President Donald Trump’s stunning refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power was mostly dismissed by Republicans on Capitol Hill, with many downplaying the remarks as merely rhetoric and others deflecting questions about a comment that Democrats fear could threaten a fundamental principle of American democracy.
“The President says crazy stuff. We’ve always had a peaceful transition of power. It’s not going to change,” said Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who has been an occasional critic of the President.
While Republicans insisted there would be a peaceful transition, many did not go so far as to explicitly criticize his remarks after Trump on Wednesday would not commit to providing a peaceful transition of power after Election Day, lending further fuel to concerns he may not relinquish his office should he lose in November.
House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy on Thursday insisted there will be a peaceful transition, but also suggested he is not concerned by the remarks.
“Let me be very clear to you: It’ll be peaceful,” McCarthy said, adding, “no questions, no qualms, no concerns, it’s going to be peaceful.”
Trump’s comments amounted to a familiar pattern on Capitol Hill: Stoking a controversy, and putting Republicans in a jam. But this time, he stoked fears about a basic tenet of democracy, forcing Republicans to weigh in and insist the election results will be adhered to – even if many didn’t want take him on by name.
The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, told CNN that he and other Republicans would stand up to Trump if he tried an extra-constitutional power grab.
“Republicans believe in the rule of law, we believe in the Constitution, and that’s what dictates what happens (in) … our election process and so yes,” Thune said when asked if he is confident that Republicans would not permit a non-peaceful transfer power to occur.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rarely weighs in on controversial Trump comments, but did so on Thursday, although he didn’t single out the President.
“The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792,” McConnell, who is running for reelection this cycle in Kentucky, tweeted Thursday morning.
Mitt Romney of Utah, the lone Senate Republican to break ranks and vote to convict during the President’s impeachment trial, however, went the furthest and was sharply critical of the President’s message, though he did not refer to him by name in his response.
“Fundamental to democracy is the peaceful transition of power; without that, there is Belarus. Any suggestion that a president might not respect this Constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable,” Romney tweeted Wednesday evening, referencing the disputed presidential elections in Belarus.
Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the Senate GOP leadership team, told CNN it was not appropriate for Trump to refuse to commit to a peaceful transition of power. “No,” Cornyn said when asked if it was appropriate. Asked if the GOP would do something about it if he won’t leave office if he loses, Cornyn said: “I’m not going to answer a hypothetical.”
Sen. Susan Collins, who is facing a competitive reelection fight in Maine, said that while she has concerns about the comments, she is “confident that we will see it occur once again.”
“I don’t know what his thinking was, but we have always had a controlled transition between administrations. And I’m certain that if there’s a change in administrations, that we have the calmness as well. It’s fundamental to our democracy,” she said.
A number of other Republicans, though, did not sound alarmed at the President’s remarks, while still arguing that the threat raised by them will not come to fruition.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, in a difficult reelection race in South Carolina, said: “It will happen,” referring to an orderly transition. “I’m not worried about that. It’s the least of my concerns.”
Graham said: “If there’s a court challenge to the election, it will be decided in court. And the loser of the challenge will accept the results.”
When asked about concerns they are pushing a Supreme Court nominee now to help tilt the outcome of any election results, Graham said: “We need a full court.”
“There will be a peaceful transition of power, it may take the court process to run its course, but there will be a peaceful transition of power,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri.
Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican and the former Intelligence Committee chairman, dismissed the question put to Trump as an effort “to get him to say there’s a chance I might lose. Why would any candidate say that?”
“I think that anybody that feels that there’s a fault in the election would test it,” Burr said, pointing to Bush v. Gore. “But at the end of the day, we have protocols for this.”
A number of Republicans were quick to deflect, pointing to Hillary Clinton’s remarks suggesting that Joe Biden “should not concede under any circumstances” though Clinton’s remarks were in reference to the possibility that initial results, if close, could change given a surge in mail-in ballots this year.
McCarthy said on Thursday, “I hope you ask the same question of Hillary Clinton who simply said out there, never concede the race”
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection this cycle, said: “Look, there’s going to be an orderly transition of power but if you’ve got spare time today go ask to every Democrat member and ask them if they stand with Hillary Clinton who says that Biden shouldn’t accept the result under any circumstances if he doesn’t win.”
Pressed on whether Trump should accept the results and commit to a peaceful transition, Tillis said: “Get back with me when you have spoken with the Democratic members on somebody who first said don’t accept the result of the election.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, similarly focused on Clinton and Biden, saying “Is your question any different than what Hillary Clinton told Biden: ‘don’t concede the election.’ No, it’s very clear whether Biden wins … this presidency ends on January the 20th under the Constitution.”
At the end of August, Clinton said that if the election is close Biden should not concede saying: “Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances because I think this is going to drag out, and eventually I do believe he will win if we don’t give an inch and if we are as focused and relentless as the other side is.”
Trump has previously refused to say whether he would accept the election results, echoing his sentiments from 2016. And he has joked – he says – about staying in office well past the constitutionally bound two terms. But his refusal to guarantee a violence-free transition went further and is likely to alarm his opponents, already on edge given his deployment of federal law enforcement to quell protests in American cities.
House GOP conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, tweeted in response, “The peaceful transfer of power is enshrined in our Constitution and fundamental to the survival of our Republic. America’s leaders swear an oath to the Constitution. We will uphold that oath.”
Acting Senate Intelligence Chairman Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, tweeted, “As we have done for over two centuries we will have a legitimate & fair election It may take longer than usual to know the outcome, but it will be a valid one And at noon on Jan 20, 2021 we will peacefully swear in the President.”
This story has been updated with additional developments on Thursday.
CNN’s Haley Byrd, Kristin Wilson, Lauren Fox, Ted Barrett, Kevin Liptak and Nicky Robertson contributed to this report.