The final countdown

Can Trump stage a coup and stay for a second term as president?

Supporters of President Donald Trump protest in front of the Clark County Election Department after the Nov. 3 elections, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in North Las Vegas, Nev.
Supporters of President Donald Trump protest in front of the Clark County Election Department after the Nov. 3 elections, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in North Las Vegas, Nev. AP - John Locher

Ten days after Election Day in the United States, no state has officially finished counting votes. Results could still change, even though some media outlets have announced the victory of one candidate or the other. Incumbent President Donald Trump is trying everything to turn the tide, with some of his fiercest critics accusing him of planning a coup d’état. So, does Trump have a chance of a second term after all?


Remember this? At the end of that nail-biting election night, viewers all over the world watched as Joe Biden’s lead in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Texas diminished and shifted to Donald Trump. In the end, just a handful of states were “too close to call,” and Trump, eager to go ahead, declared victory in a rambling press conference at 7am GMT.

Then, in quick succession, Michigan and Illinois turned Democratic blue. In a controversial move, right-wing Fox News “called” the State of Arizona for Biden, earning the scorn of the Trump campaign, which reportedly ordered Fox owner Rupert Murdoch to change the call. In vain. Associated Press and many other press organisations followed suit. 

If Trump is in the White House on 21 January, sitting in the Oval Office holding on to the desk, they're probably going to handcuff him and take him out.

PODCAST: Herman Mark Schwartz University of Virginia talks about the election aftermath

Today, Biden’s lead in Arizona – then a comfortable 68,390 – stands at just 11,434 votes, and Republicans have not given up hope that Trump can still win the so-called Copper State. 

Turning point

The Fox News "award" of Arizona to Biden marked a turning point, and things started to unravel for the president. 

“News organisations have no legal authority to do anything that determines the outcome of the election,” Professor Herman Mark Schwartz, a political scientist with the University of Virginia told RFI.

Fox News calling Arizona for Biden may have been a political statement. “Fox owner Rupert Murdoch was sending a message from the big-business, boat-owning part of the Republican Party – which doesn’t like Trump’s policy craziness and erratic behavior – to the voters with lower education, evangelical Christians,” showing the split within the Grand Old Party. 

Trump, furious, tweeted that Fox “forgot what made them successful, forgot what got them there. They forgot the Golden Goose,” presidential support leading Trump followers to embrace the ultra-conservative TV station Newsmax.

Pro-Biden CNN finally called Arizona on 13 November, with most of the votes counted. Arizona may have been the last hope for Trump to put a dent in Biden’s projected victories.

Constitutional crisis?

Victory announcements by news organisations aside, Biden will be entitled to call himself president only after governors of all 50 states have signed their state’s Certificate of Ascertainment.

On 14 December, the state electors will then vote for the president and the vice-president. Only on 6 January 2021, will Congress meet in a joint session to count the electoral votes, thus making the new presidency official. 

But, warns Edward Foley, author of a scarily accurate prophecy “Preparing for a Disputed Presidential Election,” published in 2019, things can still turn against Biden. 

Foley correctly predicted that the battleground states Arizona and Pennsylvania would face a ‘blue shift’ resulting in legal attacks from the Republicans that would, eventually, reach Congress “where it potentially might metastasise into a full constitutional crisis.” 

Nuclear codes

He adds that “the most frightening scenario is where the dispute remains unsolved on 20 January 2021,” when the new president is supposed to be inaugurated, “and the military is uncertain as to who is entitled to receive the nuclear codes as commander-in-chief”.

Trump is doing everything he can to derail the process. Not very successfully until now: most of the 13 lawsuits the Trump campaign launched in 6 different states where thrown out of court due to lack of evidence.

"These cases are largely a joke, and there's very little legal standing,” according to Professor Schwartz, who says that a judge compelled some Trump lawyers, threatened with possible disbarment, to admit that Republican observers were present at the vote-counting process. In another case, an observer testified that he had been offered a sum of $130,000 if he would say that he had witnessed instances of voter fraud.

Legislators getting involved?

Trump will not be able to fight the outcome at the level of the Electoral College in each individual state. 

Two weeks before the elections, Senator Jake Corman and House Representative Kerry Benninghoff, both Republicans, and both from the crucial battleground state of Pennsylvania, wrote a letter in the Central Daily Times saying that “the Pennsylvania General Assembly does not have and will not have a hand in choosing the state’s presidential electors or in deciding the outcome of the presidential election,” stressing that “the only and exclusive way that presidential electors can be chosen in Pennsylvania is by the popular vote. The legislature has no hand in this process whatsoever.’’ 

The US Capitol, where on 6 January 2021 Congress will count the votes cast by the electors cast three weeks earlier.
The US Capitol, where on 6 January 2021 Congress will count the votes cast by the electors cast three weeks earlier. ASSOCIATED PRESS - Mark Tenally

Generally, the phenomenon of “faithless electors” is dealt with by a law making it illegal for an elector to vote against any state popular majority, after the 2016 elections, where six electors shifted allegiance. 

The last resort: call in the army

Critics fear that Trump may play one last card: using possible civil unrest to send in troops and seize power. 

Over the past week, Trump has overseen a rapid succession of changes in the military leadership, “terminating” Defense Secretary Mark Esper, firing the Pentagon’s top policy official James Anderson, and the Deputy Chief of Staff to the Defense Secretary Alexis Ross. Joseph Kernan, the agency’s top intelligence official, and Jen Stewart, outgoing Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s former chief of staff, are also expected to be removed. 

“We are facing a degradation of democracy,” says Schwartz. “Trump is removing the civilian leadership to put in people loyal to him,” which could be a prelude to invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act.  

This is a law that empowers the president to deploy US military and National Guard troops on domestic soil to help with natural disasters, but also to quell civil disorder and rebellion.

Last June, after the killing of George Floyd triggered massive demonstrations in Illinois, Minnesota and Oregon, Trump warned that he would “deploy the US military and quickly solve the problem” by invoking the Insurrection Act.

Arrest Biden

If he did invoke the 1807 Act, Trump could “tell the civilian leadership ‘I order you to order the troops to arrest Biden' or 'arrest the legislature of a state where Democrats won',” according to Schwartz. 

But, he adds, the military won’t easily agree.  

During a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on 9 July, top army chiefs showed themselves non-committal on the question of the Insurrection Act. 

“‘We don’t police American streets,’ Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy was quoted as saying. The military “have the legal right to disobey an illegal order, following principles first established at the post WW2 Nuremberg trials," says Schwartz.

So what if all attempts fail and Trump still refuses to leave the White House on 20 January?

Schwartz says: “the secret service as a bureaucracy has already begun behaving as if Biden is the president-elect. 

“So if Trump is in the White House on 21 January, sitting in the Oval Office holding on to the desk, they're probably going to pick him up and handcuff him and take him out,” he says.


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