electoral corruption set the stage for a coup in the event that he loses, ­critics claim. While he remains President, Trump has an array of powers he could abuse to continue in office.

He could declare a Covid-19 related state of emergency to ban polling stations in battleground states from opening, experts fear. He could even invoke emergency ­powers and, with the compliance of Republican legislators, stay in the White House while tying up the outcome of the election in lengthy court battles.

Americans “are exhausted, neck-deep in cynicism, decline, and distrust”, says State Department veteran Peter Van Buren. “And scared. There are no facts any more, only what people can be made to believe.”

Joe Biden trusts that the US military will evict Trump from the Oval Office if he refuses to leave: “I am absolutely convinced they will escort him from the White House with great dispatch.” House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat and the third most senior American leader after Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, says that if Trump “doesn’t feel like moving” then he “has to be fumigated out of there”.

Yesterday top Republicans weighed in to reject Trump’s suggestion. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said no US presidential election had ever been delayed before – and it would not be in 2020.

“Never in the history of this country, through wars, depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time,” he said. “We will find a way to do that again this November 3rd.”

Leading Republicans took a rare stand, rebuking Trump. Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who leads the House Republican Conference, said: “The resistance to this idea among Republicans is overwhelming.”

Even Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham said a delay was “not a good idea”.

But former Pentagon official and Georgetown Law professor Rosa Brooks cautions that if the poll does go ahead and Trump doesn’t like the ­outcome, the US Army may back him while he squats in the White House.

“It’s really hard for anyone in the military, at any level, to say anything other than ‘Yes, sir!’ They’re not lawyers,” she says.

For Trump, staying in the White House is about far more than retaining power. The moment he leaves office he loses his presidential immunity from criminal prosecution, and could face jail.

Though the Senate cleared him of impeachment charges in February, Trump is likely to face criminal charges for illegally withholding $391million in military aid to Ukraine, coercing Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son, and obstructing justice. Trump has also been accused of dodging taxes and accepting illegal campaign contributions. His inaugural committee allegedly accepted improper foreign ­contributions and “grossly overpaid” to rent space in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC. The Trump Organization is also under investigation for the alleged ­misuse of charitable assets.

If an out-voted Trump contests the election result to the Supreme Court, as happened when George W Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000, the judicial bench, now loaded 5-4 in favour of Republican-appointed judges, could snatch a Trump victory from the jaws of defeat.

Could Trump be stocking up the White House with siege supplies and ­sandbagging the Oval Office windows?

Says Professor Rosa Brooks: “Reactions have gone from, ‘Don’t be silly, that won’t happen,’ to an increasing sense of, ‘You know, that could happen…’”

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