The Transition Integrity Project was a short-term project launched by Rosa Brooks and Nils Gilman to conduct scenario-based exercises aimed at identifying potential risks to the integrity of the November 3, 2020 election and transition process.
Our goal was to help ensure that the 2020 presidential election is free, fair and peaceful, in order to ensure that the outcome is accepted by all as legitimate. By identifying potential risks to the election and the transition, we hope to encourage actions that will shore up the integrity of the process.
In June 2020 we ran a series of scenario simulations exploring what could possibly go wrong around the election, and what could be done to mitigate the identified risks. On August 3, 2020, we published a report summarizing our findings.
KGNU’s Liz Lane speaks with Transition Integrity Project co-founder, Nils Gilman, about election day “war game” planning.
Transition Integrity Project Report
Among the findings we highlight in the report:
• The concept of “election night,” is no longer accurate and indeed is dangerous. We face a period of contestation stretching from the first day a ballot is cast in mid-September until January
20. The winner may not, and we assess likely will not, be known on “election night” as officials count mail-in ballots. This period of uncertainty provides opportunities for an unscrupulous candidate to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process and to set up an unprecedented assault on the outcome. Campaigns, parties, the press and the public must be educated to adjust expectations
• A determined campaign has opportunity to contest the election into January 2021. We anticipate lawsuits, divergent media narratives, attempts to stop the counting of ballots, and protests drawing people from both sides. President Trump, the incumbent, will very likely use the executive branch to aid his campaign strategy, including through the Department of Justice. We assess that there is a chance the president will attempt to convince legislatures and/or governors to take actions – including illegal actions – to defy the popular vote. Federal laws provide little guidance for how Congress should resolve irregularities when they convene in a Joint Session on January 6, 2021. Of particular concern is how the military would respond in the context of uncertain election results. Here recent evidence offers some reassurance, but it is inconclusive.
• The administrative transition process itself may be highly disrupted. Participants in our exercises of all backgrounds and ideologies believed that Trump would prioritize personal gain and self-protection over ensuring an orderly administrative handoff to his successor. Trump may use pardons to thwart future criminal prosecution, arrange business deals with foreign governments
that benefit him financially, attempt to bribe and silence associates, declassify sensitive documents, and attempt to divert federal funds to his own businesses.’
During the exercises, Team Biden and Democratic elected officials took the following steps:
• Organizing 1,000 “influencers” to denounce efforts to steal the election.
• Organizing all living presidents to stand with Biden and denounce Trump administration efforts to subvert the democratic process.
• Recruiting moderate Republican Governors such as Baker (MA) and Hogan (MD) to form an “Election Protection” Coalition.
• Working with local Democratic elected officials to call on the Adjutant General of the National Guard, along with representatives from the technology sector, to monitor vote counting.
• Organizing a bipartisan “National Day for Restoration of Democracy” and a “National Day of Unity,” both including faith leaders.
• Attempting a capital strike and a work stoppage as part of an overall effort to push corporate leaders to insist that all ballots to be counted.’
‘A show of numbers in the streets- and actions in the streets- may be decisive factors in determining what the public perceives as a just and legitimate outcome.
During TIP’s exercises, Team Biden almost always called for and relied on mass protests to demonstrate the public’s commitment to a “legitimate” outcome, with the objective of hardening the resolve of Democratic elected officials to fight and take action, and to dramatize the stakes. As a practical matter, however, participants in the exercise noted that racial justice activists and others will likely act independently of the Biden campaign – players repeatedly cautioned that these social movements are independent, not
beholden to, or a tool of, the Democratic party. Their support or Biden’s ability to mobilize them cannot be taken for granted. (Note: leaders of these grassroots movements were not well represented in the simulation exercises, so the scenario exercises did not robustly test their likely receptivity to a Biden call to take to the streets, or to the Biden campaign’s ability to control these actors once mobilized.) If anything, the scale of recent demonstrations has increased the stakes for the Democratic Party to build strong ties with grassroots organizations and be responsive to the movement’s demands.
