Updated at 9:23 p.m. ET
President Trump resumed questioning the integrity of this year’s election on Thursday after the White House sought to walk back his earlier comments suggesting he might not accept the results if he were to lose.
The back-and-forth started on Wednesday evening at a press conference.
“We’re going to have to see what happens. You know that,” Trump said then in response to a reporter’s question about whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
“I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster,” Trump said, once again pushing his unsubstantiated claims about mail-in ballot fraud.
Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany then told reporters on Thursday afternoon that Trump would accept the results of “a free and fair election.” She said the question to which Trump was responding was prefaced with “win, lose or draw.”
Trump then further muddied the waters hours later Thursday, repeating his claims about mail-in ballots and saying he wasn’t sure the upcoming election can be “honest because of them.”
“We want to make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be. I don’t know that it can be, with this whole situation, unsolicited ballots,” Trump said.
The White House and supporters pointed to a story emerging in Pennsylvania, where federal authorities made a highly unusual announcement about what they called an ongoing investigation into the prospect of some discarded ballots.
Trump’s initial remarks brought a slew of criticism, including from Republicans.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, tweeted his disapproval Wednesday evening: “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.”
Other top Republicans followed suit Thursday morning. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrote: “There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792.”
The third-ranking House Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., also shared her rejection of Trump’s remarks, writing, “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.”
Also pushing back was Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeting, “As we have done for over two centuries we will have a legitimate & fair election.”
By Thursday night, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution “reaffirming the Senate’s commitment to the orderly and peaceful transfer of power called for in the Constitutions of the United States.”
The resolution by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also says the Senate “intends that there should be no disruptions by the President or any person in power to overturn the will of the people of the United States.”
While more Republicans joined their colleagues in emphasizing even a Trump loss would involve an orderly transfer of power to the new administration, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California downplayed the president’s statement and pointed to comments last month from former 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who suggested Biden not concede the election if it’s close.
McCarthy said he believes Trump will win reelection and there will be “a smooth transition” to a second term, telling reporters: “I know this will keep you up at night, but don’t worry about it.”
Biden told reporters on Wednesday he was both vexed and worried about the president’s remarks.
“What country are we in?” Biden said. “I’m being facetious. … Look, he says the most irrational things. I don’t know what to say.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters the president’s comments came as “no surprise” and reflected a pattern of contempt for the democratic process. All the same, Pelosi said she would not bring a resolution to the House floor condemning the president for those remarks.
“I don’t think he’s worth the trouble at this point,” she said, noting the election is just 40 days away.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, railed against Trump’s comments in a speech Thursday afternoon in Washington, D.C., calling the transition of power “the bedrock of American democracy.”
“No matter how rich and powerful you may be, no matter how arrogant and narcissistic you may be, no matter how much you think you can get anything you want, let me make this clear to Donald Trump: Too many people have fought and died to defend American democracy. You are not going to destroy it. The American people will not allow that to happen,” Sanders said.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a close Biden surrogate, told NPR’s Steve Inskeep on Thursday that he thought Trump’s remarks should be taken seriously.
“When a head of state anywhere in the world with authoritarian tendencies tells you they intend to do something outrageous and not an accept a peaceful transition after an election … believe them,” Coons said.
Backdrop of uncertainty
Trump’s remarks on Wednesday followed months of rhetoric casting doubts on the integrity of American elections, delivered during a time when U.S. government officials said they’re also being targeted by foreign enemies.
U.S. intelligence officials warned this week how closely foreign powers are watching the political environment within the United States and about possible schemes to raise doubts about the results of the election.
“Foreign actors and cybercriminals could create new websites, change existing websites, and create or share corresponding social media content to spread false information in an attempt to discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions,” said one announcement from the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
Because of the increased use of mail-in ballots this cycle, the announcement explained, foreign actors or cybercriminals could use the additional time required to certify and announce election results by “disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy.”
The announcement continued: “The public should also be aware that if foreign actors or cybercriminals were able to successfully change an election-related website, the underlying data and internal systems would remain uncompromised.”
In other words, even if a county faithfully and correctly tabulated a result for Candidate X, an attacker could try to make voters believe, falsely, that Candidate Y won. Untangling those accounts from the reality might take hours, days or longer.
Local governments could combat this and strengthen voters’ confidence by solely using websites that end in .gov. Domains ending in .com or .org could be used by bad actors to pose as official websites to defraud the public.
But cybersecurity specialists said many counties aren’t taking that step.
Voting and results themselves likely safe
In a subsequent announcement Thursday, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said there has been no reporting to indicate any cyberactivity by bad actors has been preventing Americans from casting a ballot or changing vote tallies.
“However, even if actors did achieve such an impact, the public should be aware that election officials have multiple safeguards and plans in place — such as provisional ballots to ensure registered voters can cast ballots, paper backups, and backup pollbooks — to limit the impact and recover from a cyber incident with minimal disruption to voting,” the announcement said.
Chris Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, has stressed the importance of recognizing that election results may take some time to count and that patience while waiting for them “goes a long way.”
NPR’s Susan Davis contributed to this report.