WASHINGTON — President Trump said Friday night that he would welcome “a smooth, beautiful transition” of power after the election in November but that he would lose only if Democrats cheated — and that “we’re not going to stand for it” if they did.
Mr. Trump’s comments to cheering supporters at an outdoor rally in Newport News, Va., were his latest intimation that he might mount an unprecedented effort to stay in power after an electoral defeat and lead the nation into uncharted waters at a moment marked by civil strife.
“I want a smooth, beautiful transition,” the president said. “But they don’t add the other part: But it’s got to be an honest vote.”
“This is a disaster waiting to happen,” he added.
The comments came after Mr. Trump had baselessly claimed that the widespread use of mail-in ballots was a formula for a fraud-ridden result. He also warned that some states might be unable to report a decisive outcome on election night because they would be awaiting mail-in ballots, which can arrive after Election Day, on Nov. 3, so long as they are postmarked no later than it.
“I could be leading, and then they’ll just keep getting ballots and ballots and ballots and ballots,” Mr. Trump complained. “They’re talking about five, six, seven states that have this problem. So if we’re waiting for one state, does that mean the whole nation, the whole world is going to wait for one state?”
“I like watching television, and have, ‘The winner is …’” he added. “Right? You might not hear it for months because this is a mess.”
Democrats concede that an expected record-setting use of mail-in ballots could lead to inconclusive results on election night, but they fear that Mr. Trump could take an early lead from in-person voting and then try to claim that any votes counted later are somehow invalid. Experts say it is unclear, however, that mail-in ballots will favor his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Mr. Trump said the huge volume of mail-in ballots was “very hard to watch,” adding that “that’s the only way we’re going to lose, is if there’s mischief.”
For at least the third time this week, Mr. Trump’s qualified statements about a transition fell short of a commitment to accept official election results, even though many senior Republicans have expressed strong disapproval over his refusal to offer one.
In an apparent stab at humor on Friday night, the president at one point even joked about canceling the election altogether.
Complaining that negative news coverage about his ties to Russia had obscured his achievements, Mr. Trump asked rhetorically what his popularity might be “if every day for almost four years, you didn’t hear any of this.”
“The Democrats would say, ‘Yes, if you’d like, we could cancel the election because we have no chance,’” he said.
The rally capped a frenetic day for Mr. Trump, on the eve of his scheduled Saturday announcement of his Supreme Court nominee. He kicked it off with a campaign event in Florida, followed by one in Atlanta, and then returned to Washington for a fund-raiser before flying to Virginia’s southeastern coast.
In Newport News, Mr. Trump boasted about his work ethic, and he again mocked Mr. Biden — who travels far less than the president, partly out of respect for coronavirus safety protocols — for running what he called a low-energy campaign.
“You have to have a president that’s going to work his ass off for this country,” Mr. Trump said. “You need a very energetic president.” He added that should he lose in November, “I’ll be very embarrassed.”
“I’ll say, ‘Gee, I worked so hard, and he didn’t work at all,’” the president said.
At the same time, Mr. Trump tried to lower expectations around his scheduled face-off with Mr. Biden on Tuesday night in the first of three presidential debates.
“He’s been doing it for 47 years,” Mr. Trump said. “I think he’s going to do good.”
“If he finishes the debate — if he finishes, which I think he will — and he might even do well,” the president said, the news media will proclaim Mr. Biden’s performance “unbelievable, far better than Winston Churchill in his prime.”