MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Is there a precedent for where we find ourselves today, for a sitting American president, two weeks and three days after Election Day, seeking to overthrow the results of that election? We're going to take the long view on this now and bring in presidential historian and author Michael Beschloss. Welcome.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Oh, thank you very much, Mary Louise.
KELLY: To flesh out a little bit more this moment where we find ourselves, Donald Trump has lost the election. He has failed in court to prove otherwise. He has fired, among others, the election official who fact-checked his false claims of fraud, Chris Krebs. And he is now asking his fellow Republicans to hand him the presidency. What would the founders make of this moment?
BESCHLOSS: The founders would be absolutely horrified because this is what they always worried about. You know, in 1787, at the time of the constitutional convention, they were deciding what kind of a presidency there would be. And they were always worried that presidents would get too much power to the point that, let's say they lost reelection, they would abuse the huge power that a president had to try to stay on, even though the voters had said, we don't want you in office anymore.
KELLY: Let me point you back to another moment in our history because, I gather, as historians scratch their heads and try to make sense of this moment, a lot of you are pointing us back to the presidential election of 1876. Remind us briefly, if you would, what happened in 1876 and why you see parallels.
BESCHLOSS: Well, there were two guys who were running for president. One was named Rutherford Hayes. The other was Samuel Tilden, who was a Democrat. And there were electoral votes contested in at least three states - South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana - and perhaps a few more. And both parties...
KELLY: (Laughter) Florida was a challenge even then. Go on.
BESCHLOSS: Right. Florida just sticks with us forever...
BESCHLOSS: ...Including 2000 later on. But the problem was that both parties said, we disagree about these states that are contested. We'll go to Congress. Congress appointed an electoral commission, and the result was a really ugly compromise - a horrible compromise - which was the Democrats said, we'll let you Republicans have your president, Hayes, as long as you will agree to pull federal troops out of the South, ending reconstruction, which effectively allowed Democrats to bring in a lot of Jim Crow laws and make the race problem in this country 100 times worse than it would have been otherwise, a problem that we're still dealing with today - a lot of what we saw this summer.
KELLY: Oh. I mean, another echo that you kind of nodded to there - worth remembering this was a moment when Black men had only recently won the right to vote. There were efforts...
KELLY: ...To suppress that right, which is a state of affairs that may remind people of today, when we were witnessing efforts to stop vote certification in Wayne County in Detroit, Mich., which includes an overwhelmingly Black electorate.
BESCHLOSS: It would be bad enough in itself to say in 2020 that there are people trying to stop the votes of Black people in Pennsylvania and perhaps in Michigan and perhaps elsewhere. But if you put that in the context of history, there is that ugly, horrible history of people trying to do that for hundreds of years. And Black women, supposedly, were guaranteed the right to vote in 1920. At the time, there was a constitutional amendment. Yet for 45 years, they had a hard time doing that until the time of the Voting Rights Act. For some, it's still hard today.
KELLY: Well, before we leave the 1870s behind us, I was brushing up on my history, and I noted that right after the hullabaloo that ended up with Rutherford B. Hayes becoming president, Congress changed the law. This was 1887.
KELLY: What did they pass? How might it apply - how should it be applying to today?
BESCHLOSS: They passed a very complicated law that, even in 2020, a lot of people disagree about and do not understand. They find it very ambiguous. And in a way, it would have been better had no law been passed because instead of saying, let's do what they said in 1887, each time this has come up - for instance, in 2000, there was a lot of legal controversy over what the law meant. And to this day, a lot of people don't know.
KELLY: So to circle you back to the question I started with, is there a precedent for where we find ourselves now? It sounds like the answer - the short answer is not really.
BESCHLOSS: Not in a million years is there a precedent. Donald Trump is in a category of his own. This is a case where a president doesn't like the result because he lost the election. He lost it by quite a lot. And basically, this is a case of, you know, if I say I'm the king of Romania, doesn't make me the king of Romania. Well, he's saying that he won the election. He didn't. This is something the bad loser could have done at any time in American history. Fortunately for us, before 2020, that has not happened. I hope it will never happen again.
KELLY: We just have a few seconds left. But what is that like, as a lifelong studier of the American presidency, to find yourself in a moment where there is no precedent?
BESCHLOSS: The founders did not make this system perfect. They always depended on assuming that a president would come to office who had the goodwill and love of democracy, that he would not do this.
BESCHLOSS: And here we're in a case where a president just wants to get this done for himself.
KELLY: That is not the king of Romania, but historian Michael Beschloss (laughter).
BESCHLOSS: (Laughter) Right.
KELLY: His latest book is "Presidents Of War." Thank you.
BESCHLOSS: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.