I am wondering what would happen if an incumbent US President were to lose a presidential election, but refuse to accept the result and to concede defeat (even after any legitimate challenges and appeals have failed)? Thus, the incumbent President refuses to leave the White House.

Is there any precedent for such an event? Are there any established processes in place to deal with such a situation?

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    In your scenario, how definite is the "loss"? Are you saying that the challenger won unambiguously and everyone (except for the president) accepts it? Or are you imagining a scenario more like the 2000 election where a critical state is very close, with evidence of possible irregularities? To put it another way, are you only asking about a straight-up coup attempt, or an attempt to muddy the waters of an ambiguous result?
    – divibisan
    May 3, 2019 at 17:02
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    @divibisan I reversed your edit. I think o.m.'s answer is good and I don't want it invalidated.
    – Time4Tea
    May 3, 2019 at 17:19
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    Comments deleted. Please don't try to answer the question using comments. If you would like to answer, please write a real answer which adheres to our quality standards.
    – Philipp
    May 3, 2019 at 19:50
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    I wonder if someone passed this question on to Nancy Pelosi. This weekend the NY Times reported that she's worried that Trump won't accept a defeat in 2020 unless there's a huge margin. nytimes.com/2019/05/04/us/politics/nancy-pelosi.html
    – Barmar
    May 6, 2019 at 7:53

7 Answers 7


At 12:00 Noon on January 20, the incoming President would accede to power and would at that point be able to decide who is and is not allowed on the White House Complex. The former president at that point could be ordered to leave by the sitting president, and would be removed by the Secret Service if he refused (in reality they would probably try to find some way to remove him with the least public fanfare possible). Although former presidents are entitled to a Secret Service detail, that detail cannot protect them from lawful detainment or arrest.

  • 9
    Indeed, the former president's own secret service detail could effect the arrest.
    – phoog
    May 3, 2019 at 18:35
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    "Although former presidents are entitled to a Secret Service detail..." The, just now, former president would have Secret Service protection, but during the Clinton administration, the law was changed so that former presidents are only entitled to 10 years of Secret Service protection after leaving office, rather the the lifetime protection afforded to previous presidents. That law went into effect starting with G.W Bush.
    – Ron Maupin
    May 3, 2019 at 19:18
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    @RonMaupin Aha. So even if the Secret Service sides with the old president, you just have to wait ten years and then you can evict them from the White House! 😀 May 4, 2019 at 11:09
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    @DavidRicherby I suspect, if a Secret Service detail sides with an ex-president and unlawfully occupies the White House with him, then it probably wouldn't cause a major conscience problem for them, if they also violate this 10-years rule.
    – Gray Sheep
    May 4, 2019 at 18:43
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    @RonMaupin that law is void and it's back to lifetime protection (in particular, this happened before there was any example of someone losing protection after being out for 10 years). See the last section of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Former_Presidents_Act.
    – KCd
    May 4, 2019 at 22:06

I find it completely unthinkable that a President would acknowledge the electoral defeat and still refuse to leave. The much more thinkable scenario is that a President disputes the election results. There is a tradition in the United States that the defeated candidate "concedes" the election with a call to the winner.
(The question has been edited to answer this part.)

Imagine the concession does not happen.

Instead, both candidates claim victory. They send lawyers to challenge the count in many or most states. Elected, partisan state officials get into the fray. Isolated cases of vote fraud are documented in a more or less credible way. Conspiracy theories mushroom. To complicate things further, imagine that one Supreme Court judge has retired or became medically unfit, and that the remaining ones are deadlocked 4-4.

The result would be utter chaos and an unpredictable outcome.

One might guess that the incumbent has an advantage in such a scenario, but it also matters where the majority of the State governments and the Federal judges stand.

