NEW YORK -- The election may not end on November 8th.
That was the message that Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, offered the country on Wednesday night, refusing to say whether he will unequivocally endorse the results of the election. "I'll look at it at the time," Trump said at his third and final debate with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
The consequences of his statement are immeasurable, as no candidate for president in American history has ever seriously questioned the peaceful transition of power – much less several weeks before the election takes place.
Debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News was questioning Trump amid new rhetoric from the candidate that the election will be rigged. Trump argued that Clinton's "crooked" campaign is colluding with media outlets and election overseers to influence the election in her favor.
Clinton called his response "horrifying" and questioned whether the candidate had knowledge of America's tradition of respecting free and fair elections. The moderator himself noted that Trump's running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, as well as his daughter, Ivanka Trump, have vowed to respect the outcome.
But neither addressed the danger posed to the the American political system of denying the legitimacy of its electoral process – a conspiracy that Trump has been willing to further for weeks, and one that Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to further for years across democracies in the Middle East, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe.
"I will keep you in suspense," Trump said.
Russia's role in the election was the second most important point of tension in the 90-minute debate, when Trump denied knowledge that Moscow was intentionally interfering in the US election. Clinton asked him if he denied that no less than 17 US intelligence agencies had come to the conclusion that Russia was seeking to influence the election in his favor– their "clear favorite," she said.
"That's because he'd rather have a puppet as president," she said, of Putin's preferences.
The rest of the debate was relatively subdued compared to this rare moment, when a candidate from a major US party was willing to signal to the American people that he doubts the authenticity world's oldest democratic electoral system– one controlled and run not by a federal conspiracy, but by local governments.
Amongst those governments, virtually every swing state that matters in 2016 – Ohio, Nevada, North Carolina, Florida and Wisconsin – are governed by Republicans. Trump's suggestion of rigging would require the American people to believe that his fellow party members are conspiring against his candidacy, well in advance of the election itself.