WASHINGTON — President Trump declined for a second straight day to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost the election, repeating baseless assertions that the voting would be a “big scam,” even as leading Republicans scrambled to assure the public that their party would respect the Constitution.
“We want to make sure that the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be,” Mr. Trump told reporters on Thursday before leaving the White House for North Carolina.
The president doubled down on his stance just hours after prominent Republicans made it clear that they were committed to the orderly transfer of power, without directly rebuking him. “The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, wrote on Twitter early Thursday. “There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792.”
Democrats were far less restrained, comparing Mr. Trump’s comments to those of an authoritarian leader and warning Americans to take his stance seriously.
“You are not in North Korea; you are not in Turkey; you are not in Russia, Mr. President, and by the way, you are not in Saudi Arabia,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “You are in the United States of America. It is a democracy, so why don’t you just try for a moment to honor your oath of office to the Constitution of the United States?”
Chris Edelson, an American University professor who has studied the expansion of presidential power during national emergencies, said Mr. Trump’s comments represented a unique threat to a central pillar of democracy. “It’s impossible to underscore how absolutely extraordinary this situation is — there are really no precedents in our country,” he said. “This is a president who has threatened to jail his political opponents. Now he is suggesting he would not respect the results of an election. These are serious warning signs.”
Douglas Brinkley, the presidential historian, said, “This may be the most damaging thing he has ever done to American democracy.”
Over the past four years, establishment Republicans have tried to adjust to Mr. Trump’s disruptions, either ignoring his comments or dismissing them as a temporary news-cycle diversion rather than a threat to the democratic process. Republicans appeared on Thursday to be trying to reassure the public about the electoral system while withholding personal criticism of the president, a balancing act that shows their political codependence — one that has led G.O.P. lawmakers, with few exceptions, to faithfully execute his wishes.
Other Republicans, including Senators Susan Collins and Marco Rubio and Representative Liz Cheney, followed Mr. McConnell on Thursday and issued statements conveying an implicit criticism of the president’s stance. “America’s leaders swear an oath to the Constitution,’’ Ms. Cheney wrote on Twitter. “We will uphold that oath.’’
Mr. Trump’s comments follow a series of battleground state polls that show him trailing former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic challenger. The president’s standing has not recovered since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, despite his repeated efforts to focus voters’ attention on other issues, from the economy to social unrest to the new Supreme Court vacancy.
Mr. Trump initially sparked alarm on Wednesday when, asked about a peaceful transition, he said that “we’re going to have to see what happens” — remarks that intensified the growing partisan controversy over the legitimacy of the elections. Mr. Trump, as he has many times before, questioned the integrity of the voting system, and he repeated that skepticism Thursday, saying: “We have to be very careful with the ballots. The ballots — you know, that’s a whole big scam.”
There is no evidence that mailing ballots to voters increases fraud in the voting process, though there have been scattered instances of the Postal Service’s failing to deliver ballots among other mail that did not reach its destination.
At the Capitol on Thursday, Republican senators and members of the House could not avoid questions from reporters about the president’s sentiment, but party members elsewhere exhibited little appetite for engaging in a discussion about them. Just four of the 168 Republican National Committee members responded to emailed questions about Mr. Trump’s remarks, and just one of the country’s 26 Republican governors — Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas — agreed to address the issue when contacted through their press offices.
“Our common commitment to democracy and the rule of law,” Mr. Hutchinson wrote, “is not dependent upon the actions of any one individual.”
Republican congressional aides scrambled to respond to Mr. Trump’s remarks on Wednesday night, settling on an informal strategy that affirmed broad constitutional principles and trod lightly around Mr. Trump, the most powerful and popular member of their party. They also attempted to throw the question back at Democrats by seizing on Hillary Clinton’s recent remark, which stopped short of Mr. Trump’s comment, that Democrats “should not concede the election” until all legal options had been exhausted.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate facing the most challenging re-election fight of her career — in a state that is becoming more favorable to Democrats — was the rare Republican to refer directly to Mr. Trump as she questioned his actions.
