What if Trump Refuses to Concede Defeat in 2020 Presidential Elections?

Amr Abdelatty | 09 Aug 2020

The relentless efforts made by Donald Trump, the President seeking to win a second term in the presidential elections on 3 November 2020, to question the legitimacy of those elections, his repeated statements about the possibility of fraud, and the lead by his Democratic opponent Joe Biden against him in most national public opinion polls, raise the question about the scenarios of rejection by Trump of his loss in the November 2020 elections. This question has become the focus of attention of strategists in the Democratic Party and many legal experts after the President avoided providing explicit answers to this question until now, which leads to an unprecedented test of US democracy since the foundation of the United States.

Trump's failure to admit his loss in the upcoming presidential elections would be the first such case in US history. In previous presidential elections, in which the win and loss ratios between Republican and Democratic contenders were close, such as John F. Kennedy's defeat of Richard Nixon in 1960, or Bush's defeat of Al Gore in 2000, the losing candidate admitted losing those elections.[1]

The odds of Trump’s defeat in the 2020 elections

Many indicators and assessments indicate that in case the situation continues as it is at present, without sudden and unexpected events that will tip the balance overnight, the Democratic candidate Joe Biden will be the winner of the next presidential elections, especially at a time when the Trump administration is facing many failures at the external level with the continuing spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, the decline in economic growth, and the rise in unemployment rates to levels unprecedented in US history since the events of the Great Depression in the 1930s, in addition to the failures of the President's handling of the wave of demonstrations and protests that many US states are witnessing in the wake of the killing of African-American George Freud in late May 2020, not to mention Trump's multiple failures to achieve an important foreign policy achievement to be credited with, together with a decline in the US role and position globally in favour of its competitors and strategic opponents (Russia and China).

Estimations expect that if the presidential elections were held today (that is 90 days before their scheduled date on 3 November 2020), the Democratic candidate Joe Biden would obtain 297 votes in the Electoral College, whose total number of delegates is 538 votes, an increase of 27 votes over the number he needs to win the White House position.[2]

In all national public opinion polls, the Democratic candidate is ahead of his Republican rival. In the average national polls of RealClearPolitics website, Biden is nearly nine points ahead of Trump, the largest gap at this point in the race by any candidate since Democratic President Bill Clinton's re-election campaign in 1996.[3]

Democratic politicians and most neutral observers believe that Trump's criticism of the upcoming presidential elections, and his claim that they will be the least accurate and most fraudulent in history if the mail-in voting system is adopted, and his call on 30 July 2020 to postpone them until voters are able to vote appropriately, safely and securely (which is what he retracted the next day after Republican and Democratic rejection), are primarily a product of his fear of losing the November 2020 elections and an attempt by him to frustrate potential Biden voters or create grounds to contest the outcome of those elections if he loses them.

Signs that Trump may not admit his loss

There are several indications that President Trump may not admit his loss of the presidential elections to his Democratic rival Joe Biden. The first of those indications is the statements made by the President himself, and his failure to provide an explicit answer to the question of what if he loses the upcoming presidential elections? During an interview with the US Fox News Channel (which is loyal to him and the Republicans in general), on 19 July 2020, the US President refused to pledge to recognize the results of the elections if he lost them. In response to a question about whether he intends to refuse to acknowledge the results of the elections if he loses them, he said that he does not like to lose. Then after being pressured about whether he will accept the results of the November 2020 elections, he said: “I have to see. . . I’m not going to just say ‘yes’. I’m not going to say ‘no’".[4]

What Trump said during his meeting with the US news channel contradicts what was said by his re-election campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh who confirmed in a statement after statements by the Democratic candidate Biden that Trump would not leave the White House if he lost the elections, that “President Trump has been clear that he will accept the results of the 2020 election".

This was not the first time that Trump announced that he would not accept the outcome of the presidential elections. He had previously said during his last television debate against his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections that he was not sure that he would accept the outcome of that elections if he lost them.

