President Trump appears to know he’s leaving soon — but can sow plenty of chaos on his way through the White House door
Good evening. Voting in the 2020 presidential election ended 50 days ago. The inauguration happens in 28 days.
Last week, I wrote that President Trump appeared poised to hand out pardons as if they were party favors. Well, this week he made good on some of his malefactor friends’ fondest dreams:
At around the same time on Tuesday evening as news of Trump’s latest pardon spree emerged, another of the president’s chintzy-looking direct-to-camera videos arrived on Twitter. In it, he mocked a coronavirus relief bill that Republican senators had just grudgingly approved — following months of dilatory grousing — as “insufficient”:
On Wednesday afternoon, Trump lobbed another grenade by vetoing a defense appropriations bill. The president has made plain, in the past, his abhorrence for language in that bill that would force military installations named after Confederate officers to be renamed.
(I suppose that in the president’s mind, an insurrection against the government of the United States in the name of enslavement had very fine people on both sides.)
Is there good news here? Yes. the president’s decision to pardon a tranche of allies and people he considers role models for the nation — the first two members of Congress to endorse his presidential bid in the first category and mercenaries whose war crimes in Iraq claimed the lives of people as young as 9 in the second — betrays a recognition that his time for such gestures will soon run out. Trump can hear the clock ticking on his time in office.
Here’s the bad news, though: the president’s appetite for stirring chaos remains unsated. Until the clock on his term ticks down to zero, he may feel that he faces fewer constraints on his freedom of action than ever.
That feeling of freedom explains his choice to torpedo Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s deal on coronavirus relief. With one gesture, Trump stuck it to Mitch for deserting his efforts to cling to power and flaunted his populist bonafides. That his maneuver put the two Republican senate candidates in Georgia in a jam — possibly forcing them to block the $2,000 relief checks their Democratic opponents quickly joined Trump in calling for — appears to not have troubled him.
Of course, a Trump who believes he can indulge his wildest impulses may get up to … um, other mischief. Longtime Republican power player-turned-never Trumper Bill Kristol (for whose opinions I have little use, but whatever) offered speculation this week based on cues he’s monitoring:
The New York Times — for what it’s worth — reported along similar lines today about the president’s thinking.
How far [Trump] will go to subvert the election results, actually refuse to leave the White House or to unleash a wave of unilateral policy decisions in his final weeks is hard to discern.
Still, his erratic behavior and detachment from his duties have even some of his most loyal aides and advisers deeply concerned. … [C]urrent advisers have described a daily struggle to keep Mr. Trump from giving in to his impulse to listen to those who are telling him what he wants to hear. And former advisers say the most worrisome issue is the gradual disappearance of the core group of West Wing aides who, often working in unison, consistently could get him to turn away from risky, legally dubious and dangerous ideas.
As Melissa Ryan wrote in this space on Monday, “we don’t need to worry about Trump’s attempts at a coup working.” He can still, however, can wreak havoc — as we’re witnessing with each passing day.
Trump can do this with steps large and small. For instance, he may thumb his nose at the obvious norm of having an outgoing president’s staff resign as their term ends:
Reporters covering this messy transition will need to bear in mind — as the framing of the tweet above suggests — that the chaos sowed by Trump is the issue, not the steps taken to clean it up.
Meanwhile, the rest of us might benefit from taking deep breaths, exhaling — and reminding ourselves that on January 20, Trump’s presidency will come to a close.
In the Conversation
Seung Min Kim, Josh Dawsey, and Toluse Olorunnipa, at The Washington Post: “Republicans plunge into open battle over attempts to overturn Trump’s loss to Biden.”
“While the internal Republican Party conflict festers, White House officials are scrambling in private to rein in Trump’s increasing embrace of conspiracy theorists as the defeated president and his most ardent allies continue to plot efforts to subvert the outcome of the Nov. 3 election. … But it all appears to have hardened Trump, who — having been out of sight for more than a week — is continuing to push baseless claims of election fraud, while those closest to him are unwilling to challenge him publicly and are instead only bolstering his efforts.”
Aziz Huq, at The Washington Post: “A Trump pardoning spree could actually be good for democracy.”
“A pardoned person is by definition no longer in legal jeopardy, so they can no longer claim any Fifth Amendment privilege. If they refuse to speak, the legislature can flex its contempt power: At one extreme, this can involve the threat of jail time, but it could also mean daily fines calibrated to the asserted wealth of a reluctant witness. For the Trump family in particular, their zealous defense of the wallet might make them eager to comply.”
“The undermining of the federal government’s tech infrastructure began decades ago. What has happened in the past four years has only accelerated a trend that was well underway before this administration. And it’s getting worse by the day. The issue at play isn’t the lack of tech-forward vision. It’s the lack of organizational, human capital, and communications infrastructure that’s necessary for a complex “must reach everyone” institution to transform. We need a new administration who is willing to dive deep and understand the cracks in the infrastructure that make a tech-forward agenda impossible. Which is exactly why we need a federal VP of engineering whose job it is to engage in deep debugging. The bugs aren’t in the newest layer of code; they’re down deep in the libraries that no one has examined for years.”
“Unless Democrats win both [Georgia runoff] elections, [McConnell will] still be Senate majority leader, in a position to stand in the way of any further economic relief. … Beyond that, the final hurdles to reaching an agreement were a reminder of something we should have learned during the Obama years: When a Democrat is in the White House, Republicans try to sabotage the economy. And the sabotage doesn’t stop with using phony deficit concerns to block necessary spending; it also involves deliberately increasing the risk of financial crisis.”
Matt Ford, at The New Republic: “Congress Is the Problem Child of American Democracy.”
“The result, as we saw on Monday, is a system where most legislators don’t actually get to play a productive role in crafting the bills that are most likely to pass. And if one party doesn’t control both chambers and the White House, there’s even less incentive for lawmakers to put their energies into making substantive contributions to American life. … Unless Congress reasserts itself as a functional branch of government, it will continue to see itself become a satellite feature of the judicial-executive policy-industrial complex.”
Biden Hires and Appointments
Dr. Miguel Cardona, Secretary of Education
From the Biden-Harris transition team: “Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education — the first Latino to hold the position. He began his career educating and inspiring Connecticut’s youth as a fourth-grade teacher in Meriden’s public school system, the same school district he attended as a child. Dr. Cardona became the youngest school principal in the state at age 27, serving in the position for 10 years before taking on a role addressing the district’s performance and evaluation process and ultimately rising to the position of assistant superintendent.”
… and, on the White House staff:
Two Moments of Humbug
Santa, buddy, this is … perhaps more than any of us cared for you to leave in our stockings.
That’s all for this issue. Have a holly, jolly Christmas; we’ll see you on Monday.
American Interregnum is a pop-up newsletter covering the issues and ideas that will define the Presidential transition period from Nov. 3, 2020, through — we’re all but sure now — Jan. 21, 2021. It is written and edited by Justin Hendrix, Greg Greene, and Melissa Ryan. Have questions or comments? We love your feedback. Reply directly to this email. We read all responses and respond to most.
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