When a president is running for a second term, elections tend to look like a contest between change (a new candidate) and more of the same (the incumbent).
But 2020 doesn’t fit the mold. As aberrant as Donald Trump’s first term in office has been, a second term might be a more radical departure from the past four years than even a comparative return to normalcy under Joe Biden would be. In other words, this is a change election either way—the question is what kind of change.
Some Trump supporters have dismissed the concerns of his critics as so much Chicken Little-ing: The sky hasn’t fallen yet, has it? This is a foolish response, not only because so much of the sky has fallen, but also because there are indications of how fast the rest will fall if Trump is reelected. The president, freed from ever having to face voters again, would feel no need to moderate any of his many unpopular stances and impulses.
The easiest place to imagine this is at the level of staffing. The president gave two big hints yesterday about who might be in a new administration. Most prominently, he all but promised to fire Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, if he wins. During a rally in Florida, Trump complained about coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, even as COVID-19 case counts reach their highest point in the U.S. and continue to rise. The crowd began chanting, “Fire Fauci!” Trump paused to allow the cries to grow, then replied: “Don’t tell anybody, but let me wait ’til a little bit after the election.”
Trump says off-the-cuff things all the time, especially at rallies, but there are plenty of reasons to believe this one is true. The president has repeatedly dismissed the doctor’s advice, and has bridled against any kind of coronavirus policy, even as Fauci has grown more outspoken. During a call with campaign staff in October, Trump complained that he wanted to fire Fauci, but he was too popular: “Every time he goes on television, there’s always a bomb. But there’s a bigger bomb if you fire him.” If Trump is reelected, however, he’ll be much less worried about popularity. The president can’t fire Fauci directly—he’s a civil servant—but he could instruct his appointees to do so. And if they don’t? He’ll fire through them, Nixon-style, until he finds one who will.
If you don’t believe me, look at his plans for other appointees. Also yesterday, the FBI announced that it was investigating an incident in which ruffians in trucks, bedecked with Trump flags, tried to run a Biden-Harris bus off the road in Texas. Trump immediately smacked down the bureau in a tweet.
“In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong,” he wrote. “Instead, the FBI & Justice should be investigating the terrorists, anarchists, and agitators of ANTIFA, who run around burning down our Democrat run cities and hurting our people!”
FBI Director Chris Wray has already popped up on lists written by well-sourced reporters of top-priority firings if Trump is reelected. You may recall that Wray ended up in that job after Trump fired James Comey in May 2017, in one of the most damaging decisions of his presidency. The job holds a 10-year term, and although presidents have the power to fire FBI directors, they usually have not used it. But Wray would likely be shown the door because he has proved too impervious to political pressure for Trump’s taste. (Unlike Comey, Wray didn’t even produce a splash October surprise on the Democratic candidate.)
Another likely target is Defense Secretary Mark Esper. As at the FBI, the trajectory of the role during the Trump administration is instructive. The first Pentagon head was James Mattis, who was widely respected in Washington, and resigned in late 2018 in a disagreement with the president over Syria policy. He was replaced by Esper, who was widely viewed as an empty suit—a literal lobbyist for the weapons giant Raytheon whose major qualification was a long-standing friendship with the secretary of state, and dependable Trump sycophant, Mike Pompeo.
But Esper has also proved too independent. The bar isn’t high: He simply distanced himself from Trump’s ill-advised June clearance of Lafayette Square outside the White House, and only after the fact. Even so, rumors of Esper’s postelection demise have circulated ever since.
A fourth name on the deathwatch is that of CIA Director Gina Haspel. Like Wray, she’s always been a misfit in the Trump administration, as she’s a career official with few ties to the president.
Who might fill these kinds of top-ranking jobs in a second Trump administration? A good place to look for clues is the directorship of national intelligence. The first holder of that job in the Trump administration was Dan Coats, a former ambassador and senator from Indiana. When Coats was forced out (you know the pattern by now: too devoted to doing his job, not devoted enough to the president), he was replaced on an interim basis by Ric Grenell, a notorious political bully. After a false start, Trump finally filled the job with John Ratcliffe, who is not only a partisan hack who misrepresented his résumé, but also unqualified for the role, based on the plain language of the statute that created it.
Another useful example is Michael Caputo, who was briefly and chaotically the chief spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year, before taking an indefinite leave of absence to deal with a serious illness. Caputo is the sort of figure who wouldn’t get a top job in a normal administration, especially not at HHS in the middle of a pandemic. But if Trump wins, the likely outcome is a further Caputoization of the government—not just at the level of mouthpiece, but in lead roles.
The Senate confirmation process is designed to safeguard against a president placing just this sort of appointee in essential jobs, but there’s little reason to have faith that it would protect the country during a second Trump term. Assume that if Trump wins reelection, Republicans also hold the Senate. GOP senators have shown little appetite for standing up to Trump over the past four years. Consider Ratcliffe’s case, in which objections from Republicans initially sank his nomination, but when Trump simply put Ratcliffe back up, 49 Republicans voted to confirm him. (Four did not vote; none opposed him.)
A more curious situation will come if Democrats capture the Senate even as Biden loses. A Democratic Senate would be loath to confirm anyone Trump put up with less than sterling credentials, and the pressure on it to oppose nominees from its own base of voters would be phenomenal. Meanwhile, Trump has made clear that he only wants to nominate people who will do his will. The likely outcome is that Trump would rely even more heavily on “acting” appointees.
That’s a blatant end run around the Constitution, but who’s to stop him? Perhaps the most important lesson of the past term is that if the president is willing to break the rules, almost no one can keep him from doing so. Democrats might try to impeach him again, but without enough votes to convict him in the Senate, that wouldn’t halt Trump.
If, as the former Ronald Reagan aide Scott Faulkner noted, personnel is policy, the probable turnover gives a good window into what Trump 2 might look like. In some ways, it would resemble a grotesque caricature of Trump 1. Between presumed Democratic control of the House, and perhaps the Senate, and Trump’s decision to not even bother laying out a platform for a second term, Congress would likely achieve even less than its meager output over the past four years.
But Trump’s replacement of minimally competent leaders with fully obeisant ones would mean that the White House could go much further on some of the worrying things it has done already. That includes undermining civil liberties, press freedom, and worker protections; rolling back health coverage through courts and executive action; and converting the executive branch into an extension of Trump’s personal interests. Globally, where the president already has broad latitude, my colleague Thomas Wright has written, it would spell the wholesale disintegration of the world order as we know it.
The result of such a change could radically reorient the federal government and the United States writ large. If the first Trump term was recognizable as an American government, albeit a conspicuously bad one, the second might barely be recognizable at all.