In addition, the exercises suggest that there is a significant possibility of simultaneous street mobilizations by both Trump and Biden supporters, in which case the possibility for violence will increase significantly, and the actions of law enforcement will become critical. Of note here: TIP’s scenario exercise suggest that President Trump and his more fervent supporters have every incentive to try to turn peaceful proBiden (or anti-Trump) protests violent in order to generate evidence that a Democratic victory is tantamount to “mob rule.” In the recent past, President Trump has on numerous occasions called on “Second Amendment people” to defend their rights and has called on his supporters to “liberate” states with restrictive COVID-19-related rules. Trump can rely on surrogates to embed operatives inside protests to encourage violent action, and he can mobilize a range of law enforcement actors (including National Guard troops, whether federalized or under the control of GOP governors) who might, without proper training or if led by politicized actors, escalate matters. In some scenarios examined by TIP, Team Trump succeeded in invoking the Insurrection Act and sending active duty military troops into US cities to “restore order,” “protect” voting places, or confiscate “fraudulent” ballots.’
Game One: Ambiguous Result
The first game investigated a scenario in which the outcome of the election remained unclear from election night and throughout gameplay. The election outcome turned on results of three states: North Carolina, Michigan and Florida. Different combinations of outcomes from those states could result in a range of final election results – including a 269-269 Electoral College tie. A ‘blue shift’ occurred during the game whereby what initially looked like a likely Trump win shifted in the second turn to looking like a Biden win.
Turn One (November 3 – November 10
• The Trump Campaign began the game by calling on Biden to concede based on the election night in-person voting returns, which skewed toward President Trump and the GOP. The Trump Campaign also used the “bully pulpit” of the Presidency and its influence with right wing media to lock in the election night returns, call into question mail-in ballots or the legitimacy of post-election day vote counts, and enlist the support of Republican officials in several states to immediately halt further vote counting.
• The Trump Campaign team asked the Department of Justice (DoJ) to deploy federal agents across the nation to “secure” voting sites and prepare the National Guard for possible deployment to maintain order against potential protests. Attorney General Barr instructed the DoJ to support litigation that would prevent further counting of mail-in ballots.
• On election night, the Biden Campaign declared that victory was imminent and called for every vote to be counted. The team mobilized a network of influential bipartisan elites, elected officials, and retired military officers to speak to the press and denounce any effort to suppress counting the vote. The Biden Campaign also called for peaceful rallies, echoing a call to count every vote.
• GOP Elected Officials publicly supported Trump’s victory and claims of voter fraud but stopped short of supporting the deployment of military forces. Democratic Elected Officials were proactive in the states where they held offices to ensure votes would be counted and to build bipartisan coalitions to oversee and protect the count.
Turns Two and Three
• The Trump Campaign team again attempted to federalize the National Guard to end further vote counting and called on supporters to turn out in large numbers. The Biden Campaign established a bipartisan transition team and mobilized supporters to ensure vote counting was completed thoroughly.
• Officials from both parties sought to block or overturn results in key states, including seeking to use friendly state legislatures and governors to send alternate or additional sets of electors. After dice-rolls, most of these efforts failed.
• As the scenario played out, North Carolina went to Biden and Florida to Trump, leaving Michigan as the deciding state. There, a rogue individual destroyed a large number of ballots believed to have supported Biden, leaving Trump a narrow electoral win. The Governor of Michigan used this abnormality as justification to send a separate, pro-Biden set of electors to DC.
• Neither campaign was willing to accept the result, and called on their supporters to turn out in the streets to sway the result. The Trump Campaign team attempted to coerce or influence the individual electors. President Trump also invoked the Insurrection Act.
• The outcome of the scenario hinged on how the elected officials from the two parties addressed the separate slate of electors from Michigan. GOP officials asserted that as the President of the Senate, Vice President Pence could legally choose to accept or reject electors as he wished.
