Trump’s final days ripe for settling scores, pardoning allies
President Donald Trump may have lost his bid for re-election, but his presidency and capacity for disruption are far from over.
Trump’s final two months in office could see a whirlwind of recrimination, executive action and efforts to make governing more difficult for President-elect Joe Biden.
And while nearly every president has sought to maximize his influence during his final hours in the Oval Office, few have had the disregard and disdain Trump has shown for the institutions of the presidency and federal government, opening new fronts for possible bedlam.
Before he leaves office at noon on Jan. 20, perceived enemies could be fired or targeted and allies pardoned, all as novel new rule-making efforts strain the traditional legal boundaries of presidential power.
“Once a president is a lame duck, there are fewer checks on his ability to exercise the power of the executive branch,” said Emily Sydnor, a political science professor at Southwestern University.
Without the threat of facing voters again, she said the only restraint on Trump will be traditions of presidential behavior.
“History suggests those have little hold in this administration,” she said.
As president, Trump refused to release his tax returns to the public, pushed the Justice Department to investigate his political adversaries, fired three chiefs of staff in four years and flirted with abandoning alliances in Europe and the Pacific, among other breaks with his predecessors. He was impeached for pressuring Ukraine’s government to produce dirt on Biden, the man who would eventually replace him.
Biden claimed the presidency on Saturday after winning Pennsylvania and Nevada, according to the Associated Press and networks. Trump has vowed to challenge the election outcome in several states where he trails, alleging without evidence that there was widespread fraud in the vote. In his White House, aides are beginning to resign themselves to the reality that Trump’s defeat is unlikely to be reversed.
The president, meanwhile, has already hinted that he may be planning to go after members of his own administration he blames for not doing enough to help him politically before Election Day
The president appears to have developed particular ire for his medical advisers, blaming them for not supporting his push to reopen the economy despite the coronavirus outbreak. At a rally Monday in Florida, Trump egged on a crowd encouraging him to fire Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
“Don’t tell anybody, but let me wait until a little bit after the election,” Trump said. “I appreciate the advice.”
Biden has already said he would reinstate Fauci if he is fired by Trump. But other health officials more closely aligned with the president – including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield and coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx – might not get a lifeline from Biden if Trump opts to dismiss them.
Similarly, the president could remove officials like Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel – sources of frequent frustration to some in Trump’s inner circle – as an act of punishment.
The president voiced frustration with FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General William Barr in the weeks before the election. Trump said the Justice Department should have brought charges against officials involved in the probe of possible ties between Russia and his 2016 campaign before voters cast their ballots.
Trump also publicly encouraged charges against Biden’s son, Hunter, over his foreign business dealings, while complaining that the FBI had launched an investigation into a caravan of his political supporters in Texas that swarmed a Biden campaign bus on a highway.
While Barr has largely been a steadfast ally of the president, his removal and replacement with someone even more willing to follow political orders instead of abiding by nonpartisan prosecutorial standards could exact some measure of revenge. And Wray’s removal – the second firing of a Federal Bureau of Investigation director on Trump’s watch – would threaten to further politicize the post.
The appointment of a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden would create an unusual political and legal headache for the incoming president. Biden has pledged to restore the traditional wall between the White House and Justice Department. Intervening to shut down such an investigation would risk violating that promise and fan accusations he was covering up his son’s misdeeds. But allowing the investigation to proceed risks creating a scandal in the opening days of his administration.
Trump has also made clear he thinks he has the authority to dictate other prosecutorial efforts, and may order the career staff at the Justice Department to indict officials he blames for the probe into whether his 2016 campaign colluded with Russia. Trump has also threatened legal recriminations for members of his own team – including former National Security Advisor John Bolton and Miles Taylor, the former Department of Homeland Security staffer who penned a 2018 anonymous op-ed and subsequent book – for revealing insider information about White House disarray.
Trump may also use the lame duck period, as presidents dating back to George Washington have done, to exercise pardon powers in controversial ways. President George H.W. Bush pardoned six officials involved in the Iran-Contra scandal during 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 clemency to WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning.
Trump didn’t shy away from controversial pardons and clemency for political allies even before the election, offering assistance to the likes of conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza, media mogul Conrad Black, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, and former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio.
But he’s likely to expand that to include close allies and associates either already convicted or facing possible prosecution, from former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. And the president could even look to pardon himself preemptively, blocking a Biden administration from prosecuting him over possible criminal acts, although the legality of that is untested.
Trump may also seek to cement his imprint on public policy over his final weeks in power.
Before the election, Trump said he expected to negotiate a large coronavirus relief package after votes were tallied. His appetite for doing so may now have waned – particularly since any economic benefit is likely to advantage his successor – but the White House will still be involved in negotiations over a bill.
He’ll also likely face decisions on how to roll out the coronavirus vaccine, which administration officials have said could be ready in a matter of weeks. The president may look to trumpet the rollout in a bid to burnish his legacy on the way out the door. But Trump also claimed that testing requirements developed by the Food and Drug Administration that delayed release before the election were politically motivated so he may withdraw himself from the announcement process.
Other top priorities could see sizable action in the waning days of the Trump administration.
Trump will likely be eager to exact punishment on China, which he blames for the coronavirus pandemic that ultimately doomed his presidency, especially now that he does not need to worry about how economic consequences might impact him politically.
Trump could rattle markets by claiming that he’s going to de-list Chinese companies from U.S. stock exchanges for refusing to allow American inspectors to review their financial audits – an idea that’s been batted around the administration for some time.
For months, the president has said that his aides had developed a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration policies. The administration could rewrite rules for visas and offer protected status to those brought to the country illegally as children – using a Supreme Court decision upholding elements of the Obama administration’s immigration regulations as justification.
But despite Trump’s promise to unveil the plan before the election, it was never released because of objections raised by administration lawyers who questioned the legal justification. Now the president could decide to push forward with the changes, leaving the Biden administration the task of sorting the policies and any ensuing legal challenges.
In anticipation of a possible transition, senior aide Chris Liddell has been preparing binders of information on the intricacies government to help the Biden team navigate the hiring and security clearance processes. But there’s potential for mass disruption if Trump orders his team to halt cooperating in what has traditionally been a sacrosanct transfer of power.
Trump may also seek to travel over 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 expected to come down to two runoff elections – could both repair the president’s bruised ego and underscore his lasting political influence, should he contemplate launching a conservative media enterprise or remaining active in the Republican party.
But while there’s plenty of opportunity for Trump to sow chaos during the final weeks of his presidency, there’s also the distinct possibility that having lost, his attention will turn to more pedestrian matters – like shaving strokes off his golf handicap. The president traditionally travels to his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, for extended stretches over Thanksgiving and Christmas, and may decide simply to extend that vacation.
“You think this is fun?” Trump said of the work of the presidency at a rally late last month in Pennsylvania. “I had a good life before this. I had a nice, beautiful life. I could go anywhere, I could do anything.”