Donald Trump has continued to stoke the controversy over whether he would accept the count in next month’s presidential election, saying he would “accept a clear election result” but would file a legal challenge “in case of a questionable result”.
The billionaire’s remarks drew opprobrium from Democrats led by President Barack Obama, who told a rally for Hillary Clinton on Thursday that Mr Trump was “dangerous” to democracy.
The Republican sparked bipartisan anger at the final presidential debate by saying he would “keep you in suspense” over whether he would concede if he lost on November 8. In his first remarks the next day he said he would “abide by all of the rules and traditions of all of the many candidates who have come before me”.
But he appeared to hedge his bets, telling a rally in Ohio he would “reserve my right” to launch legal proceedings if he found fault in the election, and taunting critics by saying: “I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election — if I win.”
Mrs Clinton’s first comments of the day on the issue came in the form of a joke at a New York dinner where the two main parties’ presidential nominees traditionally rib each other in back-to-back speeches.
Delivering her remarks after the Republican, Mrs Clinton said: “I’m surprised I’m up here at all. I didn’t think he’d be OK with a peaceful transition of power.”
Mr Trump’s own speech ended on a sour note, with some members of the wealthy audience booing him as his light-hearted jokes about Mrs Clinton gave way to blunter attacks.
Earlier in the day Mr Obama said Mr Trump’s statements about rigging were “more than the usual standard lie”.
“That is not a joking matter,” the president said. “That is dangerous, because when you try to sow the seeds of doubt in other people’s minds about the legitimacy of our elections, that undermines our democracy.”
Michelle Obama, the first lady, also told a rally in Arizona for Hillary Clinton that with his remarks Mr Trump was “threatening the very idea of America itself and we cannot stand for that. You do not keep American democracy in suspense.”
Several Republican leaders had already condemned their candidate’s claims the election process was rigged. John McCain, the party’s failed 2008 presidential nominee, chastised his successor on Thursday for questioning the integrity of the US election system, saying it was the duty of all losing candidates to accept the result.
“I didn’t like the outcome of the 2008 election. But I had a duty to concede, and I did so without reluctance. A concession isn’t just an exercise in graciousness. It is an act of respect for the will of the American people,” said Mr McCain, who initially endorsed Mr Trump but withdrew his support earlier this month.
Kelly Ayotte, another Republican senator in a tight election who once supported Mr Trump, also condemned the remarks. “As a former attorney-general, I believe he should accept the outcome,” she told NBC News. “I don’t believe that there’s a rigged election system. If there are allegations that need to be investigated, they will be investigated. But the voters are going to decide this.”
Senator John Thune, who has wavered in his support for Mr Trump, said the US electoral process was “the cornerstone of our democracy” and that “suggesting otherwise undermines an electoral system that is a model for nations around the world”.
Some senior Republicans did not respond to Mr Trump’s remarks, however. A spokeswoman for Paul Ryan pointed to the House speaker’s remark at the weekend that he was “fully confident the states will carry out this election with integrity.” Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, maintained his long-running silence on Mr Trump.
The unprecedented remark from a presidential candidate sparked worries that Mr Trump could undermine the legitimacy of the next president if he were defeated and incite angry reactions from supporters.
Tim Kaine, Mrs Clinton’s vice presidential nominee, said he did not expect to see attempts to intimidate voters on election day, but added that the Clinton campaign would be well-prepared if they arose.
Mr Trump’s claims appear to have had an effect on public opinion. Thirty per cent of voters said they were not confident their votes would be counted accurately, according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll. That sentiment was particularly strong among Trump supporters, where 48 per cent said they doubted the result.
Mr Trump suggested that by being asked to respect the result before the vote actually took place he was in effect “being asked to waive centuries of legal precedent designed to protect voters”.
As the billionaire real estate developer falls further behind in the polls, outrage at his claims of a “rigged” election has replaced horror over accusations, which he denies, that he sexually assaulted several women.
Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump’s Democratic rival, said his statement was “horrifying” and told reporters after the debate that “when he is losing he blames the system, whatever the system”, citing his defeats during the primary process and over Trump University and the Emmy television awards.
At Thursday’s rally in Ohio, Mr Trump accused Mrs Clinton and her campaign of “behaviour that violates centuries of legal precedent meant to respect the voters”.
Trump supporters point to the disputed 2000 election — whose result was effectively decided by the Supreme Court more than a month after voting day — as one reason for the candidate not to accept the result immediately on election night.
Election experts have dismissed the possibility of plot to rig the election and Mr Obama this week told Mr Trump to “stop whining” about a conspiracy theory that he said was “based on no facts”.
At the Ohio rally, Trump supporters offered mixed interpretations of the Republican nominee’s comments, with some agreeing with his claims of voter fraud and others saying he had simply misspoken.
Susan Slagle-Cochran, a retired citizen who wore a outsize Trump button, said Mr Trump’s implication of voter fraud chimed with what she herself had heard.
“I was glad he said it. There is proof of voter fraud. There are all illegal immigrants that are registered. There are deceased people who are registered. We even heard a rumour that in the main post office in Columbus, they’re opening up absentee ballots and if they are for Trump, they’re throwing them away,” she said.
But Greg Christie, a semi-retired business owner, said: “I think he needed to substantiate it. Leaving it the way he did sounded tacky.”