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The Question I Asked Trump That Blew Up the Week

I was surprised by his answer about a peaceful transfer of power. I shouldn’t have been.
September 25, 2020
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(Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

It was not supposed to be a difficult question.

In fact, it shouldn’t have to be a question at all.

The transitions between presidential terms—from one re-elected president’s first term to his second, from one president to a successor of the same party, and from one president to a successor of a different party—have been peaceful and orderly since the Founding, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted in a tweet on Thursday:

Barton Gellman’s recent story in the Atlantic, published online on Wednesday, brought renewed attention to a concern that has bubbled through the press corps for months: What would President Donald Trump do if he lost the November election? Would he concede in a gentlemanly fashion? Would he scream rant and rave? Would he slink away in the middle of the night?

With all of the speculation, the question deserved to be asked directly to the man. There have been enough things said behind his back and endless guessing and gaming, but I was unaware of anyone giving Trump the chance to speak on the issue himself—so why not ask him?

Wednesday during a press conference in the Brady Briefing Room, President Trump called on me and I asked him if he would endorse a peaceful transfer of power “win, lose, or draw.” He wouldn’t give an unqualified yes to that question. He also said if you eliminate the ballots (I suppose meaning mail-in ballots) there would be no transition.

The following day on the South Lawn he doubled down with reporters, telling them what he told me: “We’ll see.

Kayleigh McEnany, the press secretary, had assured the press in a briefing that occurred about an hour before Trump’s departure that the president would “accept the results of a free and fair election.” But Trump has already said the election, which hasn’t occurred yet, is a fraud. And it doesn’t matter what the press secretary said anyway, because Trump himself contradicted her shortly thereafter—once again proving that the truth is fluid in Trumpworld and any press briefing by McEnany is pointless.

Sadly that’s the state of affairs in American politics in 2020. It would never occur to me to ask this question of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, or any other president I’ve covered. It has always been taken for granted that one of the greatest things about our country, one of the things that has separated us from the banana republics, Communist nations, dictatorships, and fascist states is that we hold our heads up high, no matter what, and soldier on peacefully with a transition of power from one administration to the next.

We have often even monitored other countries—and in some cases enforced our will on them—to maintain stable governments and assure the peaceful transition of power. Do we now need monitors in our own country to ensure the same?

Trump is again, as he has for four years, sowing the seeds of divisiveness—and there is plenty of speculation as to why.

He has been accused of a variety of nefarious activities that could lead to criminal charges once he is out of office.

He has a boy-band crush on Russian President Vladimir Putin and has been quoted musing and scheming about a possible third term in office because he believes he deserves a do-over for reasons that escape most people with a brain stem.

The world is now aware of what we are up against in the United States as the countdown to the November election continues.

Trump will not go gentle into that good night. And even if he’s forcefully removed or does slink away shaking his fist and cursing his fate, it isn’t Trump we ultimately need to be concerned about.

Trump has triggered his faithful. Those zealots who truly believe Trump is the second coming, the light-bringer, the man who can solve all problems, are ready to take up arms against their fellow human beings to defend a man who bragged about grabbing women by their genitalia and recommended we ingest a disinfectant to cure a viral infection.

These people are convinced that if Trump loses it means the fix is in and Joe Biden will personally knock down their doors to confiscate their guns—though they also firmly believe Biden is “sleepy” and won’t leave his basement.

When I asked Donald Trump if he would accept a peaceful transfer of power, I was surprised that he called on me in the press briefing, and called on me first—but I was especially surprised at his answer. I should not have been.

This close to the election, I thought, Trump, one of the most effective campaigners and the least effective president I’ve ever known, would be trying to avoid self-inflicted wounds, or the odd unforced error. But Trump is full of surprises and lives up to his proclamation that he is the “most transparent president in history” every day he’s in office.

Make no mistake. Sitting 20 feet away from Donald Trump and watching him tell us he would not guarantee one of the basic tenets of our democracy, it was clear to me it was no mistake. It was no joke. Trump is serious, ignorant, and arrogantly telling us what we should already know: It’s going to take a crowbar, Congress, the Supreme Court, and couple of large guys with no chins to pry him out of the White House.

He doesn’t care the cost. He’s scared to death that his next domicile, should he leave the White House, will be a smaller enclosed dwelling shared with lots of guys dressed in orange, some gray steel bars, and a lumpy cot for a bed.

That’s one scene Trump won’t want to make.

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.