Yes, this sounds like a B-grade spy novel. But consider the evidence.
He said it.
Earlier this month, at a campaign rally in Macon, Georgia, President Donald Trump mused aloud to the crowd about what he might do if he loses the election on November 3. “Maybe I’ll have to leave the country, I don’t know,” Trump said.
Was the statement merely a sour-grapes throwaway line by a cantankerous candidate facing potential defeat? Or was it a signal that Trump might actually abandon—some would say flee—our shores and seek refuge elsewhere if he is routed by a Joe Biden victory?
During my long military intelligence career I spent countless hours with my peers working on diverse “What if … ?” contingency scenarios in complex locales such as the Balkans and Afghanistan. In these intensely personal environments, where clan or tribal loyalty is paramount, local and regional leaders, often with links to organized criminal activities and enabling transnational networks, could be dangerously unpredictable. Judging from the array of personality traits gleaned from these and numerous other experiences, and correlating them to his current circumstances, to me Trump appears to be a classic flight risk.
Setting aside for the moment his conduct as president, Trump faces a financial and legal reckoning of immense proportions as soon as he leaves office. If he loses, he will no longer have protection from an avalanche of charges and lawsuits against him, his family and the Trump Organization. His years of alleged tax evasion will be officially scrutinized—and far more publicly than before he held office. He will no longer be able to claim (falsely) that his taxes are still “under audit” and unavailable. Trump properties and investments could be frozen, seized or plummet in value. The true nature of his extraordinary personal financial debt—recently reported as $421 million—will be exposed, and his likely foreign creditors revealed. Surely adding to his worries was the announcement on October 15 by the Internal Revenue Service that it is indicting Robert Brockman, a wealthy Houston software magnate, in its largest tax-fraud case ever. The action against Brockman shows that the IRS is not afraid to go after big fish who attempt to circumvent their tax obligations.
Personality and longstanding habits are key factors in assessing a subject’s likely future behavior and choices. Even the most casual observer knows that Donald Trump is heavily invested in his self-image as a successful businessman and wheeler-dealer. He takes pride in flouting norms, finding loopholes and playing fast and loose with laws and the truth. If his private financial house of cards is put on harsh public display in high-stakes government and state-level litigation, the aura of celebrity and success that Trump has cultivated for decades is not likely to survive intact. There is nothing in this president’s demeanor, past or present, to suggest that he has the fortitude or integrity to face auditors, prosecutors, or anyone else who challenges him, particularly if the outcome is likely to involve public humiliation and loss of assets, prestige and power. The option of salvaging what he can by relocating to a jurisdiction beyond the reach of U.S. laws would not be a stretch for someone who has long been openly disdainful of our tax and legal systems.
If Trump were to lose the election and opt to slip away, where, when, and how might such a scenario play out? The “where” is straightforward: His most logical move would be to negotiate asylum somewhere from which extradition would be difficult. Doing so would allow him to temporarily escape U.S. jurisdiction and law, although he would also become in essence a hostage, a gilded trophy of sorts. After first fleeing to Costa Rica in 1973, Vesco made his home in Antigua, Nicaragua and Cuba, whose governments were not inclined to cooperate with U.S. authorities. And Edward Snowden, the disgruntled Booz Allen contractor turned whistleblower, has been living in Russia, under the protection (and eye) of the Putin regime, after fleeing the U.S. in 2013 with a treasure trove of classified information.
If Trump loses badly, it is conceivable he could plan a stealth departure sometime during the 11-week period before Inauguration Day, while he still has the protection of legal immunity as a sitting president. Leaving U.S. airspace before he resumes the status of private citizen at noon on January 20 would allow him to escape—or at least delay—dealing face-to-face with many creditors and lawsuits. Classic indicators of preparation for such a move would include fast sales of domestic properties and investments, and a quiet amassing of wealth offshore, out of reach of U.S. authorities. Trump’s family members and trusted corporate staff would likely be heavily involved in orchestrating the relocation.
A chilling alternative, however fanciful, could arise if Trump flees abroad after losing a close, viciously contested election. Hunkered down in a foreign country willing to provide sanctuary, he could conceivably style himself a “president in exile” and incite his die-hard American followers to resist the election results. A degree of domestic upheaval and dangerous division would linger for an extended period until the new administration is able to foster calm and unity.
How might this happen? What methods might a sitting U.S. president use to leave the country on a one-way journey? The choice could be as brazen as not reboarding Air Force One while out of the country at a conference or summit. Cases abound of athletes and artists escaping repressive regimes by refusing to reboard official aircraft and instead negotiating asylum. While on U.S. shores, Trump could find a creative way to slip his Secret Service detail and fly away in a friend’s private jet or foreign aircraft. Sailing away into international waters would also be a plausible option. In 2019, fugitive U.S. computer-security software magnate John McAfee used his yacht to elude the IRS and Securities and Exchange Commission for months until he was arrested in Spain on October 6, 2020. Steve Bannon made news last August when the Coast Guard arrested him while on a foreign yacht off Connecticut.
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