As startling as it was to hear President Donald Trump refuse to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in this year’s election, what was surprising was how he came to make the remark.
Responding to a question from Playboy’s Brian Karem on Wednesday, Trump said: “We’re going to have to see what happens. You know that. I have been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.” Watch their exchange below.
The president’s answer quickly dominated cable news coverage, drew sharp rebuke from his Democratic rival Joe Biden and eventually saw a number of Senate Republicans push back — albeit without using Trump’s name.
By Thursday afternoon, the consternation over the remark became so great that the Senate passed a resolution by unanimous consent reaffirming that, after November 3, there would be a peaceful transfer of power.
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“What world do we live in where you have to have a Senate resolution to abide by the Constitution that you swore an oath to?” Karem told Deadline in an interview Thursday. “What can I tell you?”
Karem, self-described as the “loudmouth” senior White House reporter for Playboy, has a long history of verbal scuffles with the president, which is why he said that even he was surprised that Trump called on him at Wednesday’s press conference in the White House briefing room.
“Nobody, and I mean nobody, was more surprised than me that he called on me, and not only called on me but called on me first,” Karem said. “I don’t think he’ll be doing that again anytime soon. But I could be wrong. He likes the fight.”
Karem, who also is a CNN contributor, was in a legal showdown with the White House last year when then-Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham suspended his hard pass after he got in an argument with Trump’s former aide Sebastian Gorka in the Rose Garden. Karem sued for his credentials to be restored and won, and a federal appellate ruled unanimously in his favor in June.
More recently, Karem has been showing up for White House briefings, often shouting questions as Trump or Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany exit the room. His attendance is despite COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the White House Correspondents’ Association. The WHCA is restricting the briefings to just 14 reporters, spaced apart, with outlets assigned to a seat in a pool rotation.
Karem, though, said that he started appearing at the briefings anyway after he saw that others were violating the WHCA rules — namely Trump-favored outlets like One America News Network that have been there at the invitation of the White House.
He said that he limits himself to one day a week at the White House and that he respects “everyone there. I don’t want to get the COVID virus, and if I got it, I wouldn’t want to give it to anyone.”
But he said that he said to the White House staff, “Look, I’m not going to respect these rules if you’re going to allow your friends to be in here. I’m showing up.”
“Since I write a column about the White House, I need to be there,” he said. “And so I go. That’s my job. And so if they are going to limit access to that room but allow for dispensation for someone that they like, then on the days that I am there going to show up and stand next to them and ask a question.”
Given that he was not in the seat rotation, Karem on Wednesday expected to be where he usually is, standing in the back of the briefing room near One America correspondent Chanel Rion. But someone did not show up to take their seat, he said, “and before OAN could get that seat I plopped my butt down in it.”
“I was sitting there and was just happy to have a seat,” Karem said. “I raised my hand, and the first thing you know, he called on me. So I said: ‘All right, strap in big boy. Let’s go.”
Karem asked, “Win, lose or draw in this election, will you commit here, today, for a peaceful transferal of power after the election?”
Karem’s opinion pieces for Playboy are highly critical of the president, but he said that he didn’t consider what he asked a hard question. He said that he got the idea for his question from an article in The Atlantic titled “The Election That Could Break America,” which games out a scenario in which Trump subverts the result of the election.
“That shouldn’t have been a controversial question,” he said. “That shouldn’t have been one that I ended up asking him twice and get in an argument with him over. It’s like, ‘Hey, this is our democracy. If you lose, are you gonna walk away peacefully, show even just a modicum of respect for the process? And he won’t do it.”
On Thursday, McEnany tried to smooth over the situation when she said, “The president will accept the results of a free and fair election,” while dismissing Karem as “that Playboy reporter.”
He quickly put that in his Twitter profile.
But later, Trump didn’t back down from his earlier remarks. He told reporters, “We want to make sure that the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be.”
Karem, who was working from home on Thursday, said that when Trump pointed to him, he even said to himself, “Who me?”
“From the very beginning, he and I have kind of mixed it up a little bit,” he said. “And that he continues to call on me — I don’t know. He even winks at me sometimes. We were sitting in the East Room one day, and he winked at me. Afterwards, I went to the upper press office [at the White House] and I said, ‘Hey, does this mean we are dating?’
Reporter: "Win, lose or draw in this election, will you commit here today for a peaceful transferal of power after the election?"
President Trump: "We're going to have to see what happens." pic.twitter.com/h5RF3dKPD1
— NBC News (@NBCNews) September 23, 2020