That a president would defy the results of an election has long been unthinkable; it is now, if not an actual possibility, at the very least something Trump’s supporters joke about. As the former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee tweeted, President Trump “will be eligible for a 3rd term due to the illegal attempts by Comey, Dems, and media , et al attempting to oust him as @POTUS so that’s why I was named to head up the 2024 re-election.” A good troll though it may have been, Huckabee is not the first person to suggest that Trump might not leave when his presidency ends.
In May, the faith leader Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted an apparent reference to the completed investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian election interference. “I now support reparations,” he wrote. “Trump should have 2 yrs added to his 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup.” Trump retweeted Falwell’s post.
One of Trump’s former confidants, Michael Cohen, has suggested that Trump won’t leave. In his congressional testimony before heading to prison, Trump’s former attorney said, “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”
Trump himself has joked about staying in office beyond his term, and even for life. In December, Trump told a crowd at a Pennsylvania rally that he will leave office in “five years, nine years, 13 years, 17 years, 21 years, 25 years, 29 years …” He added that he was joking to drive the media “totally crazy.” Just a few days earlier, Trump had alluded to his critics in a speech, “A lot of them say, ‘You know he’s not leaving’ … So now we have to start thinking about that because it’s not a bad idea.” This is how propaganda works. Say something outrageous often enough and soon it no longer sounds shocking.
Refusal to leave office is rare, but not unheard of. In the past decade, presidents in democracies such as Moldova, Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gambia have refused to leave office, sometimes leading to bloodshed. In 2016, Joseph Kabila decided not to step down after three five-year terms as the president of Congo, announcing that he would delay the election for two years so that a census could be conducted. His decision was met with mass protests in which 50 people were killed by government security forces. Still, he followed through and an election took place in 2018. He left office thereafter.
Elected officials in the U.S. have also refused to step down, albeit from lower offices than the presidency. In 1874, a Texas governor locked himself in the basement of the state capitol building after losing his reelection bid. The saga began when Republican Governor Edmund J. Davis lost the 1873 election by a resounding 2-to-1 ratio to his Democratic challenger, Richard Coke, and claimed that the election had been tainted with fraud and intimidation. A court case made its way to the state’s supreme court. All three justices, each of whom had been appointed by the incumbent Davis, ruled that the election was unconstitutional and invalid. Democrats called upon the public to disregard the court’s decision, and proceeded with plans for Coke’s inauguration. On January 15, 1874, Coke arrived at the state capitol with a sheriff’s posse, and was sworn in to office while Davis barricaded himself downstairs with state troopers. The next day, Davis requested federal troops from President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant refused, and Davis finally stepped down three days later.