WASHINGTON — Democrat Joe Biden's campaign is trying to win at the ballot box. President Donald Trump is maneuvering to hold power.
The president has long hinted at the basic asymmetry of his goals and Biden's, and on Wednesday he again refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power regardless of the count of votes.
"Well, we're going to have to see what happens," Trump said. "We'll want to have — get rid of the ballots and you'll have a very — we'll have a very peaceful — there won't be a transfer, frankly. There'll be a continuation."
It was unclear whether the president was referring simply to the mail-in ballots he's criticized in the past, or a broader range of votes.
At the same time, his friends, family and political advisers are advocating for voter intimidation and violence after the election, and Trump is racing to confirm a new Supreme Court justice in short order, which could safeguard his re-election if the battle ends up in litigation.
"When Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will start," longtime Trump adviser Michael Caputo, a senior political appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a video posted to his Facebook page this month.
His words complemented those of Roger Stone, the political counselor whose prison sentence Trump commuted in July, who said recently that the president should institute martial law to remain in office if he loses.
Both men predicted a Trump victory, but cited the same unfounded notion that Democrats would "steal this election" that Donald Trump Jr. used as his premise for encouraging every man and woman who supports the president to form an "army for Trump's election security operation." The elder Trump has repeatedly told his backers to try to vote twice, while also leveling unsupported accusations that his political opponents will engage in election fraud.
The doubt Trump has cast on the results of an election that hasn't yet occurred — and the threats his allies have issued to keep him in power by force if necessary — is worrisome to both Democrats and democrats. The prospect of his rhetoric turning off GOP voters in hotly contested congressional elections is troublesome for Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.
"Given that Trump is pre-emptively crying 'fraud' and refusing to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power should he lose, this is the chronicle of an election debacle foretold," said Kimberly Theidon, a professor of international humanitarian studies at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Theidon drew a parallel between Trump and former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, whose 2000 election she monitored. Fujimori won in a vote that the international community treated as illegitimate, and ultimately gave up power months later.
"Watching him control the media, the judiciary and having staged an early 'auto-coup' forms the backdrop for my deep concerns — what changed the outcome of his fraudulent win was domestic outrage and international monitoring," Theidon said. "In light of Trump's increasingly authoritarian tendencies, we can learn from similar electoral machinations elsewhere. There needs to be electoral monitoring by an international organization — the U.N. and the Organization of American States are two entities that come to mind."
A key tenet of democracy, said Mike Abramowitz, executive director of Freedom House, a research and advocacy nonprofit, "is that politicians respect the electoral process and the will of the people. There is nothing more anti-democratic than a leader who refuses to concede defeat," he added, calling reports alleging the president's campaign might be setting the stage to contest election results in key battleground states "highly concerning." (NBC News has not confirmed this reporting.)
"The American people need to be prepared that we very well may not know the outcome of the election night because of the massive amount of mail-in votes this year," he said. "All of us who care about our democracy must demand that every single vote be counted and every single leader be committed to a peaceful transfer of power."
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that Trump is emulating strongmen in other countries and should start acting like the leader of this nation.
"You are not in North Korea, you are not in Turkey, you are not in Russia, Mr. President," Pelosi said. "You are in the United States of America. It is a democracy. So why don't you just try for a moment to honor your oath of office to the Constitution of the United States?”
Americans have seldom had to grapple with the question of whether a peaceful transfer of power would occur following an election. The most tenuous window in presidential election history came after the 1876 vote, when contested results in Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina and Oregon — white supremacist Democrats had intimidated Black voters across the Southern states — prevented either candidate from winning a clear majority of electors.
A divided Congress appointed a commission to decide the outcome. The commission chose Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. With threats of a second civil war looming, Senate Democrats threatened to filibuster the decision to stop the new president from being sworn in on Inauguration Day in March 1877. That forced a negotiation and the Compromise of 1877, which brought an end to Reconstruction in the South.
The White House issued a statement saying Trump meant that he wouldn't lose the election, not that he wouldn't accept the result. But he has said before that he doesn't believe it's possible for him to lose a legitimate election — that there is no scenario under which he has to give up power on Jan. 20.
"The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged," he said at a rally in Wisconsin last month.
Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis rejected the idea that Trump could find a way to stay in power despite losing an election as "a fantasy." Moreover, he said, the president is hampering his own efforts to win by casting doubt on the validity of the election.
"It hurts him," Kofinis said. "It says in an implicit way to his voters that 'we may lose.'"
Senate Republicans, who are in danger of losing their own majority, scrambled to draw a bright line around Trump Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
"There will be an orderly transition," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. said.
The real question is whether Trump can disrupt an orderly election.