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    In theory, it's Congress that decides whether to accept a state's electoral college votes. Not that it wouldn't still be a constitutional crisis for counting or not counting disputed votes.
    – pboss3010
    May 3, 2019 at 15:28
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    @pboss3010 "The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted." There is no provision for congress accepting the votes or not; if the VP refuses to open the ballots, or anyone tries to prevent the person who receives the most electoral votes from being sworn into office, that's not just a constitutional crisis, it's an attempted (or if successful, actual) coup.
    – Kevin
    May 3, 2019 at 18:35
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    No need for imagination - you already have Bush vs Gore. With media support, Bush's team managed to spin a disputed result where the presidency was literally undecided into "our guy won, and it's unfair to question the legitimacy of that win". It's incorrect to say that challenging the count is a problem - in fact it's an essential countermeasure to impartially turn a disputed result into a fair result. If a recount process can't be managed in a timely manner, it casts serious doubt on the correctness of the original count.
    – Graham
    May 4, 2019 at 7:00
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    @Graham you mean Gore refused to accept he had lost and insisted on eternal recounts in the hope that one would give him a 1 vote majority. In the end the courts stepped in to stop the perpetual recounts that'd other wise have gone on for years, or until Bush'd given in to bullying for the good of the country.
    – jwenting
    May 6, 2019 at 11:32
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    @jwenting By "perpetual" you mean "the single recount permitted by electoral rules"? And by "lost" you mean "substantial issues with the voting process in a close election which made this a valid issue"? As I said, if you've won fairly, you've no reason to be afraid of having the result checked; and if the process means the result can't be checked, that's a failure to have sound democracy in the country, not the fault of the candidate.
    – Graham
    May 6, 2019 at 15:07

There is no precedent for a president refusing to leave in the United states. There are Presidential transition laws that have been amended fairly regularly. These laws grant newly elected presidents and their team office space and clearances. The General Services Administration is responsible for provisioning space for the newly elected president and transition team, they are separate from the executive branch so the president can't directly interfere with this process. The Oath of Office ceremony on January 20th is the start to the new presidency, at which time the previous president has no real authority, there is no requirement that the current president resign. The level of force used in evicting a reluctant president would likely be a call by the new president.

As for a scenario where a president actively tries to stop the inauguration of a new president, in theory no one would follow such orders, as their ultimate oath is to the constitution itself not the President. This is a grey area of not following unlawful orders, which is a common theoretical position, but hard to enforce in practice. An act of preventing a transition of power would likely rise to the level that most people required to prevent such a thing would be uncooperative, but that opinion relies on a lot of hypothetical situations.

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    "It is the longest peaceful transition of power in the world": can you provide a source for that? I suspect that the UK (as the successor state of Great Britain, and before that, England & Wales) and others (maybe Iceland?) have been doing this for longer. May 3, 2019 at 14:36
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    Is it the longest peaceful transition of power in the world? The UK has had peaceful transitions since 1688 AFAIK, which is rather longer than the USA has existed. Also, the attempted secession of several US states during the Buchanan–Lincoln transition period, while not involving violence in Washington D.C., rather complicates the claim. May 3, 2019 at 14:36
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    @JohnDallman technically, numerous British territories attempted to violently secede from the British Empire between 1688 and today, including the US itself. May 3, 2019 at 15:34
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    Andorra has had peaceful transitions of power for over a thousand years and counting.
    – gerrit
    May 3, 2019 at 16:09
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    @JonathanReez I would say "transition of power" means from one candidate to another and doesn't include territories disagreeing, it's more about the candidates. However I'm sure there is some way to define it such that USA technically is the longest, but that seems cheap. May 3, 2019 at 16:44

Since the question assumes that the incumbent has lost, the talk of court challenges and the like is not relevant. If such a challenges were to succeed, the incumbent would be the winner.

Once Congress has finished with its 12th-amendment duties in determining the winner of the election, the result is decided. It is not necessary for defeated candidates to concede. Courts are generally unwilling to review political matters such as this.

If Congress determined that the incumbent president had lost the election, then, as a matter of law, that person would cease to be president at noon on January 20th. Refusing to leave the White House doesn't change that, and the new president's inability to enter the White House would not deprive him or her of the office of president.

By remaining in the White House without authorization, the outgoing president would be liable for conviction under 18 USC 1752 and a fine of up to $100,000 and/or imprisonment for up to one year (or a fine of up to $250,000 and imprisonment for up to 10 years if they resisted with weapons or if the resistance cause serious injury).

Is there any precedent for such an event? Are there any established processes in place to deal with such a situation?

As others have noted, there is certainly no precedent for this. I suppose the Secret Service probably has some procedure for this, but if they do it is probably, well, secret. In practice, as others have noted, the incoming president would likely decide what to do based on political considerations.

