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Experts Game Out What Might Happen If The Election Goes Off The Rails

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the pillars of democracy is the peaceful transfer of power. Well, a bipartisan team of experts has been gaming out a frightening scenario. What if the loser in this year's presidential election doesn't concede? Here's what President Trump told Chris Wallace on Fox News earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

CHRIS WALLACE: Can you give a direct answer, you will accept the election?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I have to see. Look, you - I have to see. No, I'm not going to just say yes. I'm not going say no. And I didn't last time either.

SHAPIRO: Rosa Brooks, who worked in President Obama's Defense Department, is the co-organizer of the Transition Integrity Project. Last month, this bipartisan group of political operatives, academics and former government officials spent a day exploring what might happen if the election goes off the rails. Brooks told me it's fair to say all of them participated out of concern for this fall's election.

ROSA BROOKS: We had about 70 or 80 people. We put them on two teams. We had a Team Trump - a Trump campaign team, a Team Biden. We had GOP and Democratic elected official teams. We had a media team and teams representing sort of career civil servants. And we essentially did a number of exercises where we gave them each a scenario. One of our scenarios was a decisive Biden win. One was a decisive Trump win. One was a narrow Biden win. One was a period of extended uncertainty as in the election of 2000.

In each of our exercises, the Trump campaign team came right out of the gate, tried to stop the counting of mail-in ballots, tried to assert that they were fraudulent, in one case closed the post office to prevent additional ballots from reaching the ballot counters, in another case seized and tried to sequester the ballots to prevent additional counting.

In all of our scenarios, the team that feared an electoral - a ballot count loss attempted to persuade legislators, state-level legislators and governors sympathetic to them to send rival slates of electors to Congress. We had both sides attempting to mobilize street protesters. And I can say that in each of the exercises, the players playing the Trump team were significantly more ruthless and willing to play fast and loose with the truth than the team playing the Biden campaign.

SHAPIRO: It seems like one of the big takeaways is that a lot of what governs the transfer of power is not rules but traditions, and this is a president who has not hesitated to abandon all kinds of traditions.

BROOKS: I think that's absolutely right. And the president tweeted out just today a comment suggesting that he believed the presidential election perhaps should be delayed. And...

SHAPIRO: Which, we need to note, the president does not have the authority to do...

BROOKS: Which the president does not have the authority to do - but if you are President Trump and you don't care whether you have the authority to do it, what you certainly can do is you can call on governors who do have the authority to do that and ask them to do it for you. You can also attempt to use disinformation campaign to keep people from turning out and voting. You know, if you announce the night before the election, I have canceled the election; don't go tomorrow - you don't necessarily need to actually have that power. If you can persuade enough confused voters that they shouldn't bother to vote 'cause the polls are closed, that's a win.

SHAPIRO: You've been really clear that you don't have a crystal ball and you're not predicting the future. That said, can you just take us into the room when the simulation was over and everybody was kind of taking stock of what they experienced? What was that conversation like?

BROOKS: I think people were kind of shellshocked, I think all of us. Whether we're Democrats or Republicans, you know, everyone has a little bit of a bias towards stability and the status quo. We say things like, oh, come on. It's always been fine. The U.S. is fine. Everything will be fine. Look at the election of 2000. There weren't riots. There wasn't a coup. It was fine.

And I think actually pushing people to say, yes - but what if this happens? What if this happens? What if this happens? Who does what next? - And have them really walk through that and see what happened if you had a group of people who were willing to play fast and loose with the rules was really shocking. I think it really shook people's faith in the notion that the system won't let someone try to manipulate or steal the election.

I think it really shocked people out of that and made them see there's a very real chance that it won't be fine if you all sit back and just assume it won't be fine (laughter). If you want it to be fine - if you want this to be a normal, free and fair election, you need to be thinking right now about how we protect the integrity of the election and the transition.

SHAPIRO: Rosa Brooks is a professor of law at Georgetown. She worked in the Defense Department during the Obama administration, and she is co-organizer of the Transition Integrity Project.

Thank you for talking with us about your work.

BROOKS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.