How to Defend Against a Lame-Duck Trump

Four risks to guard against now

Donald Trump
Jim Lo Scalzo / Getty

The polls are grim for President Donald Trump. His campaign faces a big and worsening money disadvantage. His closing arguments appeal only to the most hyper-partisan Republicans.

Many have worried about the transition after a Trump electoral defeat. Will Trump leave office quietly and peacefully? But there are other, less dramatic dangers to ponder, too—dangers that we would do well to anticipate and guard against.

Funding the government

The resolution funding the federal government expires December 11. If it is not renewed, the U.S. government will shut down, as it did for 35 days in December 2018 and January 2019, the longest shutdown in U.S. history. That shutdown badly hurt the U.S. economy in the fourth quarter of 2018.

Fortunately, the economy was strong enough in 2018–19 to absorb the shock. But things are different in 2020–21. A pandemic is raging, unemployment has surged in its wake, and President Trump, nursing a wounded ego, may be in a vengeful mood.

To make things worse, the new Congress will not be seated until January 3. The outgoing Senate majority may therefore feel it has a limited amount of time to impose its priorities on an incoming Biden administration. It may feel it has little to lose, and something to gain, by working with Trump to force its will while it can.

A self-pardon crisis

After his presidency, Trump will face a large number of legal hazards. Most of them involve state law, but some will be federal, especially credible allegations of tax fraud. Trump has asserted a right to pardon himself. Many legal scholars disagree. But the question has never been tested in court over the long history of the U.S. presidency, and who knows what a John Roberts–led Supreme Court majority reinforced by Amy Coney Barrett will think of the matter? Trump seems likely to try the pardon—and in doing so might plunge the nation into convulsion.

Making things more complicated is the uncertainty about what a president can pardon for. The IRS has the power to forgive all or part of a taxpayer’s liability. Can a president direct the IRS to forgive his own debt? That question has never arisen. It may arise now.

Last call at Mar-a-Lago

As of mid-September, The Washington Post has identified about $1.1 million of government funds directly paid to Trump enterprises over the course of 274 presidential visits to Trump properties. This estimate is certainly low. The State Department, for example, has declined to make its records of spending at Trump properties available until after the election. And the estimate is dwarfed by the sums Trump has collected from Republican candidates and Republican Party funds, as well as from domestic and foreign favor-seekers. But the flow from taxpayers is the money most directly under his control—and the easiest for him to accelerate, should his presidency near its end.

There are about 11 weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day. Trump could spend every single day of them at Mar-a-Lago, enriching himself at taxpayer expense to the end.

A final round of legal abuses

Trump never realized his fantasy of locking up his political opponents, and now it seems he never will. But there is one last service his politicized attorney general can do for him before returning to whatever law firm will have him—and that is dirtying those opponents on the way out the door.

As Trump leaves office, actions he kept secret will become public. His reputation, already bad, will sink even further into the muck. His one and only defense is to try to paint everybody else as just as dirty as he is.

His hopes for the future—starting with staying out of prison—depend on transforming the remains of the Republican Party into an ongoing Trump Defense League, like those bogus anti-defamation groups stepped up by New York City mobsters in the 1970s. And the surest way to achieve that end is by empowering the QAnon fantasy to become a power bloc inside the Republican Party. In the original QAnon myth, Trump was a messiah battling a demonic “deep state.” Now he’ll be reimagined as a martyr instead—or perhaps as a messiah awaiting a second coming. The more Trump can propagate wild claims during his lame-duck presidency, the tighter he can bolt the conservative messaging machine to his cause during his post-presidency.

After his bankruptcies in the late 1980s, Trump extolled his “art of the comeback” in a 1997 book. Nearing age 75, and after repudiation at the polls, he is unlikely to have any comeback awaiting him. But he can at least work for the gratification of his vindictiveness, inflicting a final act of retaliation against the nation he will now hate, just as a narcissist always hates those who escape his domination and control.