Washington braces for unpredictable post-election period
President Trump’s time left in office is ticking down after Democrat Joe Biden was projected as the president-elect on Saturday, setting the stage for an unpredictable lame-duck period.
Trump is unlikely to concede the race in the immediate future, but people close to him believe he will ultimately leave the White House when his term ends. What happens in the roughly 70 days until Inauguration Day remains uncertain, however, even to many people close to the White House and the Trump campaign.
The president is expected to pursue legal challenges to the election results in key battleground states, even though some initial lawsuits have already been rejected and others would not change the outcome. There are also rumblings he could fire agency heads in the coming days, and some White House staffers have started circulating their resumes elsewhere.
The developments come as the country is still facing a worsening public health crisis, setting new records in recent days for positive COVID-19 tests, and Congress may try in the coming weeks to broker an economic relief package aiding those impacted by the pandemic. But it’s unclear how involved Trump will be in either matter.
The president spent Saturday and Sunday at his golf club in Virginia, and he typically travels to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida for Thanksgiving and around Christmas.
People close to the administration are unsure whether Trump will simply retreat to Florida for the remainder of his term or stick it out in Washington. But whether the administration pushes forward on any final policy priorities could depend on how engaged senior staff remain.
“These are going to be a very telling few days,” said one source close to the White House.
Since Biden was declared the victor on Saturday, Trump has oscillated between leveling claims of voter fraud and boasting about the sheer number of votes he received — more than 70 million, exceeded only by Biden’s tally.
Trump made clear in a statement issued by his campaign on Saturday that he planned to fight the results in court rather than accept Biden’s victory. The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has advised Trump to “pursue all available legal remedies to ensure accuracy” of the vote tabulations, according to campaign aide Jason Miller.
“Whether or not it changes the state at all, we need to see if there was a discrepancy because this is important for future elections,” said Sam Nunberg, an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign. “I assume the Department of Homeland Security and National Security Council can cooperate with a Biden transition while this is taken care of, and then we go from there.”
Republicans have said that Trump has the right to contest the results in a handful of swing states where he narrowly lost to Biden and have encouraged him to produce evidence to back up his campaign’s claims of fraud. But some have publicly warned against some of his inflammatory rhetoric. Trump over the weekend claimed he had won the election hours before Biden was declared president-elect and has claimed that Democrats tried to steal it from him.
“He’s got to be careful about his language. He has every right to pursue these instances where he thinks he’s been wronged, but you’ve got to be careful about the language because if it’s not proved out, if it is not a stolen election, if he lost Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin by the margins that today are on the books … it will color his record, it will color people’s perspective of him,” Karl Rove, a top adviser to former President George W. Bush, said on Fox News.
Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), one of a handful of Republicans to congratulate Biden, said Sunday that he believed Trump would ultimately accept Biden’s victory if the legal challenges do not yield favorable results despite the president’s rhetoric.
“He is who he is, and he has a relatively relaxed relationship with the truth, and so he’s going to keep on fighting until the very end. But I am convinced that once all remedies have been exhausted, if those are exhausted in a way that is not favorable to him, he will accept the inevitable,” Romney said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But don’t expect him to go quietly in the night. That’s not how he operates.”
The president has governed largely by executive action, and people close to the administration say he could attempt to push through a few more measures restricting immigration or asylum claims, though they may be on shaky legal footing.
Trump has also openly mused about firing Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, and one administration official said they would not be surprised if the president dismissed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield.
But Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University global health law professor and longtime friend of Fauci, said he believed that the top official’s job is secure because of the difficulty Trump would face in trying to remove him from his post atop the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases given the protections granted to civil servants.
“My sense is that Tony is secure,” said Gostin. “By the time anything happened, the clock would run out.”
The president has also made clear his displeasure with FBI Director Christopher Wray, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper has reportedly prepared a resignation letter.
There have already been a few staffing changes since Election Day. The second-highest-ranking official at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was ousted from USAID on Friday, reportedly in a move orchestrated by the White House.
Ja’Ron Smith, the highest-ranking Black official at the White House, also left his position on Friday as part of a long-planned departure irrespective of the election results.
In addition, presidents typically grant pardons or commutations as one of their final acts before leaving office. Critics have raised concerns about how Trump may use that power in his closing days, noting he has pardoned political allies in the past such as Roger Stone and Joe Arpaio.
Trump has previously teased intervening in the case of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and looming investigations into the Trump family in New York have prompted speculation about whether the president would use pardon powers for relatives.
What Trump does between now and when he leaves office could be colored by his post-presidency ambitions, experts say.
“He sees the Trump brand as in play,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP fundraiser, adding that Trump may want to “preserve 2024 or possibilities for his kids.”
There has long been talk of Trump starting up his own media venture, and his strong showing on Election Day solidified his standing as a looming figure in the Republican Party, regardless of his defeat. Trump could run again himself in 2024, or he could position himself as a standard-bearer for the GOP whose endorsement is sought by other candidates.
“There is a large strain of Trumpism that is not going to go anywhere. What we don’t know is what does that mean” about what members of the Trump family do next, said Doug Heye, former Republican National Committee communications director. “Are they a dominant force in American politics, or do they go the way of the Palin family? And we just don’t know.”