Presidents typically reserve their most controversial decisions for their last weeks in office. Imagine what that could mean for Trump.
As we count down the days to Election Day, the pundit class is wringing its hands in worry over whether President Donald Trump will accept a possible win by Joe Biden and agree to leave the White House.
But even if Trump calmly walks out the door of the White House on the morning of January 20th, a more immediate problem looms: What might Trump do with the final 77 days of his presidency if he loses? There are 1,860 hours between Wednesday, Nov. 4, and noon on Jan. 20, when Trump’s first term expires. And that’s plenty of time for him to upend plenty of presidential traditions.
So, imagine what might happen in a post-election period when Trump — a president who has spent four years demonstrating his lack of interest in norms and practices of a democracy — retains all the powers and authority of the presidency and officially has nothing left to lose?
Conversations with presidential legal experts, Constitutional scholars and national security officials identified six areas where Trump could do real damage to the country, his successor or presidential traditions — a list informed both by his past executive actions as well as the considerations he’d face as he considered a life outside the White House for him and his family. From a last-minute resignation to guarantee himself legal immunity to destroying historic records to launching a war, there’s reason to wonder if a Trump transition might actually be the start of the wildest chapter of an already controversial presidency.
Here’s what a Trump transition could include:
1) A pardon-a-palooza: If Trump loses, nearly everyone expects an unprecedented flurry of presidential pardons in his last 77 days — a way both to reward friends, protect his family, tweak his opponents and curry favor with those who may help him when he is back in private life. “The pardon power operates in the way he imagines the presidency to operate — you wave your hand and it’s done,” says Quinta Jurecic, the managing editor of the blog Lawfare. “I’m absolutely expecting him to do something weird.”
2) Revenge on the Deep State: The area where a defeated Trump’s transition might look most normal is in its rush and whirl of actions to codify and cement various policies and practices before the clock expires on his presidency — but it’s clear that Trump’s reserving his biggest battles for the imagined forces that have held him back in office, as well as perhaps one final stab at cementing a decade-long tilt to the GOP in Congress. As is often the case as a presidential term winds down, government agencies already appear to be racing to unveil major actions, from the long-awaited filing of an antitrust case against Google to the settlement of a long-running lawsuit against Purdue Pharma for its role in opioids.
3) The mass firing of top officials: Trump’s already widely telegraphing that he has a list of people to fire ready in the event of a win. The list includes officials who have rankled him through the year — including FBI Director Christopher Wray, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and CIA Director Gina Haspel — and presumably might include an even wider housecleaning of people viewed insufficiently loyal to Team Trump.
4) The destruction of records and obstruction of the new administration: The Presidential Records Act and Federal Records Act in theory guarantee the preservation of the official history of the White House’s work, presidential actions and staff debates. However, just how closely the Trump White House plans to abide by them remains an open question.
5) Military conflict or covert action: Up until the final minutes of a presidency, the so-called “nuclear football” remains close at hand for the commander-in-chief, and while presidents have traditionally delayed potentially escalatory actions during a transition to avoid hamstringing their successor, such restraint is merely a norm.
In theory, Trump could launch military strikes, initiate covert actions and even launch a full-scale nuclear war right up until 11:59 a.m. on Jan. 20.
6) Giving up on the pandemic: One widespread concern is that if Trump loses, the White House will just cease any effort to combat the pandemic, perhaps slowing the push for a vaccine or abandoning any congressional push to jumpstart the still-ailing economy — a three-month delay ahead of a Biden administration that might have catastrophic consequences for millions of families and hamstring the Biden team even further as they inherit an even-deeper hole to dig out of in 2021. Already, even pre-election, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows appears to be throwing in the towel on the pandemic.
The good news — if you can call it that — is that our experts see little real effect if Trump loses next week and then retires to Mar-a-Lago to tweet and golf out the remainder of his presidency. As Meadows’ comment made clear, the sad truth is that the White House has been so disengaged from the pandemic response for so long that a total abdication of its role wouldn’t likely look all that different. Similarly, congressional and administration action on economic relief for the Covid-19 pandemic has already been stalled since May.
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