By refusing to admit what he already seems to know — that he could lose this election legitimately — President Donald Trump is up to his old tricks.
In March 2016, he warned of mob violence on his behalf if he failed to secure the nomination at the GOP convention. "I think you’d have riots," Trump said. " ... I’m representing a tremendous many, many millions of people."
At the time, he ditched his promise to support the Republican nominee if it was not him. "No, I don't anymore," Trump said when asked if he was sticking to the pledge made by other candidates. "No, we'll see who it is."
In October 2016, Trump refused to commit himself to conceding the race if Hillary Clinton won. "I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election — if I win," he teased.
During a debate during that campaign, he said, "I’ll keep you in suspense."
Trump displayed the same attitude on Wednesday when he was asked whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power. "You’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly," he said. "There’ll be a continuation. The ballots are out of control ...
"We're going to have to see what happens."
He said Thursday as Republicans in Congress rebuked that comment: "We want to make sure that the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be."
Taking this evasive tack has different implications when he's running as the incumbent. Refusing to concede defeat may mean clinging to the White House as if it is one of his real estate properties.
He's already shown willingness to use his office to promote the faction of the electorate that he controls, as opposed to the whole country. Could it come down to force? At no time has he encouraged the American people to simply trust the legal process.
Maybe Trump channels the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale’s "power of positive thinking" to cancel and deny the reality that he could lose a fair election. Trump's family belonged to Peale's church in Manhattan, where the minister taught "prosperity gospel."
Or maybe it's the residue of his late lawyer-mentor Roy Cohn's reliance on negative thinking. An ally of Sen. Joe McCarthy, Cohn evoked plots and helped deride what McCarthy insisted on calling the "Democrat Party."
If Trump's repeated imaginings of mass "voter fraud" sound delusional, they also may be willful.
A Feb. 7 audio recording released by author Bob Woodward revealed that Trump can acknowledge a huge fact privately — the deadly threat of COVID-19 — while denying it in public for political purposes, even at the cost of American lives.
Only three months ago, Trump cited the prospect of losing when he responded to a question about his barely viable border-wall project. "No, he’ll complete it," Trump said of his Democratic challenger Joe Biden. "You’d have a revolution if they didn’t do it." Days later on Fox News, Trump said: "He's going to be your president because some people don't love me — maybe."
Based on polls and Trump's past habits, it is plausible to consider this scenario: Early election results indicate he's lost, but he refuses to concede and runs to court as counts of mail-in ballots continue, stalling the inevitable. Ultimately, he faces the outcome under popular duress.
But in this administration, darker alternatives always merit discussion. Arguably the most protected man in the hemisphere, Trump casually tosses around talk of force and violence, even if his murkiest threats often prove hollow.
Part of what Trump suggested on Wednesday rings true. The ballots are indeed "out of control" — that is, out of his exclusive control.
And he's only stating the obvious when he says we are all "going to have to see what happens." If he wins, we can expect him to keep his ruling faction in charge of the White House.