LAS VEGAS — Donald Trump's threat to shatter American political tradition by refusing to accept the election result left Republican leaders shell-shocked, angry, and fearful Thursday that he was setting a dangerous precedent.
But Trump, with apparent delight, reiterated at a rally in Ohio on Thursday the astonishing assertion he first made at the debate on Wednesday night: that he would not necessarily abide by the outcome on Nov. 8.
"I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election — if I win," he declared to cheers.
He argued that he was upholding an important legal principle.
"Of course, I would accept a clear election result," Trump said. "But I would also reserve my right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result."
The defiant comments further dismayed Republican leaders who have been struggling for more than a year with how to respond to Trump's inflammatory rhetoric. Now, instead of responding to his remarks about women or immigrants, Republicans are left with this: For the first time in modern history a presidential candidate was casting doubt on the integrity of the American election process as it was unfolding.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — two of the three most important GOP leaders in the country after Trump — were silent Thursday about his remarks.
Sean Spicer, a spokesman for Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, said the party will accept the results of the election. "Yes we will," Spicer said via e-mail.
Trump's own campaign seemed mystified and confused by why his debate comments were causing so much controversy. "Why is it the headline?" asked Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway during a CNBC interview.
But even some of Trump's most ardent supporters criticized his refusal to accept the election results.
"That's an absolute stupid move. Period," Governor Paul LePage of Maine, a prominent Trump backer, said on WGAN-AM in Portland on Thursday. LePage said he believes Trump should "take your licks and let's move on four years."
The governor said he agrees with Trump's contention that the media and "inside-the-Beltway people" are stacked against the GOP nominee, but said, "not accepting the results, I think, is a stupid comment. I mean, come on. Get over yourself."
During Wednesday's debate in Las Vegas, Trump was asked if he would accept the results of the election. In the past he has said he would, but this time he offered a different view. "I will tell you at the time," Trump said Wednesday. "I will keep you in suspense."
The comments astonished members of both parties, ricocheted across the Internet, dominated the postdebate interviews, and were splashed across the cover of every major newspaper in the country Thursday morning.
"Throughout human history you could tell there was a transfer of power because the Parliament building was burning," said Republican strategist Rick Tyler, who was a top adviser to Ted Cruz's campaign and does not support Trump.
"Americans have always been the beacon of freedom. We have always been the example of peaceful transfers of power," Tyler said. "You go up against that at your peril. It's like speaking out against the idea of America."
Trump's move prompted one of the party's former presidential nominees, Senator John McCain of Arizona, to issue a paean to good sportsmanship and honorable conduct.
"I don't know who is going to win the presidential election," McCain said in an impassioned statement. "I do know that in every previous election, the loser congratulates the winner and calls them, 'my president.' That's not just the Republican way or the Democratic way. It's the American way."
"A concession isn't just an exercise in graciousness," McCain added, noting that he didn't like the outcome of the 2008 election but felt duty-bound to publicly accept Barack Obama as the next president. "It is an act of respect for the will of the American people, a respect that is every American leader's first responsibility."
McCain withdrew his endorsement of Trump earlier this month after a tape recording surfaced of Trump making lewd and predatory comments about women.
While Trump's antics might be politically disruptive, it will be more important for Ryan and McConnell to accept the results because, under the Constitution, Congress must receive the Electoral College votes from the states and officially declare the president-elect, said Edward B. Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University.
"In sum, we have the capacity to navigate the situation even if Trump is inappropriately reckless after being defeated," Foley wrote in a blog post. "Given our constitutional system, one aberrational individual cannot destroy our country — particularly if that individual has lost the election."
Richard L. Hasen, an election law specialist at the University of California-Irvine, said there is a "huge difference" between Trump's refusal to accept the results now — before the election — and Al Gore's refusal to concede when the result was legitimately in dispute after the polls closed in 2000.
Trump is claiming the election is rigged and questioning the legitimacy of the results "regardless of the actual outcome," he said. "What he said last night was just irresponsible and stoking the fears and anxieties of his supporters who fear the election is going to be stolen from them."
Research shows that Trump's claims may damage his own cause by convincing some of his own supporters that it's not worth showing up at the polls, said Adam Seth Levine, an assistant professor of government at Cornell University.
"When they're told democracy is not all that democratic, they don't want to spend their resources and time participating in it," Levine said.
Republican strategists agreed, and are concerned a smaller voter turnout on their side could have a devastating impact for their party's chances in Senate and House races this fall. Democrats need to pick up only four Senate seats to take the majority if they win the White House. They need 30 House seats to seize control of that chamber.
One of the country's closest Senate races is in New Hampshire, where Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte is struggling to hold onto her seat amid waves of Trump news. She's said she won't vote for Trump (or Clinton) but again found herself spending valuable campaign time responding to the Republican nominee's comments.
"The voters are going to decide this election, and Donald Trump needs to accept the outcome," she said in a statement.
Governor Charlie Baker — who has said since March that he cannot support Trump and doesn't plan to vote for president — also disavowed Trump's comments.
Baker thinks that "Mr. Trump's failure to concede this foundational principle of our nation's democratic system is irresponsible and another example of why he lacks the temperament to be president,'' said his communications director, Lizzy Guyton.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump adviser, defended the candidate, saying there might be reason to question the result. Gingrich pointed to the FBI's investigation of Clinton's e-mail practices, the firebombing of a Republican campaign office in North Carolina, and allegations that Democratic operatives orchestrated violent protests at Trump rallies.
"So you look at all that stuff, and you say, I'd be a little bit cautious about automatically accepting that Hillary Clinton will be legitimately anything," Gingrich told conservative talk radio host Mike Gallagher, according to CNN. "We are in the worst cycle of corruption in American history, and in many ways, we resemble Venezuela and Argentina more than we resemble traditional America."