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Hey there, it's Ron. Before we dive into today's episode, I just want to remind you to make sure you have a plan to vote and that you know the deadlines in your state. Visit Vogue for more information about where you can vote or drop off your absentee ballot.
Hello from the Lincoln Project and welcome back. I'm Ron Kessler. Today, we're bringing you another explained episode where we take a question we get frequently from our listeners and take a deep dive to explain it. If you have any questions you'd like us to cover on upcoming explained episodes about the upcoming election or our mission or anything else, you can reach us at podcast at Lincoln Project US. So let's dive in. We've got numerous questions about what will happen after the election is called.
Donald Trump has refused to answer whether he'll accept the results of the election. This has left us wondering if the votes are tallied and Joe Biden wins, will Donald Trump adhere to a peaceful transfer of power to a Biden administration? So to help break this down, we have my fellow Lincoln Project co-founder and national political strategist, Steve Schmidt. Thanks for being on, Steve. Great to be with you, Ron.
Let's start with the first two transfers of power in the United States. The first one was in 1797, and then the second one was an eighteen hundred. Can you begin with the first one? Explain what that precedent did and then explain the difference between what happened then and in eighteen hundred.
So the peaceful transition of power is one of the great miracles of the United States. And George, the third was hugely curious about what George Washington would do. He asked, he said, what will Washington do? And he understood that Washington could have been a king, could have been an emperor, and George Washington had decided and when George the third was told that Washington would go home to Virginia and that he would be, in essence, the first person in two thousand years of human history to step away from the type of power that he could have had absolute power if he had wished it.
And he didn't. And he set in motion what has gone on uninterrupted through civil war, through assassination, through world war, through depression, through the inauguration of the forty fifth president Donald Trump. And it's this idea that in this constitutional republic, the oldest in the world, that the people are sovereign, the people elect their leaders, and the leaders serve at the will of the people under a constitutional system where no one is above or below the law.
And so that's what's at stake. And you look at the election of eighteen hundred John Adams against Thomas Jefferson, and you have for the first time in that election that the loser stepping away from power, acceding to the will of the people. And so when Donald Trump talks about that, there'll be no peaceful transition of power where it's dependent on an outcome that's favorable to him. It is such a breach of faith with the republic, with every patriot that shed blood to preserve it.
And it is an unpardonable offense for a president to commit. So let's talk a little bit more about what happened in eighteen hundred, because this was the first transfer of power between two political parties, John Adams squared off against Democratic Republican Thomas Jefferson in the election. This was the first election with presidential running mates, which created a bit of a hiccup at the time. Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, received seventy three electoral votes. The election was thrown to the House of Representatives after 36 ballots.
Thirty six balloting. Jefferson was elected president by the House of Representatives. And even after the chaos of a House vote to determine the president, Adams left the White House. He also did name a number of judicial appointments, including Chief Justice John Marshall, in the lame duck term, and he didn't attend the inauguration. Can you talk about whether or not we've ever seen anything like that moment in presidential history? And after this, we want to talk about the year 2000 and the constitutional questions that were raised there.
But at that moment in history, had the country ever dealt with that kind of uncertainty in terms of the presidential election?
No, of course not. And in that moment in time, we were a young republic. And so this moment, what what was transpiring? You know, what what people always refer to as the American experiment was happening and it was happening in real time and and the democratic traditions that are born out of that moment or what have endured. It's part of the miracle of the of the United States. And there was a lot of enmity in that in that time between Adams and Jefferson, who would later we would later reconcile.
And both of them die on on July 4th hours apart. And you think about those early days of the country. None of this was prescribed. And and it's important to understand that none of it is prescribed today. Ronald Reagan talked about this. He talked about that. We're always one generation away from seeing freedom extinguished. And part of the the tragedy that we're in in this country, I think is borne out of the collapse of civics education. Yeah.
Is that too few Americans understand the history of the country, the governmental structure of the country, because we should all buy in. I don't care from Bernie Sanders to someone who's extremely conservative that we're a free country, we're a constitutional republic. The people are sovereign. The people decide who rules over us. This is not a land for dictators, autocrats and men like Donald Trump.
Do you think that we've lost the sense that we're all in this together, number one, and also that this is kind of a grand experiment in the history of human civilization, the American system of government, the peaceful transfer of power is a uniquely American invention. That right?
Absolutely it is. And there was no such thing as a president before George Washington became one. There was considerable debate about what do you call the president of the United States. And George Washington settled on the simple Mr. President, that carries forward to this day. But the idea that people were capable of governing themselves. It was a heretical notion, yeah, it was astoundingly radical in this moment of history when when all of this comes to comes to life and the ideas and the ideals in the founding documents of the country, we now understand or for everybody.
