The day after the 2016 election, I ran into a journalist who’d covered Donald Trump in the 1980s and once knew the man well. “Trump will be a one-term president—maximum,” he said, with what seemed unwarranted confidence, given the previous day’s result. The presidency is a burden, he said, and Trump is “incredibly lazy” and unsuited to physically and cognitively demanding work. If you are president, hard decisions are thrust in your face, and you cannot simply not make them, or authorize a vice president to make them for you. Expect Trump to concoct a reason to resign, he said, or to decline to run for a second term.
The journalist predicted a mercifully brief presidency of indolence. Instead, four years later, Trump is still president, and not looking indolent at all. Indolent presidents do not deliver balcony orations that inspire concern that his affection for fascism is more than aesthetic. The most unfascist act one could undertake is to resign, or indeed to give up power for any reason at all, other than at gunpoint or while swinging at the end of a rope. Not only has Trump not resigned—he has signaled that he’s willing to plunge America into chaos in an effort to remain in the White House.
So in the competition between those who predicted a presidency of indolence and those who predicted a presidency of creeping fascism, the latter appear to be ahead by several touchdowns. And yet I think the first group might have a strong final quarter—even though the journalist was wrong about pretty much everything. When we consider how the postelection interregnum will go, we should remember that Trump had a vision of the presidency that began with extreme laziness, and that the end of his presidency could go roughly the same way.
I often think of a story first reported by Robert Draper of The New York Times Magazine, and since confirmed by Ohio Governor John Kasich, one of Trump’s centrist opponents for the Republican nomination in 2016. Kasich’s adviser John Weaver says Trump asked Kasich to be his running mate and, in the event of a Trump victory, to be “in charge of domestic and foreign policy.” What, Kasich’s team asked, would Trump be in charge of? The answer, delivered seriously: “Making America great again.” This is not the offer of a man fanatically devoted to the collection of power. It is the offer of a man too lazy to reach for the remote. (Trump denied that this exchange took place.)
Trump thought that the country is like many large organizations: capable of running itself, with the president a public figurehead, no more necessary to the United States’ daily operation than the guy who plays Ronald McDonald is to the McDonald’s corporation. The deep state—a permanent bureaucracy that runs things in its own interests, irrespective of who is president—was not his villain. It was his fantasy. Holding campaign rallies, even after the campaign ended in victory, was the equivalent of showing up in Ronald McDonald makeup (complete with unnaturally dyed hair), the job that he always wanted, and hoped he still had.
That would explain the ridiculous absentee governing, especially in Trump’s first year. It turns out you can refuse to make hard decisions, and that is exactly what Trump did. The result is an executive branch swiss-cheesed with vacant positions, run in practice by appointees with wildly diverse levels of competence who botch things while preserving the president’s ability to watch copious amounts of cable news.
The end of the indolent presidency could indeed have been triumphant resignation. Picture this: After a year in office, the country is still running; the long national nightmare of having a crypto-Kenyan Muslim president is over. Trump addresses Congress to announce that, having made America great again, he will retire to Trump Tower, like Cincinnatus to his farm on the right bank of the Tiber, and leave the republic in the capable hands of President Mike Pence. Trump then enjoys a gilded post-presidency—with opportunities for profit that would make the Clinton family blush.
But what stopped it from happening was not that Trump found his inner duce. The first intervention was reality: The president who sleeps away a year in office does not awake to find his ship on course for safe harbor. He finds it run aground and ripped apart, leaking its contents all over the country like the Exxon Valdez. The second was impeachment, the Russia investigation, and other accusations of criminality against Trump and his associates. Being much poorer than he claimed to be, then hiring cut-rate criminals to run his affairs, made honorable departure from office ahead of schedule—and without permanent taint—impossible.
Now, as is true for many politicians before him, staying in office is the surest way to evade investigation, prosecution, and conviction. That fact informs my colleague Barton Gellman’s cover story in the latest Atlantic, which asks what will happen if Trump loses the election, then refuses—as he promises he will—to concede. I agree with Gellman’s premise that Trump will not under any circumstances concede, if conceding means acknowledging that he was beaten in a fair fight. But I see some leeway where Gellman does not, because just as there was an indolent way into the presidency, there is an indolent way out. What if Trump does not concede—and he continues not to concede, even as he packs his suitcases, swipes some White House–branded complimentary toiletries, and walks onto the South Lawn and into Marine One and waves farewell to the presidency?
I think this scenario is in fact the most likely one, if Trump loses the election. And it may even be his preferred scenario, better than an outright victory (which would require another four years of onerous employment), better than showing up on Inauguration Day and having to duel Joe Biden for the right to be sworn in. As for the prospect of civil war: Trump is a coward, and all evidence suggests that he would run from the responsibility, even more burdensome than normal service as president, of overseeing the violent fracture of America. A civil war sounds like a lot of work. The easiest path is also the most lucrative. Get on Marine One, protesting all the way, and spend the rest of your days fleecing the 40 percent of Americans who still think you are the Messiah, and who will watch you on cable news, spend their money on whatever hypoallergenic pillow you endorse, and come to see you whenever you visit their town.
The law would still be a problem: Leave the presidency, and immediately federal prosecutors will be falling over one another to nail to their wall the great orange pelt of an ex-president. One way out would be to self-pardon before leaving office, a constitutionally dubious maneuver that just might work. Another would be to resign in favor of Mike Pence, who, during a very brief caretaker presidency, would offer a Gerald Ford–like absolution, for the good of the nation.
A self- or Pence-pardon would cover only federal crimes, and would leave Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.—may God speed his work—free to indict Trump for state crimes. Even without a pardon, Trump would enjoy a politically favorable position if the indictments were to come. Politicians who lose reelection or get impeached are indicted all the time. Ones who a substantial minority of voters think were robbed of reelection, and are now being persecuted by the wrongdoers, are much harder to convict cleanly. Could Trump convince one juror that President Biden is out to get him? Maybe he could. It would certainly be easier to do so if he left in a self-pitying, blustery way.
That seems to be what Trump is preparing now: insurance against a loss, so he can skate past criminal charges and live out the playboy post-presidency he has longed for since taking office. That would offend my sense of justice, not to mention my sense of taste. (It is not a coincidence that Trump would retire to a residence outfitted to resemble the most decadent phase of the Roman empire, rather than to a humble farm in the Quinctian Meadows.) But as someone who believes in only imperfect justice in this world—and who has long since given up on the triumph of good taste—I hope he gets what he wants, and soon.