There was no clear resolution of the conflict in the January 6 joint session of Congress; the partisans on both sides were still claiming victory, leading to the problem of two claims to Commander-in-Chief power (including access to the nuclear codes) at noon on January 20.
Game Two: Clear Biden Victory
In this scenario, Biden won outright in the Electoral College and the popular vote. The Trump Campaign initially contested the outcome of the vote. Once it became clear that efforts to overturn that outcome were unlikely to succeed, the Trump Campaign pivoted to a strategy of self-preservation and limiting future legal liability.
• The Trump Campaign initially alleged massive fraud and called for joint DNI-DOJ investigations into the election results. These allegations were reinforced by GOP elected officials. Both the Trump Campaign and GOP team called on media to cast doubt on the outcomes. (Unlike in other scenarios, they never attempted to get state legislatures to repudiate the certified popular vote in the states, or to thwart the state-law processes for counting ballots.)
• The Trump Campaign maximized federal funding for Trump businesses by temporarily relocating the President and his staff to Mar-A-Lago and pursuing murky overseas business deals.
• GOP-controlled Senate pushed through outstanding judicial nominations.
• The Trump Campaign sought to shield President Trump and his team from any future criminal jeopardy by preparing pardons for all individuals connected to the administration – regardless of admitted or perceived guilt.
• The Biden Campaign successfully secured the election result and also worked to forge coalitions with elected GOP officials – which the dice rolls granted to a limited extent – while taking public steps to ‘heal the country’ through public rallies and addresses.
• The Democratic Elected Representatives team also pushed for a bipartisan alliance through an Election Protection Coalition as a way to insulate results from the DOJ/DNI investigations. They also sought to enlist ‘faithless electors’, though the game play did not grant this. (Since the game was played, SCOTUS has unanimously ruled against faithlessness.)
Turns Two and Three
• The Biden Campaign team emphasized standing up a credible transition process. The Trump Campaign sought to hinder this, but the Federal Government Team confirmed that a number of civil servants would seek to enable it regardless of directions from the White House.
• The Trump team issued pardons for Trump family members, political allies, and cabinet officials, along with prominent Democrats, including Hunter Biden and Hillary Clinton, for unspecified crimes.
• The Trump Campaign took steps to position either Donald Trump or his son Donald Trump Jr. to run for reelection in 2024. The Trump Campaign announced the new “MAGA TV” station, featuring documentary footage from Trump’s final weeks in office.
• The Trump Campaign team also sought to install close allies in positions of influence in the RNC and to distract public attention from the President’s efforts at self-preservation and continued influence in the party by escalating rhetoric with Iran.
• The Biden Campaign remained focused on the transition and laying the groundwork for governing. The Democratic Elected Representatives team supported the Biden effort, but also began the process of preparing for investigation into Trump, his family, and his associates.
• GOP elected officials re-focused on state responses to COVID-19, while the Federal Government saw a mass exodus of Trump aligned political appointees.
Game Three: Clear Trump Win
The third scenario posited a comfortable Electoral College victory for President Trump — 286-252 — but also a significant popular vote win—52% – 47%–for former Vice President Biden. The game play ended in a constitutional crisis, with threats of secession, and the potential for either a decline into authoritarianism or a radically revamped set of democratic rules that ensure the popular will prevails (abolishment of the Electoral College, making DC and Puerto Rico states, and other changes). Key moves and actions include:
• The Trump Campaign had two main objectives at the outset of the scenario. The first priority was to legitimize the Electoral College results by pushing narratives that cast doubt on former Vice President Biden’s popular vote victory and portraying wide-spread protests of President Trump as
anti-American, undemocratic, and promoting mob rule. The Trump Campaign planted agent provocateurs into the protests throughout the country to ensure these protests turned violent and helped further the narrative of a violent insurrection against a lawfully elected president.
• The second Trump Campaign priority was to consolidate power to reduce or eliminate the “Deep State” and broader institutional resistance to President Trump’s agenda for his second term. Specific measures included selective promotions of military personnel with “pro-American views”, rushing judicial nominations, increasing financial incentives to big business, and working with states to maximize GOP control through redistricting.
