President Donald Trump lost his offer for re-election, but his presidency and ability to interfere are far from over.
Trump’s last two months in office could mean a whirlwind of accusations, executive action and efforts to facilitate governance for President-elect Joe Biden.
And while almost every president has tried to maximize his influence during his final hours in the Oval Office, few have experienced the disregard and contempt Trump has shown for the institutions of the presidency and the federal government and opened new fronts for possible chaos.
Before he leaves office at 12:00 noon on January 20, perceived enemies could be fired or attacked and allies pardoned as novel new rule-making efforts weigh on the traditional legal limits of the president’s power.
“Once a president is a lame duck, his ability to exercise executive power is less scrutinized,” said Emily Sydnor, a political science professor at Southwestern University.
Without threatening to face the electorate again, she said the only restriction on Trump was traditions of the president’s behavior.
“History suggests that this government has little leverage,” she said.
When President Trump refused to make his tax returns available to the public, urged the Justice Department to investigate his political opponents, fired three chiefs of staff within four years and flirted with abandoning alliances in Europe and the Pacific, including his Predecessors. He was charged for pressuring the Ukrainian government to defile Biden, the man who would eventually replace him.
According to the Associated Press and Networks, Biden claimed the presidency on Saturday after winning Pennsylvania and Nevada. Trump has vowed to question the election results in several states where he is lagging behind. At his White House, aides are beginning to come to terms with the fact that Trump’s defeat is unlikely to be reversible.
The president has since hinted that he may be planning to pursue members of his own government whom he accuses of not doing enough to help him politically before election day
The president appears to have developed a particular anger for his medical advisors, accusing them of not supporting his urge to reopen the economy despite the coronavirus outbreak. At a rally in Florida on Monday, Trump encountered a crowd encouraging him to fire Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert.
“Don’t tell anyone, but let me wait until shortly after the election,” said Trump. “I appreciate the advice.”
Biden has already said he would reinstate Fauci if Trump is fired. But other health officials more closely linked to the president – including Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Deborah Birx, coronavirus task force coordinator – may not receive a lifeline from Biden if Trump chooses to dismiss them.
Similarly, the president could remove officials like Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Central Intelligence Director Gina Haspel – often frustrating sources of punishment for some in Trump’s inner circle.
The President expressed frustration with FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General William Barr in the weeks leading up to the election. Trump said the Justice Department should have brought charges against officials involved in investigating possible links between Russia and its 2016 campaign before voters cast their votes.
Trump also publicly encouraged indictments of Biden’s son Hunter over his overseas business, while complaining that the FBI had opened an investigation into a caravan of his political supporters in Texas swarming a Biden campaign bus on a freeway.
While Barr has been a staunch ally of the president for the most part, his removal and replacement by someone more willing to obey political orders rather than adhere to impartial law enforcement standards could demand some measure of vengeance. And Wray’s dismissal – the second dismissal of a Federal Bureau of Investigation director from Trump’s guard – would threaten to further politicize the post.
The appointment of a special envoy to investigate Hunter Biden would create an unusual political and legal headache for the future president. Biden has pledged to restore the traditional wall between the White House and the Justice Department. If he steps in to stop such an investigation, he risks breaking that promise and the allegations of fans that he is covering up his son’s misdeeds. If the investigation can continue, it can lead to scandal in the first few days of his tenure.
Trump has also made it clear that he believes he has the authority to dictate other law enforcement efforts and can order Justice Department officials to indict officials he blames for investigating whether his 2016 campaign cooperated with Russia. Trump has also threatened legal charges against members of his own team – including former National Security Advisor John Bolton and Miles Taylor, former Homeland Security officer who authored an anonymous, published and follow-up book in 2018 – for revealing inside information about the White House have mess.
Trump can also use the time of the lame ducks, as presidents of George Washington have done, to exercise pardon in controversial ways. President George HW Bush pardoned six officials involved in the Iran-Contra scandal in the final months of his presidency. President Bill Clinton did the same for his own brother and Democratic mega-donor Marc Rich. And President Barack Obama offered mercy to the WikiLeaks source, Chelsea Manning.
Even before the elections, Trump did not shy away from controversial pardons and grace for political allies and offered support for conservative provocateurs such as Dinesh D’Souza, the media mogul Conrad Black, the former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, and the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio.
But he is likely to expand that to include close allies and staff who have either already been convicted or may face criminal prosecution, from former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. And the president could even try to apologize pre-emptively and prevent a Biden government from prosecuting him for possible crimes, although the legality of this has not been checked.
Trump could also try to cement his influence on public order in the final weeks of his power.
Ahead of the election, Trump said he expected to negotiate a large coronavirus aid package after the votes were counted. His appetite for it may now have diminished – especially since any economic benefit is likely to go to his successor – but the White House will continue to be involved in negotiating a bill.
He will also likely face decisions on how to roll out the coronavirus vaccine, which government officials said could be ready in a few weeks. The president could try trumpeting the rollout to polish his legacy on the way to the door. However, Trump also claimed that the testing requirements developed by the Food and Drug Administration, which delayed release before the elections, were politically motivated so that he could withdraw from the announcement process.
Other top priorities could see sizable action in the dwindling days of the Trump administration.
Trump will likely seek to punish China, blaming the coronavirus pandemic that ultimately doomed his presidency, especially now that he doesn’t have to worry about how the economic fallout will affect him politically could.
Trump could upset the markets by claiming he will remove Chinese companies from US exchanges for refusing to allow American inspectors to review their financial audits – an idea that has been debated by the government for some time.
Immigration is changing
For months, the president has said his aides have fundamentally revised the nation’s immigration policy. The government could rewrite the rules on visas and grant protection status to those illegally brought into the country as children – using a Supreme Court ruling confirming elements of the Obama administration’s immigration rules as justification.
But despite Trump’s promise to reveal the plan before the election, it was never made public due to objections from administrative attorneys who questioned its legal justification. Now the president could decide to move the changes forward so that the Biden administration has a job to sort through the guidelines and the legal challenges that arise from them.
Anticipating a possible transition, Senior Adjutant Chris Liddell has prepared folders of government intricacies to help the Biden team guide the hiring and security review processes. But there is a potential for mass disturbance if Trump orders his team to stop working on a traditionally sacrosanct transfer of power.
Trump could also try to travel in his final weeks in office – both to states he has not visited as president and to areas where he remains politically popular. A farewell tour – particularly to Georgia, where control of the U.S. Senate is likely to be limited to two runoff elections – could both repair the president’s tarnished ego and underscore his continued political influence should he consider starting or active a conservative media outfit to remain the Republican Party.
But while Trump has ample opportunity to wreak havoc in the final weeks of his presidency, there is also the clear possibility that his attention will be turned to more pedestrian matters after the loss – like shaving strokes from his golf handicap. The president traditionally travels to his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida for extended distances over Thanksgiving and Christmas and can easily choose to extend that vacation.
“You think this is fun?” Trump said about the work of the presidency at a rally in Pennsylvania late last month. “I had a good life before. I’ve had a nice, nice life. I could go anywhere, I could do anything “