A bipartisan group secretly gathered to game out a contested Trump-Biden election. It wasn’t pretty.
The story goes into a little more detail about the various scenarios they gamed. None of them end well.On the second Friday in June, a group of political operatives, former government and military officials, and academics quietly convened online for what became a disturbing exercise in the fragility of American democracy.
The group, which included Democrats and Republicans, gathered to game out possible results of the November election, grappling with questions that seem less far-fetched by the day: What if President Trump refuses to concede a loss, as he publicly hinted recently he might do? How far could he go to preserve his power? And what if Democrats refuse to give in?
“All of our scenarios ended in both street-level violence and political impasse,” said Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor and former Defense Department official who co-organized the group known as the Transition Integrity Project. She described what they found in bleak terms: “The law is essentially ... it’s almost helpless against a president who’s willing to ignore it.”
Using a role-playing game that is a fixture of military and national security planning, the group envisioned a dark 11 weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day, one in which Trump and his Republican allies used every apparatus of government — the Postal Service, state lawmakers, the Justice Department, federal agents, and the military — to hold onto power, and Democrats took to the courts and the streets to try to stop it.
If it sounds paranoid or outlandish — a war room of seasoned politicos and constitutional experts playing a Washington version of Dungeons and Dragons in which the future of the republic hangs in the balance — they get it. But, as they finalize a report on what they learned and begin briefing elected officials and others, they insist their warning is serious: A close election this fall is likely to be contested, and there are few guardrails to stop a constitutional crisis, particularly if Trump flexes the considerable tools at his disposal to give himself an advantage.
“He doesn’t have to win the election,” said Nils Gilman, a historian who leads research at a think tank called the Berggruen Institute and was an organizer of the exercise. “He just has to create a plausible narrative that he didn’t lose.”
Brooks got the seed of the idea for the Transition Integrity Project after a dinner where a federal judge and a corporate lawyer each told her they were convinced the military or the Secret Service would have to escort Trump out of office if he lost the election and would not concede. Brooks wasn’t so sure. She and Gilman decided to turn the Washington parlor game into an actual exercise; they held an early meeting in Washington, with about 25 people, in December.
“When we started talking about this we got a lot of reactions — oh, you guys are so paranoid, don’t be ridiculous, this isn’t going to happen,” Brooks said.
Two things have happened since then: Trump has displayed increased willingness to challenge mail-in ballots, and his administration has deployed federal forces to quell protests in front of the White House and in Portland, Ore., and has threatened to do so in other cities.
“That has really shaken people,” Brooks said. “What was really a fringe idea has now become an anxiety that’s pretty widely shared.”
Each scenario involved a different election outcome: An unclear result on Election Day that looked increasingly like a Biden win as more ballots were counted; a clear Biden win in the popular vote and the Electoral College; an Electoral College win for Trump with Biden winning the popular vote by 5 percentage points; and a narrow Electoral College and popular vote victory for Biden.
In the scenarios, the team playing the Trump campaign often questioned the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, which often boosted Biden as they came in — shutting down post offices, pursuing litigation, and using right-wing media to amplify narratives about a stolen election.
To some participants, the game was a stark reminder of the power of incumbency.
“The more demonstrations there were, the more demands for recounts, the more legal challenges there were, the more funerals for democracy were held, the more Trump came across as the candidate of stability,” said Edward Luce, the US editor of the Financial Times, who played the role of a mainstream media reporter during one of the simulations. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”
“The Constitution really has been a workable document in many respects because we have had people who more or less adhered to a code of conduct,” said retired Army Colonel Larry Wilkerson, a Republican and former chief of staff to Colin Powell who participated in games as an observer. “That seems to no longer to be the case. That changes everything.”