WASHINGTON – It was at the same time shocking and utterly to be expected.
As the nation held its collective breath and awaited the result of the 2020 presidential election, President Donald Trump stepped to the podium in the White House on Thursday and made a full-frontal attempt to undermine the integrity of the vote, which was leaning in the direction of Democrat Joe Biden.
The president had spent months laying the groundwork for such a moment. He had repeatedly questioned the validity of mail-in ballots. He had dismissed election officials from Democratic states and cities as political hacks. And he had demanded in advance that the results be known on Election Day, which is never a given.
All of this has circulated through the conservative echo chamber for months. And it belies the truth about how elections are conducted in America, where voter fraud is extremely rare.
But while Trump’s diatribe was in line with his past misstatements about U.S. elections, it was still a watershed event to hear the president of the United States so thoroughly run down the conduct of an American election in real time, triggering fresh anxiety about prospects for a peaceful transition of power.
“On his darkest day, Richard Nixon would never have attacked democracy the way Donald Trump has now done,” John Dean, who served as White House counsel for Nixon, told the AP. “At the potential of losing, Trump has shamed himself and soiled the American presidency. God save us when he actually loses.”
And that was the real question going forward: How far will Trump take things if the election does end in his defeat?
And how many of the millions of Americans who voted for him will buy into his false narrative of a stolen election?
The president warned the nation in advance that it might not end well, telling reporters at midday on Election Day that “Losing is never easy, not for me it’s not.”
Historian Michael Beschloss framed this as a moment of truth not just for Trump but for other prominent officials, suggesting history would not look kindly on those who look the other way.
“One of the worst things any President could do is to lie and exacerbate deep national differences to advance his own selfish interest,” Beschloss tweeted just after Trump completed his statement.
“Always remember who aided and abetted this abuse of Presidential power — and those who tried to stop it,” he continued, highlighting Vice President Mike Pence’s claim that he stands with the president and wants “every LEGAL vote” counted.
Democrats spoke out against Trump in full chorus, led by Biden, who tweeted flatly after the president’s performance: “No one is going to take our democracy away from us. Not now, not ever.”
A few of the usual suspects spoke out from the Republican side.
“There is no defense for the president’s comments tonight undermining our Democratic process,” said Maryland GOP Gov. Larry Hogan, a frequent Trump critic. “America is counting the votes, and we must respect the results as we always have before.”
Former GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, another Trump detractor, put the onus on his fellow Republicans to follow suit.
“No Republican should be okay with the President’s statements just now. Unacceptable. Period,” he tweeted.
But there was notable silence from many in the president’s party after his latest address.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell waited until Friday morning to tweet that “Every legal vote should be counted. All sides must get to observe the process.”
Whether that dynamic will continue if fuller election results deliver the presidency to Biden is another key unanswered question.
If Trump loses his grip on power, that could diminish the incentive for Republicans to continue their sometimes awkward embrace of a president whose provocative pronouncements have so often left them squirming.
Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, said previous presidential candidates who have lost elections have accepted their fate with dignity and a respect for American democracy.
He pointed to Nixon’s resignation after Republican colleagues told him that he would be impeached and convicted. He said that Democrat Al Gore gave a courageous speech after the Supreme Court decided his long-in-limbo race would go to George W. Bush.
He called Nixon a “pragmatist” and Trump an “egotist.”
There’s always the possibility that Trump will pull up short at some point and consider the weight of his words -- and the impact on his legacy.
If the vote count goes against him, does he really want to be remembered as the president who burned down the building on his way out the door?
EDITOR’S NOTE -- Nancy Benac is White House news editor and has covered government and politics for The Associated Press for four decades.