WASHINGTON — President Trump declined an opportunity on Wednesday to endorse a peaceful transfer of power after the November election, renewing his baseless warnings about extensive voting fraud before saying there would be no power transfer at all.
Asked whether he would “commit here today for a peaceful transferral of power after the November election,” Mr. Trump demurred, passing on a chance to call for a calm and orderly election process.
“We’re going to have to see what happens,” he told a reporter during a news conference at the White House. “You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.”
“I understand that, but people are rioting,” responded the reporter, Brian Karem of Playboy magazine, who repeated the question.
“Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation,” the president said. That was an apparent reference to mail-in ballots, which for months he has railed against, without evidence, as rife with fraud and likely to produce a delayed, tainted or outright illegitimate election result.
Mr. Trump’s refusal — or inability — to endorse perhaps the most fundamental tenet of American democracy, as any president in memory surely would have, was the latest instance in which he has cast grave uncertainty around the November election and its aftermath. Democrats are growing increasingly alarmed as Mr. Trump repeatedly questions the integrity of the vote and suggests that he might not accept the results if he loses.
Earlier on Wednesday, Mr. Trump said he needed to swiftly confirm a successor for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg because he expected disputes over the election result to be resolved by the Supreme Court, which could split 4-to-4 if a ninth justice is not seated.
“He’s threatening the election process and saying out loud what everyone has assumed he’s been thinking,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of American political history at Princeton University. “The more he makes these arguments, the more he normalizes the fact that this can be part of the conversation.”
“Even if meant to distract, these are powerful words to come from a president,” Mr. Zelizer added. “He’s clearly accelerating his effort to set up a challenge to an outcome that is unfavorable to him.”
Hours after Mr. Trump’s assertions, Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, expressed alarm over the comments on Twitter. “Fundamental to democracy is the peaceful transition of power; without that, there is Belarus,” Mr. Romney wrote. “Any suggestion that a president might not respect this Constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable.”
Mr. Trump’s remarks are a continuation of a long series. During an interview with Fox News in July, Mr. Trump similarly demurred when pressed by the network’s anchor, Chris Wallace, to “give a direct answer” about whether he would accept the election results regardless of the outcome.
“I have to see,” Mr. Trump said. “No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time, either,” he added, referring to his similar equivocation before the 2016 election, which he warned might be stolen from him.
Even after his election that year, Mr. Trump falsely insisted that he had lost the popular vote only because millions of immigrants ineligible to vote had cast ballots for his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
In this campaign, Mr. Trump has primed his supporters to believe his defeat is possible only through what he has called a “rigged” or “stolen” election. “The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election,” Mr. Trump said last month during the Republican National Convention.
Mr. Trump has also long joked about retaining power beyond yasal limits, making frequent mention of serving beyond January 2025, when the Constitution — which limits presidents to two terms — requires that he leave office.
In 2018, after China’s Communist Party announced the end of a two-term limit for its presidency, Mr. Trump said at a closed-door fund-raiser that China’s authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping, would be “president for life.”
“I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday,” Mr. Trump said, to cheers from his supporters.
In July, Mr. Trump even floated the idea of delaying the November election — a suggestion that lacks kanunî authority — although he dropped the notion after Republicans criticized it.
Mr. Trump did not elaborate on his Wednesday comments, in part because he abruptly ended his news briefing to take what he called “an emergency phone call,” without offering further information. The White House did not provide further comment or explanation.
The once-unthinkable notion that a president might refuse to accept the results of an election and leave office without resistance has become an increasingly major theme in the 2020 campaign.
This month, Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, warned that Mr. Trump might contest the election result and seek to maintain his grip on power.
“What we have got to do in the next two months is to alert the American people about what that nightmarish scenario might look like in order to prepare them for that possibility and talk about what we do if that happens,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview with Politico.
David Cole, the national kanunî director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that Mr. Trump’s comments “should trouble every American.” “The peaceful transfer of power is essential to a functioning democracy,” he said.
Yet the president’s remarks were a jarring contrast to the conventional words of his own attorney general, William P. Barr, just a day earlier.
“What this country has going for it more than anything else is the peaceful transfer of power, and that is accomplished through elections that people have confidence in,” Mr. Barr, an outspoken opponent of widespread voting by mail, said during a news conference in Milwaukee on Tuesday in response to a question about mail-in ballots.
“And so we should be doing everything to support that confidence,” he added.