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WASHINGTON – They met practically on Zoom, four days in two weeks in June, to conduct simulations known in the military and intelligence communities as “war games.”

There were 67 players – many of them high-ranking critics of President Donald Trump – including law professors, retired military officers, former high-ranking U.S. officials, political strategists and lawyers.

Instead of outlining a geopolitical conflict, the group peered ahead of the Nov. 3 election, now less than 90 days away, and explored how the Trump-Joe Biden race could turn into a post-election crisis.

John Podesta, former chief aide to President Barack Obama and former chief of staff Bill Clinton, plays Biden. Two outspoken Republican critics of Trump, David Froome and Bill Christol, introduced the president.

After presenting various scenarios, the group said its conclusions were “alarming:” In an election amid a pandemic, recession and growing political polarization, the group found a significant risk of legal battles, disputed results, violent street clashes and even constitutional impasse.

“We estimate with high probability that the elections in November will be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape,” said a report this week in the project for the integration of transition, which is organizing the “war games”.

“The winner may not be, and we don’t think will be known on election night, as employees are counting ballots in the mail,” the report said. “This period of uncertainty provides opportunities for an unscrupulous candidate to question the legitimacy of the process and to impose an unprecedented attack on the outcome.”

Trump predicts “election crash”

In the six weeks since the table training, the group’s organizers said their fears of a messy result had only grown. Last week, Trump floated with the idea of ​​delaying the election, although he was quickly rejected by both Democrats and Republicans. And because several countries want to expand postal voting because of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has repeatedly warned of fraud, suggesting that this year’s presidential race will be “the biggest election disaster in history.”

“He tries to create as many preliminary stories as possible to claim that the results are not legal,” said Nils Gilman, who co-founded the Transition Integrity project last fall, along with Rosa Brooks, a law and politics professor at the university. in Georgetown.

“He wants to create fear, insecurity and doubt so that people feel frozen and paralyzed. Then the man of action, Trump himself, can ride and take advantage of the day,” said Gilman, a scientist at the Bergruen Institute. trust focused on governance.

In its 22-page report, the Transition Integration Project warns of tactics Trump could use to stop counting mail-sent ballots: lawsuits seeking orders, closing the U.S. Postal Service, or ordering censorship and sequestration of ballots that are considered fraudulent.

And yet, while concerns are mostly focused on the actions Trump could take, the project finds that a scenario in which Biden loses a narrow electoral college while winning a referendum could lead to left-wing outrage, leading to mass protests, provoking the initial result and perhaps a dead end.

In addition to Podesta, Froome and Cristol, participants included former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brasile, former Republican National Committee chairwoman Michael Steele and former Democratic Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm.

How will the candidates, the media and the bureaucracy react?

Participants played the role after four scenarios: a decisive victory for Biden, a narrow victory for the Democratic candidate, a narrow electoral victory for Trump, but a 5 percent loss of popular voting, and the possibility that the result would remain in doubt for weeks.

They split into groups – representing Biden’s campaign, Trump’s campaign, the media, the federal bureaucracy, including the military, Democrats and Republicans – and predicted how they thought anyone could react after the election.

Every scenario, except for the victory of the Biden landslide, ended in violent protests and a constitutional crisis.

“The goal was to shed light on what might happen,” said Brooks, a former Defense Department official. “We can’t say whether there is a 1% chance that these bad results will occur or 80%?” But the collective wisdom is that they are likely enough that we can’t afford not to think about them at least. “

Describing one of the worst-case scenarios, the group said a constitutional stalemate could arise if the Trump or Biden campaign took advantage of legal uncertainties in battle states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina, which have Democratic governors and controlled by Republican state legislature.

Opposing state branches certified by competing voter groups would lead to an unprecedented situation in modern US history.

Revision of the elections of 1876

Legal experts likened the scenario to the 1876 election, when Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, defeated Democrat Samuel Tilden after both parties in three states, Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana, initially claimed victory. Hayes emerged victorious after reassuring the Southern Democrats by agreeing to withdraw federal troops from the South and introduce them at the end of the Reconstruction.

Under federal law, voters meet on December 14 to cast their states’ votes for president and vice president. Congress then convenes Jan. 6 to count them. Historically, this is a formality, but the conflict plates would put Congress in the middle of the meeting.

Edward Foley, a legal adviser on war games, said the “real risk” would arise if Congress was divided, as it is today. He foresaw a situation in which Vice President Mike Pence, as Senate president, said the vote was over and Trump was re-elected, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it was not.

“If it turns out that there are real guerrilla battles on the battlefield after election night, it could be very complicated,” said Foley, a professor of election law at Ohio State University.

Viewing date: January 6

Leaning circles on the left often consider what would happen if Trump refused to leave the White House, even if he was considered the loser.

The draft integrity of the transition provided that the military or secret services would remove the president on January 20 if Congress determined Biden as the winner on January 6 and Trump refused to accept the result. But war games never get to that point. The bigger problem, according to the group in its report, passes on January 6 without a dead end.

“Outside of this game of war, we have witnessed role-players exercising power naked,” said retired Major General Paul Eaton, a 30-year-old military officer and senior veterinarian voting adviser, a progressive equalization group that advocates for military veterans.

He said he felt “naive” because he expected “political protocols” and “normal” behavior to regulate the outcome. “But we’ve seen everything but normal behavior by the president of the United States over the last three years and years.”

Attorney General William Barr, who voiced Trump’s concerns about the postal vote, told the U.S. House Judiciary Commission last week that he would resign if the “results are clear.” But Bar said there was “no reason to think” the election would be rigged.

Ari Fleischer, a former presidential spokesman for George W. Bush, has shaken a scenario circulated by the Transition Integration Project – that Trump, by enlisting help from the Justice Department or the postmaster general, could try to seize the ballots in the mail.

“It strikes me in the Trump era that I’m one of the most irresponsible statements I’ve ever heard,” said Fleischer, who was not part of the war games. “I’m completely ready and I often do it to criticize Donald Trump, but it’s disastrous. This is out of the question. You’re talking about separation. “

He called Trump’s proposal not to accept the election results as “dangerous”.

“Where is the evidence that Trump will do this, according to his accusers?” If the results are clear, the results are clear, “Fleischer said.

Fleischer said not accepting the results was different from not giving up in the event of an extremely close race, such as in 2000, when Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore. According to him, the biggest risk before the elections in 2020 is not Trump to reject the result – but the fact that the race is reduced to absent ballots in several countries that are not used to voting by mail on a large scale.

The feeling of “illegitimacy” can bypass the election

A Democracy poll poll found nearly 1 in four voters – 22 percent of Democrats and 21 percent of Republicans – said some amount of “violence” would be justified if the unsupported candidate won the White House.

Nearly a third of Americans, 29 percent, said it would be appropriate if Trump lost but refused to step down because he said there was credible evidence of illegal voting. An increasing number of Democrats, 58%, said it would be appropriate to call for elections if Biden won the popular vote but lost the electoral college.

“This shows the illegitimacy that would bypass the election,” said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who helped lead the study.

Brooks acknowledged that the simulations were “completely artificial in a million ways.” To begin with, she said that it is possible that players, taking part in a game without bets, may have pushed the boundaries further than would actually happen. But she said it was the best they could do to simulate real-time circumstances.

“It’s more likely than not,” she said, that the United States would hold “more or less normal elections” in November with the loss of the losers.

But Brooks said: “Events are likely to unfold very quickly after election day. Those who have considered what can be done and what the legal options are, etc., are in a much better position than those who think: “Oh, that probably won’t work out. “”

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

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