In October 2016, senior staff in the Obama White House discussed what they should do if Hillary Clinton won the November election and Donald Trump refused to accept the result as legitimate. They had cause to be worried. At that time, Trump had openly speculated that the election might be “rigged.” During his final debate with Clinton on October 19, he said that his opponent “should never have been allowed to run” and declined to answer the question of whether he would concede. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” the Republican nominee said.
“It wasn’t a hypothetical,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s senior aide and speechwriter, told Intelligencer. “Trump was already saying it on the campaign trail.”
The Obama White House plan, according to interviews with Rhodes and Jen Psaki, Obama’s communications director, called for congressional Republicans, former presidents, and former Cabinet-level officials including Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, to try and forestall a political crisis by validating the election result. In the event that Trump tried to dispute a Clinton victory, they would affirm the result as well as the conclusions reached by the U.S. intelligence community that Russian interference in the election sought to favor Trump, and not Clinton. Some Republicans were already aware of Russian interference from intelligence briefings given to leaders from both parties during the chaotic months before the election. “We wanted to handle the Russia information in a way that was as bipartisan as possible,” Rhodes said.
The existence of the postelection plan has not been previously reported. A July 2017 op-ed by Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, refers to Obama directing his staff to “prepare possible responses” to claims of Russian interference in the election.
Psaki said the plan was one of a larger set of “red-teaming” conversations to address how the White House should respond to postelection scenarios that did not have any historical precedent. “There was recognition that we had a Democratic president who was quite popular but also divisive for a portion of the population,” she said. “For them, just having him say the election was legitimate was not going to be enough. We didn’t spend a lot of time theorizing about the worst thing that could happen — this isn’t a science-fiction movie. It was more about the country being incredibly divided and Trump’s supporters being angry. Would there be protesting? I don’t want to say violence, because we didn’t talk about that as I recall.”
Trump’s blurring of the lines between the illegal, the unfair, and the merely unfavorable has continued with his rhetoric around the ongoing probe into his campaign, which he has called a “hoax,” “one of the great scandals in the history of our country,” and “truly a cancer in our country.” He has described Robert Mueller’s investigation as “illegal” and a “Witch Hunt … in search of a crime … not allowed under the LAW!”
Not that the question is entirely a retrospective one. Psaki also said she had doubts that Trump would go quietly if he were to be impeached. “I don’t think there is any indication to suggest that if that’s where things headed, he would accept it,” she said. “He’s laying the groundwork for delegitimizing the process now — questioning our institutions, attacking their leadership. This is all fodder for his supporters to work with in the event that things go down a dark path for him.”
Rhodes said he didn’t know how Trump would respond to impeachment. “It’s a really interesting question,” he said. “At a minimum, he could choose to implore his supporters not to accept the result. Given that 30 to 35 percent of the country believes whatever he says, and his enormous public megaphone, you could foresee a scenario where that would lead to a fairly worrisome political situation.”