• The GOP Elected Officials team was supportive of Trump’s efforts to crack down on protests. Establishing “law and order” and defeating the “anarchists” was a unifying call. But they pressed President Trump to “slow down” on the campaign’s more aggressive and overt efforts to consolidate power, partly out of concern that they would lose the support of moderate Democrats needed to publicly declare Trump’s victory legitimate.
• The most consequential action of the first turn was the Biden Campaign’s retraction of its election night concession. It capitalized on the public’s outrage that for the third time in 20 years a candidate lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College. They also capitalized on concern about widespread voter suppression before and on Election Day. The Biden Campaign began the game
by encouraging three states with Democratic governors—North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Michigan—to ask for recounts. As the game developed, governors in two of the three (Wisconsin and Michigan) sent separate slates of electors to counter those sent by the state legislature.
• The GOP failed to convince moderate Democrats in the House to break ranks with the Democratic resistance and support Trump’s electoral victory, much to the GOP’s surprise. Part of the strategy here was to attack the Electoral College and to claim that the certified popular votes in these states were questionable because of voter suppression.
• At the end of the first turn, the country was in the midst of a full-blown constitutional crisis characterized by: 1) Political chaos; 2) Widespread threats of violence, and sporadic actual violence in the streets; and 3) A hostile, dangerous, highly-partisan, and frequently unconstrained information and media environment.
Turns Two and Three
• The Biden Campaign encouraged Western states, particularly California but also Oregon and Washington, and collectively known as “Cascadia,” to secede from the Union unless Congressional Republicans agreed to a set of structural reforms to fix our democratic system to ensure majority rule. With advice from President Obama, the Biden Campaign submitted a proposal to
1) Give statehood to Washington, DC and Puerto Rico;
2) Divide California into five states to more accurately represent its population in the Senate;
3) Require Supreme Court justices to retire at 70; and
4) Eliminate the Electoral College, to ensure that the candidate who wins to the popular vote becomes President.
• As the scenario evolved, the Trump Team focused its efforts on driving a wedge into the disparate and, in the view of many participants, fragile Democratic coalition. For example, during the second turn, Trump gave an interview to The Intercept in which he stated that he would have lost
the election if Bernie Sanders had been nominated.
• The Trump Team’s approach in turns two and three also emphasized creating the conditions to force the Biden Campaign into taking provocative, unprecedented actions—such as supporting California’s secession or sending a second slate of electors—that played into a broader narrative of the Democrats attempting to orchestrate an illegal coup. The team also tried to position President Trump as a “unifier”—working with top CEOs, holding a unifying event at the Lincoln Memorial, offering to establish a commission to review electoral rules—and as prioritizing safety and security in the face of radical groups supporting Joe Biden and trying to destroy America.
• One of the most consequential moves was that Team Biden on January 6 provoked a breakdown in the joint session of Congress by getting the House of Representatives to agree to award the presidency to Biden (based on the alternative pro-Biden submissions sent by pro-Biden governors). Pence and the GOP refused to accept this, declaring instead that Trump was reelected under the Constitution because of his Electoral College victory. This partisan division remained unresolved because neither side backed down, and January 20 arrived without a single president elect entitled to be Commander-in-Chief after noon that day. It was unclear what the military would do in this situation.
Game Four: Narrow Biden Win
The final scenario explored a narrow Biden win where he leads with less than 1% of the popular vote the day after the election, and is predicted to win 278 electoral votes. Fox News is among the major networks that called the election for Biden, though the Trump campaign does not concede, setting up an intense competition that concludes with an uneasy and combative but ultimately successful transition.
• The Trump Campaign began the game by encouraging the state legislatures in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan to certify a separate slate of electors in support of President Trump. Despite opposition from the Biden Campaign and Democrats, both Michigan’s and Pennsylvania’s legislatures agree to send two sets of electors in support of Trump.
