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Republicans are distancing themselves from Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Here’s why

President Trump.
President Trump.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump again refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power when asked about it during a press conference on Wednesday, sparking alarm from Democrats and prompting some top Republicans to reassure the public that a pillar of American democracy would not be shaken in November.

Repeating a refrain he made in 2016, Trump Wednesday would not commit to accepting the election results and suggested that if mail-in ballots were not allowed, he would win, and therefore there would be no need for a transfer of power.

“We’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump said at a news conference, responding to a question from a reporter about whether he’d commit to a peaceful transfer. “You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.”

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“You’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer frankly,” Trump said. “There’ll be a continuation. The ballots are out of control, you know it, and you know, who knows it better than anybody else? The Democrats know it better than anybody else.”

It was a stunning comment from a commander-in-chief, and one that the New York Times reported Thursday no other president in modern history has made. Senator Bernie Sanders, in a speech Thursday in which he described the 2020 election as one between “Donald Trump and democracy,” said that the custom of a peaceful transition of power in the US has held up through war and depression, and called it a “miracle.”

“Protecting this ‘orderly transfer of authority’ as President Reagan characterized it, this miracle, is absolutely essential if we together ― all of us, Republicans, Democrats, Independents ― want to keep faith with the American ideals we hold so dear and with the sacrifices that so many made in order to protect our democracy,” Sanders said. “And in that regard I think it is terribly important that we actually listen to, and take seriously, what Donald Trump is saying.”

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While Trump has made similar claims before, they’ve taken on new urgency as he has lobbed repeated attacks against mail-in ballots as “fraudulent." Democrats charge he is laying the groundwork to claim the ballots’ illegitimacy. And as the pandemic forces many to vote by mail, the traditionally swift vote counting on election night could slow to a crawl, adding to uncertainty.

“The more he makes these arguments, the more he normalizes the fact that this can be part of the conversation,” Princeton University professor Julian E. Zelizer told the New York Times this week.

His remarks also come amid reports that Trump’s campaign has made moves to take advantage of any uncertainty on election night to hold onto power. Reports from the Globe, the Atlantic, and elsewhere recently spelled out concerns about the November election and whether it will test American democratic institutions.

The Globe’s D.C. bureau reported over the weekend that experts are worried about a nightmare election in which disenfranchisement and chaos cause confusion about the result, launching messy legal battles that could last weeks. And the Atlantic reported this week that Trump’s campaign is exploring options for installing pro-Trump electors in battleground states that have Republican-controlled legislatures.

“With a justification based on claims of rampant fraud, Trump would ask state legislators to set aside the popular vote and exercise their power to choose a slate of electors directly,” the magazine reported.

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Republicans Thursday sought to downplay the president’s remarks, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeting his confidence that there would be a peaceful transition of power, though he did not denounce Trump’s remarks.

But some other Republicans were more direct in their criticism. Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, slammed Trump’s comments as “unthinkable and unacceptable.”

Republican Governor Charlie Baker also voiced his displeasure, telling reporters during a press conference on Thursday that it was “appalling and outrageous” for an elected official to suggest “even for a minute that if they lose an election they’re not going to leave. Period.”


Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano.