LAS VEGAS — In an unprecedented act of defiance for a major-party presidential nominee, Donald Trump outright said he might not accept the results of next month’s election.
Trump has been forcefully making the case to his supporters in recent weeks that America’s political system is “rigged” against him, from the media to the voting booths. Asked during Wednesday’s debate if he would commit to accepting the election’s results, Trump demurred.
“I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?” Trump said, after being pressed repeatedly for a response.
Hillary Clinton immediately pounced, calling Trump's answer “horrifying.”
“That is not the way our democracy works,” she said. “We’ve been around for 240 years. We’ve had free and fair elections. We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them. And that is what must be expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election.” (Later, aboard her plane and flanked by her top advisers, she told reporters that it was an effort "to blame somebody else for his campaign.")
Trump’s response to moderator Chris Wallace was consistent with the stay-tuned strategy he’s employed throughout this election. By promising to leave the world “in suspense” on such a high-stakes question as whether he will challenge US election results, Trump has created a dramatic cliffhanger that will keep the spotlight firmly on him in the final weeks of the race. And if he does concede on election night, Trump will no doubt expect credit for the decision — thus transforming an electoral tradition widely taken for granted into an act of supreme statesmanship that deserves special praise.
Still, Trump's comments set off a firestorm in the immediate aftermath of the debate. On TV, the conversation immediately turned to candidacies already lost (John Kerry and Al Gore) and in Vegas, Trump campaign surrogates in the post-debate spin room moved quickly to defend their candidate. Some pointed to the 2000 Florida recount as precedent for contesting an election, while others cited potential voter fraud as cause for alarm.
Trump, they all said, was demanding a “free and fair election.”
“If the election is too close, of course he wouldn’t accept it,” said Rudy Giuliani. “Al Gore didn’t accept it, did he? He went to court over it. … Peaceful transfer of power is important, but the accuracy of the election, as Al Gore pointed out, is even more important.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, another firm Trump ally who has flirted with the idea that the election is rigged in recent days, insisted the candidate would not challenge the results for “light or transient reasons.”
“He’s just saying, ‘I’m not giving up my rights’ … He feels strongly that there are things going on out there that worry him. And we do have voter fraud. There’s no doubt about this,” Sessions said.
He continued, “You honor the results of an election, yes, but you have every right not to accept the vote total if you think it’s fraudulent, or an error.”
Campaign strategist Sarah Huckabee Sanders said even if there isn’t evidence of rampant voter fraud, it could take “several days” for Trump to concede, as he waits for every last vote to be tallied.
Several of Trump’s top advisers and surrogates became visibly irritated Wednesday night as reporters pummeled them with questions about their candidate’s comments.
Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway pointedly refused to address questions about Trump’s “rigged” rhetoric during a spin-room gaggle, dismissing it as a media obsession that most debate viewers didn’t care about. “Mr. Trump will accept the results of the election because he will win the election,” she said.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, grew combative when reporters asked him if he believed the election was rigged. “I think that there is voter fraud out there, don’t you? I ask you, what do you think? Do you think there’s voter fraud? You’ve been a journalist for long enough to have watched this, haven’t you?”
“Do you think one person voting illegally is OK?” Perry asked.
In an MSNBC interview after Wednesday’s debate, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus said he expected that Trump would ultimately accept the results of the election, but also suggested there was reason to be skeptical of the outcome.
“I know where he’s coming from,” said Priebus. “He is obsessed — and in some ways rightfully so — about vote fraud, and he believes he’s been totally mistreated by the media. … So I think people are obsessing over this issue and I don’t think you’re gonna get Republicans to back down on the fact that voter fraud is real and it needs to be dealt with.”
The RNC itself would honor the results, senior adviser Sean Spicer said.
"I cannot speak for what he thinks," he said of Trump, but, "I'm telling you that I think we're going to win this election and it won't be an issue."
Ruby Cramer contributed reporting.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
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Tarini Parti is a Capitol Hill reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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Rosie Gray is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C. Gray reports on politics and foreign policy.
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