The second indication that leads to the expectation that the US President will not admit to losing the next presidential elections in the event that this happens is related to his statements that his loss of the elections would be the result of the fraud witnessed in them. In a tweet by Trump on his Twitter account on 22 June 2020, he mentioned that he might lose the elections scheduled for November 2020 due to fraud. He argued that voting by mail in the elections, proposed by the Democrats as an alternative option in light of the continuation of the Covid-19 pandemic, may lead to electoral fraud. In the same month, he said that the presidential elections this year would be "the most corrupt election in our nation’s history". According to statistics from the Washington Post newspaper, the President has attacked the voting by mail at least 50 times.[5]

The third of those indications relates to the echoing by Trump's supporters of his allegations of fraud in the upcoming presidential elections, most notably Attorney General William Barr (head of the US Department of Justice), who claimed that foreign governments might snatch the elections with fake mail.[6]

The fourth indication is related to the prediction by Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer and a former confidant, during a hearing, that Trump would not leave the White House if he loses the elections. He said: "Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power".[7]

Possible scenarios

The failure by the Democratic candidate to win an overwhelming majority over his rival Trump, who is seeking to win a second presidential term, and expectations that the election results would be announced days or months after the day of the vote, given the expected large increase in mail-in ballots in light of the continuation of the Corona pandemic until the election date on 3 November 2020, will make it unlikely that the election results would be announced on election night. In addition, the indications that support expectations that Trump will not admit to losing the elections will put the US in front of four possible scenarios, as follows:

First scenario: Trump announces his victory in the presidential elections. Trump may announce his winning of a second term in the presidential elections before all votes are counted in many states, which may take days or weeks due to voting by mail, especially if the margin of victory between the two candidates is very small in favour of Trump. Pro-Trump media outlets will widely spread news of his victory. However, the situation will change after the mail-in votes are counted and the announcement of Biden's victory, especially that many of the supporters of the Democratic candidate will vote by mail, even as the Democrats lead campaigns to urge voters to vote by mail in light of expectations that the pandemic will continue until the autumn.

The announcement of the US President’s loss in the elections after having announced his victory, and his multiple statements about losing the elections as a result of fraud, and the augmentation of that message by the right-wing media, may inspire extremist Trump supporters to engage in violence and chaos, especially in light of the division within the US following the protests it has been witnessing against hatred, police violence and the absence of social justice.

Second scenario: Trump appeals against the presidential election results. This scenario is expected by politicians in the Democratic Party. The House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on her party to prepare for the possibility that President Trump will challenge the election results. The President is expected to challenge the election results in more than one state in the event of losing the elections. This would be a huge judicial task that would delay the announcement of the presidential election results for months.

This scenario would plunge the US into a legal war ranging between weeks and months over valid votes that must be included in the counting process. Thus, democracy would be subject to a more difficult test than the one it was subject to during the 2000 presidential elections, when voters waited for weeks to find out whether the Democratic candidate Al Gore or Republican candidate George W. Bush was the winner of those elections. They fought a fierce legal battle over vote counting in Florida that was eventually referred to the Supreme Court.

Within such a scenario, it is expected that the presidential elections in 2020 will witness the kind of protracted legal battle that had been witnessed by the US 20 years ago until the day the new President is inaugurated, and that the Supreme Court will be resorted to for determining the election results.

Third scenario: Republican legislatures ratify pro-Trump election results. The US Constitution gives US state legislators the freedom to decide on how to choose delegates in the Electoral College that chooses the President. Nearly all states require delegates to vote in accordance with the electorate’s choice on voting day.

