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What Trump’s refusal to concede could mean for the presidential transition

With President Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the election, his supporters are doubling down on his message, and national tensions persist. Those calling for Trump to concede point to the long American history of presidential concessions and peaceful transitions of power. David Priess of the Lawfare Institute and a former CIA intelligence officer, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With President Trump's refusal to accept the results of the election, tensions continue throughout the country, as his supporters double down on his message.

    Those calling for Mr. Trump to concede point to the long history of presidential concessions that have helped maintain peaceful transfers of power.

    I'm joined now by David Priess. He is the chief operating officer at the Lawfare Institute and a former intelligence officer at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is also author of "How to Get Rid of a President." It's a history of the many ways presidents leave office or are pushed toward the exit.

    David Priess, thank you so much for joining us.

    First of all, how much do concessions matter?

  • David Priess:

    They don't legally matter, Judy, because the duly elected president will be inaugurated in January no matter what, whether the outgoing president acknowledges the defeat or not.

    But they do matter for a couple of other reasons. Actually, there is a third one, which is more personal than political, which is, most politicians don't like being seen as a sore loser. And if they ever want to run again, being seen as graceful and dignified is to their advantage.

    But the two practical reasons for it, first, to help ensure a smooth and effective transition. It may seem like 70 days from now is a long time, but when you're trying to get the full mechanics of the executive branch turned over to a new team, getting security clearances passed, getting people in place, getting up to speed on all the policies and plans in progress…

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • David Priess:

    … that takes a long time.

    And a concession speech can help that process move along quickly, and help the new administration come in with, in a sense, a stamp of approval for carrying that mission forward.

    The second practical reason is to dampen down the tensions that came up during the campaign. We have had several campaigns in U.S. history that were very, very negative. And, in some cases, supporters of the losing candidates screamed for blood in the streets because their candidate lost.

    The losing candidate publicly saying, I accept the results of this election, and all of you should support the new president, helps bring society back together after the election campaign has divided it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tell us — throughout history, we have had 45 presidents in this country. Are there examples of losers in those contests who have not conceded or who delayed conceding?

  • David Priess:

    Not so much.

    Every president ultimately seems to depart and not fight the result. Now, early on in history, presidents didn't formally concede. But starting in the late 19th century, and ever since then, whether by telegram or by phone call congratulating the winner, or often with a public statement on the radio or on TV, presidents have been saying, I accept the results of the election.

    And, usually, they offer something like, I wish my successor well, I will support them as they move forward, the kinds of words that help heal the nation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This kind of goes back to your first answer, David Priess, but are there serious consequences if a president seeking reelection doesn't concede, that you don't have his cooperation for the transition?

  • David Priess:

    Yes, ultimately, you could have a constitutional crisis, if some parts of the executive branch believe that one person is president and other parts don't.

    That is hard to imagine, but it is at least theoretically possible that two people could claim the presidency at the same time. And then you would have to sort that out.

    More practically, there is a problem if the transition is delayed. As you have heard, the General Services Administration now has the task, by legislation, to designate when there is a president-elect and the transition can formally begin.

    That unlocks a whole bunch of different things, from office space to security clearance expedition, to actually getting teams into the agencies and departments to start preparing to take the reins on January 20.

    Why does that matter? Well, if there is, for example, a foreign policy crisis in January, right as the new president is taking office, and the teams aren't in place to deal with it, or they don't have the preparation to even know the background to the crisis, that could harm the national security of the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's what I want to ask you about, because, as we have been reporting, most Republican members of Congress are not conceding that Joe Biden has won.

    The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, is saying, we need to give the president more time; he needs all the time, he deserves all the time that he needs to challenge the results.

    We heard him say today that, at some point, the electors will meet.

    But that's not until many weeks from now. If it comes down to that, is that a problem?

  • David Priess:

    It is. And it is very unusual for that to happen.

    The closest parallel we have in modern history is the 2000 election, when Al Gore, the vice president, and George W. Bush were trying to sort out who actually won Florida, and that was a matter of a few hundred votes. And, ultimately, Bush kept those votes and did win the presidency.

    But, even then, the outgoing administration, the Clinton administration, decided, before the Supreme Court made its ruling that effectively ended it, we need to get George W. Bush into the transition system. And they started letting him see the president's daily brief, the highest-level intelligence document, even before that Supreme Court decision.

    But what was important then is, you did not have a lot of voices on Al Gore's side of the campaign saying, this cannot stand, we will continue to fight this, we don't care what the Supreme Court says, we're going to keep filing lawsuits over and over again.

    This time, it feels a little bit different. You do have a significant number of senior officials seemingly saying, we are going to keep fighting this as long as humanly possible.

    And that does not bring the benefits that a graceful concession typically does.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we have the president continuing to say he will win. We have the secretary of state saying transition to a second Trump term.

    Just a lot of question marks out there.

    David Priess, we thank you very much.

  • David Priess:

    Thank you.

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