WASHINGTON (NBC News) — Top Republican lawmakers on Thursday dismissed President Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the 2020 election, seeking to deliver reassurances that the process outlined in the Constitution will be orderly and legitimate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tweeted Thursday: “The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792.”
On his way to the Senate floor after his tweet, McConnell ignored a reporter's question on what he would do if Trump refuses to step down and whether he'd insist he do so.
Although McConnell didn’t directly name Trump in his tweet, it was clear he was responding to the president, who was asked at a White House news conference Wednesday evening if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election.
"Well, we're going to have to see what happens," Trump said. "You know that I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster."
When pressed again on the issue, the president said: "We'll want to have — get rid of the ballots and you'll have a very — we'll have a very peaceful — there won't be a transfer, frankly. There'll be a continuation."
At a news briefing Thursday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said when asked if the president would accept the results of the election if he loses, "The president will accept the results of a free and fair election."
When asked what ballots the president was referring to getting rid of, McEnany said, "The president wants to get rid of mass mail-out voting, and he has said clearly that could go either way, [affect] either candidate's chances, because it’s a system that’s subject to fraud."
Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters that the peaceful transition of power is a "fundamental principle in this democracy" and he expects that to apply to the 2020 election just as it has in every election since the late 18th century.
"Republicans believe in the rule of law and we believe in the Constitution and that's what dictates what happens in our election process," he said.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a frequent critic of Trump, tweeted Wednesday after the news conference: “Fundamental to democracy is the peaceful transition of power; without that, there is Belarus. Any suggestion that a president might not respect this Constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable.”
On Thursday, one of Trump’s Republican rivals in 2016, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, tweeted: “As we have done for over two centuries we will have a legitimate & fair election It may take longer than usual to know the outcome, but it will be a valid one And at noon on Jan 20,2021 we will peacefully swear in the President.”
In the House, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, said that the peaceful transfer of power is “enshrined in our Constitution and fundamental to the survival of our Republic.”
“America’s leaders swear an oath to the Constitution. We will uphold that oath,” she said on Twitter.
Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, echoed his colleague and said on Twitter Thursday that “nothing defines our Constitutional Republic more than the peaceful transition of power.”
“Regardless of how divided our country is right now, when elections are over and winners are declared, we must all commit ourselves to the Constitution and accept the results,” he said.
Few other Republican lawmakers called Trump out, however, and those who did comment appeared nonchalant about Trump's statement.
“There will be a peaceful transition of power. It’s happened forever. It’s gonna happen in January," said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. "I'm very comfortable there will be a peaceful transition of power. There is no way in the world it’s not going to happen."
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., echoed the remark, saying there will be "a very peaceful transition,” and adding, "I know this will keep you up at night. Don't worry about it. It will be fine."
Democrats pounced on the president's comments, with some describing his words as chilling and others calling him a fascist.
“President Trump: You are not a dictator, and America will not permit you to be one,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on Twitter Wednesday night.
On the Senate floor Thursday, Schumer said Republican lawmakers need to be pressed to speak out more.
"Democracy is at stake," he said. "And every constituent from every corner of the land, regardless of party or ideology, should be asking their Republican senators to speak out and demand that Donald Trump not be allowed to do what he says he's going to do, and say they will join all of America in standing in the way if he tries."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that she wasn't surprised by Trump's possible threat.
"You are not in North Korea, you are not in Turkey. … You are in the United States of America," Pelosi said in a message to Trump. "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."
"He's trying to have the Constitution of the United States swallow Clorox," she added, alluding to Trump's suggestion in the spring that those infected with coronavirus might be able to get an unspecified "injection" of disinfectant to fight the virus.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., tweeted, “He is openly calling for fascism. We need to say it out loud. That includes reporters. This year 247-of-248 republicans in Congress voted to keep trump in office. They did it because they value their power more than democracy itself. Never forget it."
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said on Twitter, “How can you watch this and not see democracy being discarded for fascism?”
In an interview on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-N.Y., said Trump’s remarks “cross a very bright line.”
“There is no question he means exactly what he said, and people fail to take it seriously at our national peril,” Schiff said. “This is a moment that I would say to any Republican of good conscience working in the administration, it is time for you to resign.”