Intel expert explains how Trump could use a foreign crisis to hang onto power

Many critics of President Donald Trump — from liberals and progressives to right-wing Never Trump conservatives — have emphasized that if former Vice President Joe Biden wins in November, he will need a landslide victory in both the popular vote and the Electoral College in order to ensure that Trump willingly makes a concession speech and agrees to vacate the White House in January. Trump, his critics have argued, will try anything to hold onto power. Intel expert Paul R. Pillar examines some possible scenarios in an article for The National Interest, warning that democracy itself is in danger in the U.S. this election year.


Before his retirement in 2005, Pillar spent almost 28 years working in the United States’ intelligence community. Pillar worked with the CIA in different parts of the world and served on the National Intelligence Council — and he stresses that when a president is threatening that he might not accept the election results if he loses, that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“American democracy is in danger as it approaches the November elections, in ways that go beyond even all-too-familiar voter suppression and gerrymandering and threaten to lower the United States to the level of tin-pot dictatorships,” Pillar argues. “The incumbent president — who has never tried to appeal beyond a minority base, is trailing in opinion polls, and often displays authoritarian tendencies — has all but announced that he will not accept an election loss.”

“The most likely confusion-and-chaos scenario is that Trump will exploit the coronavirus-inspired fear of voting in person by discrediting what is certain to be an unprecedented amount of voting by mail,” Pillar writes. “Trump already is repeatedly asserting falsely that voting by mail entails widespread fraud."

But even if he suffers a decisive “election defeat,” Pillar warns, Trump might try to stay in power by exploiting some type of “foreign crisis.”

The most obvious way Trump could exploit foreign affairs to win is if another country, at his prodding or not, interferes in the election as Russia did in 2016. Indeed, the intelligence community has already said Russia is trying the play again in 2020. But Pillar explained other ways this tactic may manifest itself:

Another possible foreign angle is the outbreak of an attention-grabbing international crisis, especially involving open warfare, that drags in the United States. This has long been the sort of external event that aids an incumbent with a rally-round-the-flag effect, even in the absence of any shenanigans corrupting the electoral process.

Additionally, Trump might point to a foreign crisis and especially war as one more reason—added to any domestic balloting uncertainties—that he needs to remain the president. No U.S. president has tried to use that tactic to overturn an election defeat. But Franklin D. Roosevelt’s breaking in 1940 of the longstanding tradition of no third term was premised largely on the outbreak of World War II, which the United States would enter the following year, and Nazi Germany’s overrunning of most of Europe.

Unfortunately, some other foreign powers have leaders with incentives to foment just the sort of conflicts that would drag in the United States and serve Trump’s purposes. One is Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose political troubles regarding corruption charges have recently been compounded by public anger over a surge of coronavirus infections in Israel.

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Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has similar motives, and a similar ability to stoke trouble with Iran that could ensnare the United States. MbS already has shown his reckless streak, and he may do more reckless things in the face of setbacks in the Yemen war, internal challenges related to low oil prices, and his drive to achieve unrivaled personal power within the kingdom. MbS, like Netanyahu, owes Trump favors for soft-peddling even an outrage such as the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

“Americans who cherish their democracy need to worry most about purely domestic things such as mail-in ballots,” Pillar concludes, “but they should not overlook the ways in which foreign action might exacerbate a crisis of democracy.”