And what Trump is talking about is is so profoundly un-American, you know, to hear these words coming from an American president, you know, putting doubt into the electorate about whether he will go if he's defeated. I want to get to Trump in a minute.
But before we do, let's take a pit stop in the year 2000, after Election Day, all eyes turns to Florida, where the election was closely contested. After a lengthy recount, the Supreme Court ruled that Florida had run out of time to complete their recount. And after the decision, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore addressed the nation. Let's take a quick listen to that clip. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it, I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College.
And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession. I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends.
So, Steve, can you talk about the importance of Al Gore's concession speech in that election, how important it was for him to accept the results and what was at stake for American democracy? What was on the line at that moment?
Well, you heard Vice President Gore in that clip. You concede the election acknowledged the legitimacy of the finality of the Supreme Court's decision, though he was unhappy with the decision and had strong standing to be unhappy with that decision. But what he saying there in that clip is that the peaceful transition of power, the choice of president, though close, has been decided lawfully, consistent with the American system of constitutional governance and pay particular attention to to the words discharge my duties duty.
Obligation to your oath? To the flag, to the nation, ultimately to the American people. You know, Richard Nixon had grounds to contest the 1960 election, which was a very close election against John Kennedy, and he understood that to do so would bring great injury to the country, that it would erode faith in the most American of systems, which is the system by which we choose the leader of the nation.
And that that system, that elections process, which plays out over in our 50 states, is a sacred process.
And the fact that Trump has left the country undefended from hostile foreign powers, trying to interfere in it directly contravenes the warnings that George Washington had for the country in his farewell address and is a despicable act because when a foreign power does that, we should view it for what it is, which is an act of war.
Yeah, at the first presidential debate and we're talking about this year now, both candidates were asked if they would urge their supporters to stay calm while votes are counted and not declare victory until the election is certified. Biden answered that he would honor the results of the election and that Trump will, too. How important will it be for whoever loses the election to honor the electoral system? How close are we to going over the edge here?
I think that Donald Trump has made clear that any result that he is short on where he loses, that he's going to question the legitimacy of the election and 30 percent of the country will be there with him. He'll have a conspiracy theory, a stab in the back theory, if you will, and that will be that. And I think we'll be in unchartered territory in the aftermath of this election. But he will yield. We won't have a Trump coup in this country, but it's very degrading to the fabric of our of our system.
And look, I've been on I've been on both sides of this. I'm the person who placed the call to David Plouffe and congratulated him. And then he handed the phone to Senator Obama. I congratulated him and put Senator McCain on the phone. And the first person that addressed Barack Obama as Mr. President elect that mattered was John McCain. Stuart Stevens has pointed this out, that in a democracy, it requires one side willingly content with the loss under the principle of we'll get you next time.
Right. One side has to be able to lose it. That's what's required in this in this system. And to, again, what Trump has done in this space is just just despicable. And this is the issue. I mean, from my perspective, the debate should stop on that question. I mean, this has been the last question in the debates in the town hall. This should be the first question in the next debate. And until there's a satisfactory answer in an unequivocal one, that's what the debate should be about.
It seems to me that it's it's impossible to avoid the contrast between the fundamental nature of a presidential election, which is that in these in this country, somebody has to be willing to lose where we have a president now who has corrupted his own party with an ethos of winning is all that matters. So beyond the presidential election, what do you think the consequences are for the American people of the example set by this president while he is the president of the United States, casting such doubt on the legitimacy of the upcoming election?
What kind of precedent does that set for future years? It's terrible. It's a cancer in the body politic. And I think that will will happen in defeat is the Republican Party will get crazier and more extreme and more illiberal. But we have a significant. Percentage of the country is is willing through both its its active participation, but also its silent complicity to turn away from the democratic traditions of the of the country. I mean, this is why it was so jarring four years ago to hear at a Republican convention.
The chants of lock her up being led by a former lieutenant general, the United States Army appalling. We don't lock up our political opponents. And in this country, this isn't a banana republic. Yeah, and what Trump has done is desecrating the traditions of the presidency and the traditions borne out over two hundred plus years of the of the American republic. And we have to understand is that new democracies exist on the basis of their traditions and norms. And what fuels a healthy democracy is faith, trust and belief in the legitimacy of the system by the people.
