10 things Trump may do as a lame-duck president
What can we expect President Trump to do between now and Inauguration Day?
Some of the following scenarios were raised by the Transition Integrity Project, a short-term project created to conduct scenario-based exercises aimed at identifying potential risks to the integrity of the 2020 election and transition process. Other scenarios are simply a logical extension of where we find ourselves today.
Here are 10 possible scenarios that could unfold over the next 11 weeks:
- Contest the election into January 2021. There is nothing illegal or even inappropriate about President Trump exercising his rights to pursue redress in the courts. Yet, in the days following the election, he has already had multiple cases dismissed. For any legal challenges to actually be successful moving forward, the president as claimant would need to set forth actual legal claims, prove his arguments with facts and evidence, and match his claims to remedies that give him actual and appropriate relief. All of that said, with President-elect Biden tracking to over 300 electoral college votes, any election challenge at this point is more than likely moot. Chances of this happening: Moderate to high.
- Foment domestic political unrest. As a president who has defined himself in part through a demonstrable skill to move his political base to action, creating or encouraging domestic political unrest between now and mid-January would be nothing new. Chances of this happening: High.
- Deeply disrupt the administrative transition process. It would be easy for the president to be an obstacle rather than an ally in the upcoming transition to a Biden administration. This has already begun, with the administrator of the General Services Administration refusing to allow the transition process to start. Chances of this happening: Extremely high.
- Create a real or fictitious international political crisis. The Transition Integrity Project refers to this as the Wag the Dog scenario. While this is possible to do, the advantage for President Trump is difficult to comprehend. Perhaps it would be to exit as the only lame-duck president to save the United States from destruction by a foreign adversary. More practically, perhaps it would be the repayment of personal and political favors to foreign governments by assisting in coups, missions, and the like. Chances of this happening: Low to moderate.
- Pardon a LOT of people. Of course, surpassing former President Obama in this area is going to take some work and a lot of pen refills. Of the past 10 presidents, the 300 Obama pardons from the 2016 election until he left office are eight times the number of pardons of the second-highest finisher. Also of note, those 300 Obama pardons are 292 more than he made during the first seven years and 10 months of his presidency. With such a high bar to clear, could President Trump do it? Absolutely. Pardons, while occasionally ideological, are fine political currency. Every pardon has the potential to translate into post-presidential profit for the president and the Trump family. Chances of this happening: Extremely high.
- Get rich(er). If pardons seem irresistible, just look at self-enrichment. Even a lame-duck president has a massive residue of power. One who will surely leverage his term as president of the United States for future personal and family business dealings as opposed to retirement and book writing will have a lot of opportunities to do favors over the coming weeks. Whether actions taken by President Trump provide an immediate financial return or simply seed massive fields to be harvested at a later date, it is hard to imagine a scenario where he would not act to enrich himself. Chances of this happening: Extremely high.
- Illegal use of the presidential brand. As someone who has self-defined as a brand-builder his entire life, President Trump leaves office with an infinitely stronger personal and professional brand in some circles than when he ascended to the presidency. Every president in recent history has dramatically profited from their brand after leaving office. The question here is whether President Trump will seek to profit now from the presidential brand while still in office. This can take a multitude of forms, including illegally using the name and seal of the president of the United States (imagine “White House Burgers”) or launching post-presidential business ventures while still in office (imagine launching Trump Media Corp. and broadcasting from the West Wing). Chances of this happening: Moderate to high.
- Destroy documents. Who knows what documents any president collects over his tenure. Many acknowledged documents form part of that person’s future presidential library, while others are almost surely destroyed. One can imagine that President Trump must be in possession of certain assets (physical documents, recordings, electronic files) that he would not want to see released. Again, he would be neither the first nor the last president to destroy documents before leaving office. Whether the volume of destruction would be excessive is best left to individual imagination. Chances of this happening: High.
- Continue to write executive orders. While public perception has been that President Trump has written a lot of executive orders over his term, this is factually inaccurate. Trump has written a total of 193 executive orders, for a yearly average of 47.8. Contrast this not only with President Carter’s 80 orders per year but also with Wilson (225), Hoover (242) and FDR (a whopping 307 per year). However, given that presidents are free to write executive orders until the end of their term, this may be a politically and practically expedient way for Trump to exercise tangible power over the upcoming weeks. Chances of this happening: Moderate to high.
- Refuse to vacate the White House. As bizarre and deeply embarrassing as this would be, it is more than simply a clickbait social media theory. Legally, the situation is simple. Should President Trump not vacate the White House on the appointed date, he would be trespassing and would surely be removed. Wild imaginings of armed militia surrounding the White House and keeping their president ensconced in power are more the stuff of made-for-TV-movies than reality. Anger has a limited attention span and given the pace of 2020 to date, January is a long, long way away. Chances of this happening: Extremely Low
Aron Solomon is an adjunct professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University and the senior digital strategist for NextLevel.com, a digital marketing firm for lawyers.