In light of the delay in announcing election results in many states due to voting by mail and the President's questioning of the election results and the possibility of fraud, the legislature with a Republican majority in states controlled by Democratic governors such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (with 46 delegates in the Electoral College) may choose delegates that support Trump, while the governors may endorse the election results that are in favour of the Democratic candidate, which would create a crisis not witnessed by the US except in 1876, which may be referred to the Supreme Court.[8]

Fourth scenario: US President Donald Trump refuses to leave the White House on 20 January 2021, after losing the elections. This is a possibility that was publicly discussed by the Democratic candidate Biden. He said in June 2020 during an interview with the Daily Show programme that President Trump "is going to try to steal this election”. He added that he is convinced that if Trump loses the elections, he will not leave office, which would require the intervention of the military commanders who have sworn to protect the US Constitution.

However, the US Constitution clarifies the method for a smooth and peaceful transfer of power. Article Two stipulates that the President shall hold office for a period of four years. The Twentieth Amendment of the Constitution stipulates that the President's term ends at noon on 20 January, thus beginning the presidential term for the new President. This means that President Trump will lose his constitutional authority immediately and automatically upon expiration of his term at noon on 20 January 2021. He would not have the authority to direct Secret Service personnel or federal agents to protect him. Likewise, he would lose his authority as the commander in chief of the armed forces to order a military response to defend him.

In fact, the new President will possess those presidential powers which he may use to direct federal agents to forcibly remove Trump from the White House as on the afternoon of 20 January 2021, he would become a private citizen and would no longer be immune from criminal prosecution. Indeed, he could be arrested and charged with trespassing in the White House.[9]


Donald Trump's failure to accept the results of the presidential elections that will be held on 3 November 2020, in the event that he loses them and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden wins and he does not leave the White House on 20 January 2021 for the new elected President, will subject US democracy to a test that is unprecedented in US history. This prompts many to expect that the US will witness a political struggle in the event that most leaders of the Republican Party at the national level and in the major states, conservative media outlets such as Fox News support Trump's claims, and the Republican President continues to seek to mobilize his base around those allegations.

* Researcher in US Affairs.


[1] Elise Viebeck and Robert Costa, Trump’s assault on election integrity forces question: What would happen if he refused to accept a loss?, The Washington Post, July 22, 2020, accessible at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-assault-on-election-integrity-forces-question-what-would-happen-if-he-refused-to-accept-a-loss/2020/07/22/d2477150-caae-11ea-b0e3-d55bda07d66a_story.html

[2] Max Boot, What will Trump do to win? Here are nine possible October surprises - and one November surprise, The Washington Post, August 4, 2020, accessible at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/08/04/what-will-trump-do-win-here-are-nine-possible-october-surprises-one-november-surprise/

[3] 100 Days Out: What Polling Can Tell Us, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2020, p. A6.

[4] Felicia Sonmez, Trump declines to say whether he will accept November election results, The Washington Post, July 19, 2020, accessible at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-declines-to-say-whether-he-will-accept-november-election-results/2020/07/19/40009804-c9c7-11ea-91f1-28aca4d833a0_story.html

[5] Elise Viebeck and Robert Costa, Trump’s assault on election integrity forces question: What would happen if he refused to accept a loss?, Op. Cit.

[6] Amy Gardner, Election officials contradict Barr’s assertion that counterfeit mail ballots produced by a foreign country are a ‘real’ worry, The Washington Post, June 2, 2020, accessible at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/election-officials-contradict-barrs-assertion-that-counterfeit-mail-ballots-produced-by-a-foreign-country-are-a-real-worry/2020/06/02/5ac8d664-a43e-11ea-b619-3f9133bbb482_story.html

[7] Barbara McQuade, What Would Happen If Trump Refused to Leave Office?, The Atlantic, February 22, 2020, accessible at: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/02/what-if-he-wont-go/606259/

[8] Lawrence Douglas, What if Trump loses but refuses to leave office? Here's the worst-case scenario, The Guardian, Jul 27, accessible at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/27/trump-loses-election-what-happens-possibilities

[9] Barbara McQuade, What Would Happen If Trump Refused to Leave Office?, Op. Cit.


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