As indicated by commentary in the news, a considerable amount of people seem concerned about who wins the U.S. Presidential election. For this reason we have for example articles like this Op-Ed in LA Times (by James Kirchick, a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative) saying that the election of some individual as the next President could even result in a coup in the U.S.

The article describes a situation such as follows:

Try to imagine, then, a situation in which Trump commanded our military to do something stupid, illegal or irrational. Something so dangerous that it put the lives of Americans and the security of the country at stake. (Trump’s former rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Marco Rubio, said the United States could not trust “the nuclear codes” to an “erratic individual.”) Faced with opposition from his military brass, Trump would perhaps reconsider and back down. But what if he didn’t? Blimpish swagger might fly within the patriarchal confines of a family business...or a dictatorship. It does not work, however, in a liberal democracy.

In that case, our military men and women, who swear to uphold the Constitution and a civilian chain of command, would be forced to choose between obeying the law and serving the wishes of someone who has explicitly expressed his utter lack of respect for it.

So now to a hypothetical situation, in which:

  1. A person has won the election as far as both the popular vote and the majority of the votes from the Electoral College are concerned.
  2. The current administration has determined that, for the sake of [some reason(s)], that persons presidency needs to be blocked.

Some time ago, statements were made by Rush Limbaugh about the current president somehow extending his own Presidency past 2016. In a discussion with Rush Limbaugh, Ben Carson stated that the 22nd amendment makes that impossible.

But if we look at the wording of the 22nd amendment we can see that it says that...

No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice

...and this refers to not being elected to office, i.e. a reference to the individual being elected through the popular and electoral vote, for a third time. This amendment also does not say anything about the length of the terms a President can be in office.

Thus it seems that the 22nd amendment alone would not be sufficient to block the President from e.g. simply continuing his presidency (and bypassing the election process altogether).

The President would still need some authority to extend his term in office, however.

According to some information on the web (esp. at many sites devoted to conspiracy theories), the President could do this with the help of Executive Order 12919. This Executive Order is often described as allowing an incumbent President to overtake control of all the resources and bypass Congress through a declaration of martial law. Supposedly it could be used by the President to stay in power permanently.

However the information about Executive Order 12919 at UNT Digital Library states that:

The scope of Executive Order 12919 is sometimes misunderstood. For example, congressional offices sometimes receive correspondence expressing concerns that Executive Order 12919 reflects an attempt by the President to assume powers not conferred on him under the Constitution and to consolidate all the powers of the federal government under the Executive Branch and also that the Order somehow allows the President to declare martial law. Those concerns are unwarranted. As its caption (i.e., National Defense Industrial Resources Preparedness) itself implies, Executive Order 12919 relates exclusively to the preparedness of U.S. defense-related industries in times of war or other national emergencies. It has nothing whatever to do with declarations of martial law. It has no effect at all on the continued powers of Congress and the federal courts during periods of war or other national emergencies.

Other similar scenarios found online would involve the Insurrection Act of 1807 (10 U.S.C. 331) or the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 (18 U.S.C. 1385). However I did not find anything in these that would allow the President to extend their own time in office.

But perhaps there are some alternatives that do not involve the President to extend his own Presidency(?)

The question is:

Would an incumbent President have any legal means or other authority to block someone from being president if the latter wins the majority of votes from both the voting public and the Electoral College?

  • 4
    The theoretical/legal question is one thing, but it is safe to say that Obama would be extremely unlikely not to cede power to his elected successor.
    – Colin
    Jul 23, 2016 at 18:33
  • 14
    "legal means or not" - the second part makes the otherwise interesting question meaningless, no? Of course he has illegal means to stay in office (it's a different question how realistic those means are to succeed, but the means obviously exist).
    – user4012
    Jul 23, 2016 at 19:21
  • 8
    I removed the names of a presidential candidate and a president (where possible without falsifying literal quotes). The constitutional situation is the same no matter who is president and who is elected. Focusing on a specific candidate is just distracting.
    – Philipp
    Jul 24, 2016 at 1:48
  • 5
    The question is really can Obama legally declare a coup. The answer is no.
    – user9790
    Oct 29, 2016 at 10:00
  • 10
    Upvoted now, four years after the OP, because now the shoe is on the other foot, a different crop of people are asking the same question, and so the question retains some relevance.
    – EvilSnack
    Apr 17, 2020 at 16:18

2 Answers 2


Under section 1 of the 20th Amendment,

The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

Obama cannot constitutionally extend his term. No emergency powers can override that section of the Constitution. If Ted Kaczynski (aka "the Unabomber") receives a majority of the electoral votes (popular vote has no legal effect) for President, as officially counted by a joint session of Congress presided over by the President of the Senate (i.e. Biden), and if Kaczynski meets the constitutional requirements to assume the office (he does), then Kaczynski is sworn in at noon on January 20, 2017.

