This 'War Game' Maps Out What Happens If The President Contests The Election

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US President Donald Trump speaks during a retreat with Republican lawmakers at Camp David in Thurmont, Maryland, January 6, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump speaks during a retreat with Republican lawmakers at Camp David in Thurmont, Maryland, January 6, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Listen to our roundtable with former military officials here.

Did the president mean it when he told Fox News recently he might not accept the election results in November? What might happen if the results of the presidential election are contested? Former government officials from both parties held a “war game” to think through the consequences. We hear what they discovered.


Rosa Brooks, professor of constitutional and international law and national security at the Georgetown School of Law. Former Defense Department official. Co-founder of the Transition Integrity Project, which held the war game. (@brooks_rosa)

Ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell (2002-2005). Served 31 years in the U.S. Army. Adjunct professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary.

Jack BeattyOn Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Interview Highlights

In June, Ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson joined us for a conversation about the use of the military amid protests against police brutality. During the conversation, Col. Wilkerson revealed he is part of two groups devoted to protecting the November elections: the National Task Force on Election Crises and the Transition Integrity Project. 

Below, Rosa Brooks, co-founder of the Transition Integrity Project, gives us some more detail about the goals and lessons of the project.  

On co-founding the Transition Integrity Project

Rosa Brooks: “I think a lot of people have been wondering in the back of their minds for a few years now, what would Donald Trump do if he lost? Would he leave? Or is he the kind of guy who would say, ‘The election was stolen. I actually won. It's fake news that I lost. I'm staying.’ And the seeds for the Transition Integrity Project were planted back last autumn. I was at a big dinner, one of those big D.C. dinners, and I was chatting with a federal appellate court judge, and a guy who was a corporate counsel at a big corporation.

"And I said idly as one does, I said, ‘Wow, what if Trump lost but wouldn't leave?’ And the federal judge said immediately, ‘Oh, no, that would never happen. The military would never let that happen.’ And the other guy said, ‘Oh, no, that would never happen. The Secret Service would never let that happen.’ And I thought, 'Wait, what? What do you mean the military would never let that happen? What do you mean by the military? What do you mean, wouldn't let that happen?’

"I had this sort of image of ... the Joint Chiefs of Staff are going to march across the Potomac from the Pentagon, you know, carrying a bunch of bazookas and head to the White House because I can't see that happening. And if it happened, it wouldn't really be a good thing. And the same for the Secret Service. You know, who exactly are we talking about? What mechanisms, what institutional mechanisms?

"And this conversation left me thinking, I think a lot of people have this false sense of security, that there exists some magic institution that in the event of President Trump doing something in defiance of the law, in defiance of democratic rule of law, norms would just kind of descend like the Gods and rescue America. But that's not really how people and institutions work. So the impetus for creating this project was to really find a way to talk in a more granular way about the what ifs.

"What would happen? And what would these actors do? With a view, obviously, not just towards scaring the heck out of everybody, which I think we are succeeding and doing, unfortunately. But, you know, primarily with a view towards figuring out how do we make those scary realities not come true? What can be done between now and November to make sure that America stays the America we want it to be and becomes the America we want it to be.”

On members of the Transition Integrity Project

Rosa Brooks: “I can give you some names. We're actually in the process of going back to all of our participants and saying, ‘Are you willing to have your name publicly connected to this?’ We had promised everybody, you know, we'll keep your participation confidential if you would like us to. But a lot of people are beginning to say, ‘I'm happy to be publicly connected to it.’

"So they ranged from people like Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, to John Podesta, who has worked for Hillary Clinton, very senior levels, Obama, et cetera. … People like Larry with deep experience, obviously, not only in the military, but Larry also has deep experience at the State Department. … We had former Governor Jennifer Granholm from Michigan. We had Donna Brazile, who is a Democratic consultant. We had Republican political consultants and even a couple of former Republican members of Congress, some of whose names are not yet out there.

“So it was a very varied group. We had people who had worked for members of Congress at senior levels. We had people who had been members of Congress from both parties. We had journalists. We had people like Bill Kristol on the conservative side, as well as people who had worked for big tech companies. So we really were trying as much as we could to assemble a group of people who, If asked to role play, if asked ‘OK pretend you're on the Trump campaign, pretend that you're a Democratic elected official, pretend that you are Facebook or Twitter.’ We wanted people who would have a real life sense of how those actors and organizations likely would behave based on actual experience in those sectors.”

What are ‘war game’ tabletop exercises?

Rosa Brooks: “They're widely used in the national security world, but they're also increasingly used in the private sector and in other areas of government in the nonprofit sector, because basically it's just a way to think through some what ifs. That's a little bit more structured, a little bit more disciplined than just sitting around together saying, ‘Hey, what if this bad thing happens? What if that happens? What do we do?’