Who directed that system? And that collapse of faith, trust and belief is a is a signature failure of of Trump's in these last in these last four years in his history, will judge him very, very harshly for that. How do we begin after this to move past and to start to repair the damage that he has done to the trust in the institutions and in as real and tangible away as we can talk about for our listeners? Because I think a lot gets lost when we just use the word institutions to talk about these things at a at an abstract level, especially because, as you've noted, we've talked about before on the podcast, the erosion of civic education in this country is at the root of this sort of pluralistic ignorance, if we can call it that.
How do we begin to move past and heal from this?
Is this is a worthy cause for some billionaire out there. And there needs to be a massive investment, a campaign to educate the American people about the country and how it's supposed to work. And it will take also the wisdom of restraint by our political leaders, you know, who can embrace perhaps the concept of magnanimity in victory and to understand that, you know, if forty five percent of the country is on the is on the other side of something, you know, maybe, just maybe it's unwise to jam things down their throats in a majority Harian moment that will seed be reciprocated and be a higher level of degradation.
Right. You know, and in return in this this Hatfields and McCoys politics, we got to break the cycle of that. And, you know, people people have to start to see some change to see the restoration of some elemental trust. Yeah. You know, when in government. But it's a but it's a mess.
You're talking about major pieces of federal legislation that have been rammed through the Congress without any support of the opposite party. Yeah, OK. I have two more questions before I let you go. The first is why you're so certain for our listeners, because we get a lot of questions both on the podcast and on our town halls and on social media about what happens immediately after Election Day. What makes you so certain that there will be no Trump coup in this country?
How how do you think this will play out, especially when you consider that we now know he owes four hundred million dollars to unknown entities that we now know because of The New York Times reporting? When you think about options available to Donald Trump, the man being to stay in the White House and fight or go peacefully and risk prosecution, those two options don't feel equal. What makes you so certain that he won't stay and fight? He'll be arrested by the Secret Service at noon on January 20th for trespassing in the residence of the president of the United States.
Just simple as that. His term expires. At noon on January 20th, the winner of the election will be the next president of the United States. And he can go out and do all the vandalism that he's going to do. But in the end, it changes nothing, he will cede power, the American people are sovereign, we are in charge. We will decide who leads us and he will go, he will be defeated. And you see right now, in these final two weeks, the downfall of the Trump presidency, the Trump regime, you see the complicit senators jumping off the ship like abandoning rats.
You see the talk about people that have been part of this worried about whether they're going to be employable in the future. Most of them will not. We will be moving very shortly to a consequential stage for a lot of people who have done unspeakable damage to this country. Speaking of the consequences phase, should Joe Biden pardon Donald Trump now? Say more. Well, look, if if at the end of the day, Donald Trump is investigated. And and and found to have broken laws, he should be prosecuted like any other person would have we ever prosecuted a president after they have been?
No, and we shouldn't and we shouldn't do it lightly. And there should be no politicization to any investigation, whether it takes place by state authorities or federal authorities. But look at the at the end of the day, he shouldn't be treated any differently than any other any other citizen. We don't have one set of laws in America for the Trump family and a different set, you know, for everybody else. I mean, if you have White House staffers who have repeatedly violated the Hatch Act.
And that's prosecutable that it should be prosecuted. Yeah, and so across the board, you know, the immense privilege of these people and their total disgraceful ness, the law to be applied to to them like they were a black kid caught smoking a joint in Central Park. You look at the charity, you look at the graft, the scamming, the tax evasion. I don't know. I mean, I'm not I'm not sitting there rooting for him to be prosecuted.
I am saying, though, that he should be shielded from it either. Do you think it's possible for that kind of prosecution to happen in the current political climate without it being an extremely divisive event? It would be it would be profoundly divisive, any prosecution of of Trump, right, that we're talking about is completely hypothetical. But you would want to see restraint on the part of the prosecutor needs to be completely buttoned up. I don't want to see political prosecutions in this country like you see in some third world banana republic.
Right. Terrible. You know, we don't want to go there. But that being said, if if there is criminal conduct. That has been unmasked. Because he decided to put himself out there as a political candidate for the presidency and he won the presidency and but for these things we now know about these other things, he shouldn't be immunized from that. Thanks to Steve for being on today and helping us with this question.
And thanks to all of you at home for listening. We've designed these explained episodes based on the great questions we've received from all of you. So please keep them coming. If there's some topic or question you'd like to hear explains, just let us know. You can reach us, as always at podcast, at Lincoln Project on us for the Lincoln Project. I'm Ron Suslow and I'll see you in the next episode.