The mechanics of the joint session are laid out by federal law. Congress meets on January 6 and receives the vote tallies from all 50 states as certified by state authority. In general, only one certificate of electoral votes is received from each state, and unless a majority in both houses of Congress determines that the votes were not regularly cast by lawfully appointed electors, they're counted. Other rules apply in other situations, but Obama has no role in any of these situations (the other situations are mostly where multiple sets of purported electoral votes are received, but Obama can't get a second certificate certified by state authority).

Extralegal means are honestly not worth discussing. By their very nature there are no rules governing them, and no relevant authority. Obama commands the military, but members of the military swear primarily to obey the Constitution and have a duty to refuse unlawful orders. Obama is not physically able to personally prevent anyone else from assuming office, and if we're positing members of the executive branch listening to Obama and not federal law or the Constitution, there's no basis for saying what would or wouldn't happen.

  • 4
    Or the incumbent administration could arrange for e.g. an army sniper who works in the kind of undercover "soldier of fortune" roles to shoot (or bomb) the unwanted candidate during a party rally or something. And afterwards setup a "commission" to "investigate" what happened. Sort of like what CIA did to JFK according to some sources. This is not extralegal is it? I mean the Presidents office has the "duty" to protect the "interests of the nation" I suppose.
    – x457812
    Jul 24, 2016 at 19:39
  • 41
    @x457812 I am not a lawyer, but I am pretty sure that assassinating political opponents is illegal in the United States.
    – Philipp
    Jul 24, 2016 at 22:02
  • 5
    @Philipp Typically, but this year they got rid of the rule protecting politicians on Purge night just so...wait, wrong election year
    – Jimmy M.
    Jul 25, 2016 at 1:49
  • 8
    @Philipp Any more illegal than killing U.S. citizens with drone strikes?
    – gerrit
    Nov 14, 2016 at 18:36
  • 17
    @gerrit: Killing the president-elect won't keep the outgoing president in office.
    – Joshua
    Nov 14, 2016 at 21:33

The Constitution specifies the length of the president's term of office. The Constitution is the highest law of the land. Neither Congress nor the president has the power to change that through any law or executive order.

One could, of course, speculate that a president could violate the Constitution. There have been plenty of cases where government officials have violated the Constitution in relatively minor ways. By "relatively minor" I mean, "short of declaring themselves dictator" or something on that order. The Constitution doesn't magically enforce itself.

What would happen if someone tried depends a great deal on the opinions and personalities of people in power. Suppose, to take the extreme version of what you're saying, that a president failed in a re-election bid and then simply declared that he refused to leave office and would continue as president. Would Congress back him up or say, no, this other person is now legally president? What would the secret service and federal marshals and the military do?

If Obama had made such a declaration in 2016, or if Mr Trump were to make such a declaration in 2020, I have a hard time believing that many people would support them. Politicians can be very "flexible" in their interpretation of the Constitution and the law, but going so far as to ignore a popular vote ... I doubt it. I think the secret service would just escort him from the building and take him to a psychiatrist.

One could always speculate about a time or a set of circumstances where politics has become so divisive that we would literally have federal marshals shooting it out with the secret service to determine who gets to occupy the White House, etc. But -- hopefully -- we're a long way from there.

  • 2
    Doesn't add anything to the existing answer.
    – Sjoerd
    May 6, 2018 at 23:15
  • "... going so far as to ignore a popular vote ...." That is what happens every time the Electoral College votes disagree with the popular vote, which has happened twice in the past five Presidential elections (as of 2018).
    – GreenMatt
    May 23, 2018 at 20:45
  • @GreenMatt Okay, "ignore the outcome of a vote as specified in the Constitution". If a president declared that, even though his opponent won the electoral vote, because he won the popular vote he was declaring himself still president ... I'd expect him to be escorted out of the building, or else there would be a Constitutional crisis. Just like, if on some vote that the Constitution says requires a 2/3 majority, Congress voted 60% in favor and then the speaker of the house declared it past, we'd have a problem.
    – Jay
    May 23, 2018 at 21:16
  • 1
    This and other answers assume that it would be clear to everyone if a sitting President lost an election. Therefore, it would be obvious he was in the wrong if he refused to cede. However, it may not be so clear-cut. A losing incumbent could question the legality of the vote - conjuring up millions of illegal voters to explain his failure. He could challenge it in court. With enough support in the SC, he might even win... May 9, 2019 at 14:53
  • 1
    @OscarBravo Ok, fair enough. There's actually a real scenario for that: the Nixon/Kennedy election of 1960, where many Republicans claimed that the vote fraud in Chicago exceeded Kennedy's margin of victory. But fortunately for the republic, even if a recount had changed Illinois's vote in the electoral college, Kennedy still would have won, so it was pretty much a moot point. And of course in the 2016 election, many Democrats were saying that Trump only won because of "Russian collusion" and that Clinton was the rightful winner. You could point to other close elections in the past. ...
    – Jay
    May 9, 2019 at 17:34

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