What happens if Donald Trump refuses to concede?

7 November 2020, 22:18 | Updated: 9 November 2020, 16:43

By Ewan Somerville

Donald Trump is currently still refusing to concede after losing the US election 2020 to candidate Joe Biden - but what happens if he never admits defeat?

Such is the strength of the tradition, no US presidential candidate in modern history has refused to concede but it's looking less and less likely that Donald Trump will.

Following the news Joe Biden has achieved the Electoral College votes to become the 46th President of the United States, Trump has refused to acknowledge his rival's success.

Rather the opposite, in fact, and in a statement issued from a golf course Trump still insisted this election was "far from over".

So what happens if the president Donald Trump refuses to concede and leave the White House?

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What happens if Donald Trump doesn't concede?

A concession speech is not officially part of US law or the constitution – it's a time-honored voluntary gesture, experts have said.

In other US presidential elections, this act essentially papers over the detailed cracks of the voting system by avoiding public contestation over the winner.

The loser concedes, urges their supporters and party to do the same, and the winner declares victory.

This has been made much more tricky during the 2020 US election because of the long delay in counting postal votes which means no candidate had reached 270 Electoral College votes three days after polling day.

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Mr Trump has made clear he has no intention of accepting anything other than victory this election, claiming he was won by “legal” votes and claiming without any evidence that the Democrats are trying to “steal the election”.

Mr Biden took the lead over Mr Trump in the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Georgia for the first time on Friday, putting him on the verge of winning the White House.

In a statement, Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates said: “As we said on July 19th, the American people will decide this election." 

"And the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House,” he added.

Can a winner be declared without concession?

The US constitution makes no mention of how a president should be removed if they lose an election and refuse to hand over power to their opponent.

It is, however, very clear that a new president will take the oath of office on January 20 at noon.

This sets up a fraught two months ahead against a ticking clock.

Donald Trump has made a series of allegations about this year's contest
Donald Trump has made a series of allegations about this year's contest. Picture: AP

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The Republicans are firing off legal challenges left right and centre already, while the Democrats have hired hundreds of lawyers to defend themselves, so if the result remains on the knife-edge then it could become tied up in the Supreme Court, but it is unclear whether judges will accept any legal protestation yet.

The fact that Mr Biden has become protected by Secret Service agents more and more closely —and airspace cleared over Wilmington — suggests security officials understand a transfer of power could be beckoning.

Mr Trump would likely have to cave into political pressure and Congress would play a key role in this. If it came to it, the Secret Service and other law enforcement could also play a role.

He could also accept defeat when his vice president, Mike Pence, fulfills his official role of certifying the counting of electoral college votes in the House chamber in January.

What has happened in previous years of the US election?

There have been plenty of close results in past US presidential elections where candidates have conceded and power was transferred peacefully.

Hillary Clinton called Trump to concede in 2016 and she addressed supporters after it was clear she would lose.

Al Gore called George W. Bush to concede on Election Night in 2000, before un-conceding when results tightened in Florida. When the Supreme Court ended recounts and declared the White House for Bush, Al Gore conceded again.

Not in modern history has a US presidential candidate not conceded in some form.