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    "The election of the president is certified by Congress." There is no certification (assuming a majority winner), the VP "shall" open the certificates, the votes "shall then be counted," and "The person having the greatest Number of votes for President, shall be the President." Anyone who can add can total up the votes, and any attempt to prevent the person with the most votes from being sworn in is an attempted coup, and we have to hope that the secret service, capitol police, and military back the constitution rather than the usurper.
    – Kevin
    May 3, 2019 at 18:59
  • Although most, if not all presidents have rabid supporters, it is hard to imagine enough insane people to make such a coup successful. But USA does seem to be heading in that direction (on BOTH sides).
    – WGroleau
    May 3, 2019 at 21:44
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    @Kevin it is true that the constitution does not refer to congress's role as "certifying" the result of the election, and the transcript of the most recent vote counting session also does not, but the daily digest from that day does. Regardless of the verb used, the election result must be determined by Congress. But the question assumes the result, so these details don't affect the main point of the answer. I've rewritten the opening.
    – phoog
    May 3, 2019 at 21:56

After January 20, following the election year, the president is no longer president. It's not a matter of choice, or concession. That's the law. Any 'orders' given by a former president after January 20 have no meaning.

The US military leaders are bound by law to uphold not the president, but the Constitution of the US. If the Constitution, or laws framed by it, state that a person is no longer president, then the military is required to ignore anything they say.

Generally speaking, presidents maintain the dignity of the office, and the stability of the nation, by being gracious in departure.

The only thing a president could do is subject themselves to the spectacle of being forcibly removed from the White House.

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    and gluing the keys of all the computer keyboards so they can't be used... wouldn't be the first time...
    – jwenting
    May 6, 2019 at 11:38
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    Supposedly, the Clinton staffers removed all the W keys from keyboards before they left the white house in 2000. And I recall seeing a cartoon of Harry Truman refusing to leave the WH before his other boot was found.
    – tj1000
    May 6, 2019 at 13:48

I am wondering what would happen if an incumbent US President lost a presidential election, but refused to accept the result and to concede defeat (and thus, refused to leave the White House)?

Like the other answers said, in the case of a completely unambiguous loss and the president alone contesting its validity, the Secret Service could be expected to remove the incumbent in time for the winner to move into the White House.

A few things they've left out:

  • In such a case, the president would obviously be experiencing massive psychological impairment. Everyone might try to just ride it out until the new administration, but the American presidency has become very imperial. There are dozens of things such a paranoid incumbent might order that would require his removal under the XXV Amendment.

  • It's standard fare for presidents to lose the election. 5 of the last 40 lost the popular vote (including 2 of the last 3), and another 5 won by less than 2% of the vote. Most police aren't federal and the Armed Forces swear their oaths to the Constitution, not to the offices. The Constitution says that the Electoral College is what matters, not the actual election itself. The usual thing for unhappy losers to do, though, is write think pieces and propose reforms, not try to hold onto the Oval Office chair for as long as possible.

  • It's possible that the incumbent—like the incumbents in many other countries—might have military allies that would make this more than a bout of insanity. Because of the oaths, that would likely require thinking that the opponent's term of office would do more harm to the Constitution than neglecting its terms would: Bernie probably isn't enough, but something like a one-man-one-vote-one-time Communist Party victory might. Someone who won the election but did so on a platform that essentially supports nixing the current Constitution in favor of something else. In that case, pretty much all bets are off: you might have them reinstitute fair elections fairly soon once they felt they would win them, you might end up with a decades-long military oligarchy like Turkey or Taiwan, or you might end up with a dictatorship testing the organizational skills of II Amendment enthusiasts.

  • It is an interesting question, that organizing a revolution, with 2nd amendment weapons, against such a "president" is constitutional or not.
    – Gray Sheep
    May 4, 2019 at 18:48
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    @GraySheep At that point we're out-of-bounds of the Constitution and playing a different game. Whoever wins under the law of the jungle determines the next constitution.
    – Grault
    May 5, 2019 at 4:32
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    If we assume that the president is willing to throw a coup, why do we assume that his supporters will interpret their oaths in sane ways, or even keep them at all?
    – elaforma
    May 5, 2019 at 10:10

I think the way the US Constitution works the presidential election that is exceedingly unlikely. The election of https://www.rbhayes.org/hayes/disputed-election-of-1876/ shows why.

Tilden won the popular vote and led in the electoral college, but 19 votes from three Republican-controlled states (Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina) remained disputed. Oregon's count was also challenged. Allegations of widespread voter fraud forced Congress to set up a special electoral commission to determine the winner, composed of fifteen congressmen and Supreme Court justices. The commission finally announced their decision only two days before the inauguration. The vote was 8-7 along party lines to award the disputed electoral college votes to Hayes, making him the winner.

Basically it does not matter whether a presidential candidate concedes defeat or not. If Congress is on his or her side, then the candidate is not defeated - despite everything else. If Congress is against the candidate, then the candidate can not possibly win..


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