“I don’t know what his thinking was, but we have always had a peaceful transition between administrations,” Ms. Collins said. “The peaceful transfer of power is a fundamental tenet of our democracy, and I am confident that we will see it occur once again.”
Ben Ginsberg, a longtime Republican elections lawyer who retired last month, said Republican senators — even those who have sought to distance themselves from Mr. Trump — are limited in how much they can criticize a president who remains overwhelmingly popular with the party’s base.
His leverage over the rank and file is even greater as he prepares to announce a Supreme Court nominee nearly all of them will support, Mr. Ginsberg said.
“The president’s comments about the peaceful transfer of power, combined with his need for the ninth justice to carry out his election plans, puts Republican senators on the horns of a dilemma,” Mr. Ginsberg said.
Democrats, seemingly powerless to stop the court nomination, accused Republicans of enabling Mr. Trump in the interest of short-term political gain.
Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon said his Republican colleagues had an obligation to denounce any suggestion that Mr. Trump would not participate in a peaceful transfer of power.
“Anyone elected who takes an oath to the Constitution has the responsibility to respond and say this is unacceptable,” Mr. Merkley said in an interview. “This is the way authoritarian dictators operate. They have show elections and they say, ‘I win, and I will make sure the results show I win.’”
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump merged the two story lines involving the court and the legitimacy of the election. He said he expected voting disputes to be decided by the Supreme Court and urged a swift confirmation for a successor to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Two leading Republican senators, Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have echoed the president’s call for a swift action on his nominee, citing the court’s potential role in deciding the outcome.
“People wonder about the peaceful transfer of power,” Mr. Graham said on Fox News on Thursday. “I can assure you, it will be peaceful.”
“I promise you as a Republican, if the Supreme Court decides that Joe Biden wins, I will accept the result,” Mr. Graham added. “The court will decide, and if Republicans lose, we’ll accept the result.”
Mr. Trump, for his part, does not seem to mind all the criticism — and appears intent on sowing doubt about the legitimacy of an election he is in danger of losing. At the state level, some Republicans were endorsing his position.
“There is a lot of concern with how the voting process is being managed,” said Deborah Billado, the chairwoman of the Vermont Republican Party. “The country was hurled into this mail-in ballot process when everyone knows the integrity of the checklists are in question. Many people do not trust what’s happening.”
And Richard Porter, a Republican National Committee member from Chicago, said the question put to Mr. Trump about an orderly transition had been unfair.
“These questions to the president regarding his willingness to leave office are all trolling him — premised on and suggestive of the notion that he’s a bad, bad guy,” Mr. Porter said. “Of course he will respect the actual results — it’s a ridiculous question. He’s just jerking your chain.”
Mr. Trump has given no indication that his remarks were in jest.
Former Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who has been helping Vice President Mike Pence prepare for the upcoming debates, struck a defiant note, writing on Twitter: “Smart candidates never concede anything before an election. They focus on what it takes to win.”
Senator Rick Scott of Florida announced that he had introduced legislation that would require every state to count and report its final results “within 24 hours after polls close on Election Day.” The federal government has no role in overseeing elections; they are conducted and certified by local officials, who abide by a variety of rules about how and when ballots must be returned in order to be counted in a presidential election.
Still, the debate exposed a divide in the party that the flurry of G.O.P. statements — and attacks on Democrats — could not obscure, and Mr. Trump’s comments caused deep uneasiness among some stalwarts of the besieged Republican establishment.
“This isn’t the typical Trump outrage that comes and goes,” said Brendan Buck, a former top adviser to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who stepped down in 2019. “Senators are stating their principle here because it’s obvious to everyone that he is, in fact, planning to dispute the results if he loses, no matter how lopsided. Calling him names isn’t going to stop him, but they are trying to save themselves some trouble later by making clear they’re not going to flirt with crazy conspiracies that make a mockery of our democracy.”
Nicholas Fandos and Michael Crowley contributed reporting.