WASHINGTON - As President Donald Trump, backed by his army of attorneys, has laid groundwork to undermine an election result that does not cast him as victor, Republican lawmakers found themselves in the astonishing position Thursday of having to reassure Americans there would be a peaceful transition of power should he lose.
The Republican-controlled Senate went so far as to pass a resolution saying as much. Meanwhile, amid the furor over Trump's latest, most brazen remarks, it became clearer just how the constitutional crisis could play out should the president be defeated and persuade his allies to join him in rejecting the vote tallies.
Such a crisis still seems unlikely; Trump's success in such a scenario would hinge on his persuading Republican-controlled legislatures in swing states to embrace his unfounded claims of fraud. Yet voting experts worry should the election result be close.
The anxiety intensified Wednesday, as Trump declared he would not commit to a peaceful transition if some states continue to send all registered voters mail-in ballots, which is the law in several places.
According to a report in The Atlantic, the campaign has spoken with at least one Republican leader in Pennsylvania about the possibility of citing voting irregularities to reject a win by former Vice President Joe Biden there and have the state legislature direct the state's electors to back Trump. It's a strategy Trump could also pursue in other states.
"Unfortunately, the risk of this kind of thing happening has increased," said Ned Foley, an election law scholar at Ohio State University who has researched how such a scenario could unfold.
The Trump campaign is not disputing the strategy is under consideration.
"If we think it's being stolen, we're going to fight like hell," a senior campaign official said Thursday, while adding that Trump is not planning to try to hold on to power if he loses fairly. "I think that's what the president was saying. But I think November could be a really bad month for this country."
The president's pronouncements are worrying even some in the Pentagon, after he said earlier this year that he planned to deploy a massive show of force by law enforcement on Election Day, in what he described as national poll-watching effort.
No law allows the president to authorize such force for domestic use, but Trump's recent deployment of the National Guard to clear protesters outside the White House has raised concerns about how he would respond to postelection protests. If Biden is certified the winner and Trump refuses to leave office, military commanders would confront a heretofore unimaginable situation, taking orders from a disputed commander in chief even as his foes look to them to help remove him.