"The idea is that you don't get to say, ‘Oh, that could never happen.’ That you actually have to think about the things that probably won't happen, that you hope won't happen. But think about, ‘Could they happen, how could they happen? If they happen, what would we do?’ Not because you're predicting an outcome, but because you want to be prepared and in fact, you want to prevent the bad outcomes from ever coming about. So they can be structured in all kinds of different ways."

On how the game works

Rosa Brooks: "We used a form of gaming called the Matrix game, which essentially you start with a scenario: Trump loses the popular vote but wins in the Electoral College, or Biden has a narrow win in the Electoral College and a larger win of the popular vote, or whatever it may be. And, you know, we worked with experts on polling and election law to try to come up with scenarios state-by-state that were as realistic as possible.

"And you then take your participants and we assign them into teams. So we had a team playing the role of the Trump campaign. We had a team playing the role of the Biden campaign. And we had teams playing elected officials from each party. We had a media team. We had a public team with some polling experts who could help say, ‘Here's how people might respond in this situation or that situation.’

"And then each team gets to make moves. And the moves take the form of essentially saying, ‘OK. Hello, we're the Trump campaign. We're going to do X in order to accomplish Y. And we believe it's going to be successful because Z.' And that move might be we’re going to request a recount, or we're going to file a lawsuit requesting a halt to vote counting in Michigan, or wherever. And we think that will help us. Because here's what we're trying to accomplish with this and here's why we think it's going to work.

"And then the other players can weigh in and say things ... based on their real life experience and say, 'Yeah, that's probably going to be successful or no, you know, that's a total long shot, or who knows, 50-50.' Based on that we actually, you know, these games are quite artificial. They have all kinds of constraints. That's one of the reasons to emphasize they're not predictions. They're explorations of possibilities. Not, this is what's going to happen.

"But then there's an element of pure randomness. We literally had our guy running the games, an expert on game design would roll a 10 sided [dice]. And depending on the comments from participants, the probability of success of a particular move might be judged to be 20%, or 80% or 50-50. And depending on that initial assessment, the dye would be rolled to determine, 'OK. It worked. You know, the court ruled in your favor. Or, the recount was stopped, or it didn't work.' And then other players sequentially would be able to make moves in response.

"And this would go on through several phases with different teams making moves and the other teams responding to them in an effort as much as we could to, you know, in a period of four or five hours, to simulate what would take place in the real world over weeks. And in fact, a couple of months. In an effort to try to figure out if that happened, what, in fact would these other actors do? What would career civil servants do? What would the military do? What would elected officials do?”

On lessons of the “war game”

Ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson: “Let me just say some of the things that we're putting out there. Among those things, one that is very important is the media, particularly the mainstream media. They cannot act as they usually act with regard to elections. They have to play a coup on election night. They can't be declaring some state like Pennsylvania for one candidate or the other. When Pennsylvania probably has thousands upon thousands of votes yet to come in and count. So the media has to get its act in order and it has to act very differently than it normally does.

“Second, as I said before, citizens have to vote. Even with COVID-19, they have to vote. And we also have learned that poll workers have to be younger. And we've started a movement all across the country to train young people. And we've had really good luck with the volunteers to do so, to be poll workers. Because we found out in Wisconsin, for example, poll workers are mostly over 60. And many of them didn't show up because they were afraid of COVID-19. And so Wisconsin went from about one 188 polling places, to about 15. That's disastrous. And we need citizens in general to be aware of some of the things we've talked about here so that they can alert their members of Congress as constituents of those members to take action, or to be aware of the same thing.

"And lastly, let me say this to all my military friends out there, as we used to say in the chairman's office. The military needs to stay in barracks. Simply stated, that means the military has no business taking any side in either part of this election. And I remember in 1989 when Cory Aquino in the Philippines telephoned us, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and said, ‘I have a company that's about to take over my government. Can you help me?’ And we essentially made sure that company stayed in barracks. So we don't need the military interfering in any way, fashion or form with these elections. I know that’s dire. I know that's too serious, maybe. But I've read the history books.”

From The Reading List

Boston Globe: "A bipartisan group secretly gathered to game out a contested Trump-Biden election. It wasn’t pretty" — "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."

Newsweek: "Bipartisan Group Predicts 'Violence' If Trump Loses Election and Refuses to Leave White House" — "A bipartisan group of about 80 political operatives and academics has been involved in discussions about what could happen if President Donald Trump were to lose the November election and then contest the results, potentially refusing to leave the White House."

Financial Times: "How America could fail its democracy test" — "Donald Trump has won the electoral college by a clear margin. Yet America is in ferment. Cities around the world are holding candlelit vigils for US democracy and smaller Democratic states have joined California to threaten 'Calexit.' Unions plan a general strike to pressure chief executives to back America’s majority."

Washington Post: "Trump’s assault on election integrity forces question: What would happen if he refused to accept a loss?" — "President Trump’s relentless efforts to sow doubts about the legitimacy of this year’s election are forcing both parties to reckon with the possibility that he may dispute the result in November if he loses — leading to an unprecedented test of American democracy."

This article was originally published on July 28, 2020.

This program aired on July 28, 2020.


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