• The Trump Campaign engaged in a large and coordinated disinformation campaign primarily focused on the legitimacy of the mail-in ballots. This campaign used the media to amplify “stolen election” and “voter fraud” narratives, and launched noisy DoJ investigation into voter fraud. Attorney General Barr also took action to stop ballot counting. Trump Campaign surrogates released false information that Joe Biden had suffered a heart-attack in an attempt to undermine perceptions of Biden’s fitness to hold office. The Biden Campaign quickly dispelled this information, but Facebook kept posts about the heart-attack up.
• Despite all of these moves during the first week after the election, dice rolls confirmed that the Biden Campaign maintained a narrow lead.
• The Trump Campaign understood that its most effective strategy was not just to create more doubt about the validity of votes for Biden, but also to sew more chaos and disruption so that President Trump could position himself as the only one capable of ensuring law and order. The Trump Campaign stoked chaos and mayhem by urging local police forces to break up Black Lives Matter and pro-Biden demonstrations and encouraging Alt Right / Boogaloo supporters to confront liberal protestors.
Turns Two and Three
• The Biden Campaign framed Trump’s actions as ugly and divisive; engaging independents and moderate Republicans to speak out against this threat. Mitt Romney tried to convince Republican senators to support the Biden victory. After first failing, Romney prevailed and convinced three other GOP Senators to recognize Biden as the President-elect.
• As it became evident that the Biden victory would be certified, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately signaled to several Republicans they could support Romney’s cross-the-aisle effort, recognizing that moderate Republicans are more likely to prevail in 2022.
• The Biden Campaign organized massive protests across the country. A dice roll determined that over four million Americans took to the streets across the country in support of Biden, enabling his campaign to gain momentum in the battle for public opinion. Violent skirmishes and vandalism took place during these demonstrations.
• A critical moment in the game play was the Joint Chiefs of Staff leaking that internal discussions had taken place about how to handle the escalating situation, including the consideration of resigning in protest of Trump’s continued efforts to sow unrest. The leak indicated that the Joint Chiefs’ commitment was to the Constitution rather than to the President or to a particular party.
Once the Senate voted in agreement with the House on January 6, the military made it clear that it was ready to support Biden as the newly inaugurated president on January 20.
• Sensing the election slipping away, right-wing media pursued particularly aggressive and provocative strategies. Infowars published a list of addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information of electors pledged to vote for Joe Biden. The announcement included spurious claims linking 88 of these electors to Soros and 14 to child sex trafficking. Rush Limbaugh and others accused the Biden campaign of accepting help from China, a message picked up by the mainstream media. Right-wing meme pages, which have a 340% greater reach than any other piece of content on Facebook, saturated the on-line landscape with appeals to defend the Constitution from enemies both foreign AND DOMESTIC.”
• Biden’s electoral victory was certified but Trump refused to leave the White House. He began to burn documents and potentially incriminating evidence, and continued to launch attacks against the legitimacy of the election. President Trump released a series of pardons for members of his administration as well as himself before the Secret Service escorted him out of the White House.
But the Secret Service demonstrated its “culture of professionalism” (as one member of the Federal Government Team indicated) by indicating that it would be “loyal to the office, not to the person” and therefore it would escort Trump out of the White House on January 20.
• Trump transitions into running TRUMP TV, a new media outlet that immediately upon its founding calls for the impeachment of President Biden.
• By early January 2021, Biden has begun the tasks of uniting the country and trying to pull America out of its lingering COVID-19 related economic and public health crisis. He articulates a series of packages focused on infrastructure and healthcare / COVID-19 and actively seeks to involve Senate Republicans in the process. The Biden Campaign also announces that moderate Republican governors Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker will be nominated to serve in his cabinet. The President-Elect also establishes a joint investigation from the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to examine all forms of foreign interference in the 2020 election.
• The Biden Campaign had originally sought to create a “way out” for Trump to concede the election during early turns. By the end of the game, though, the Democratic Party had begun investigations into the criminal activities of President Trump and his family.
Transition Integrity Project Members
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson