It’s Christmas Eve, and the normally Ebenezer Steve wants to give our readers a big reason to look forward to 2021.
Just. When. You. Think. It. Can. Not. Get. Any. Worse.
Perhaps even more than “Mexicans are rapists,” “shithole countries,” “good people on both sides,” “build the wall,” “rigged election,” “it will disappear by April,” “they are so well taken care of… they're in facilities that were so clean,” and “more than any President with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln,” these ten words – “just when you think it can not get any worse” -- should be the epitaph for Donald Trump’s White House.
No matter how bad it gets, Trump always figures out how to do something more heinous than the thing he did last time that had you convinced he couldn’t do anything worse.
Like so many Americans, I’ve spent this week knocking back virtual eggnogs as I frantically called the USPS to track packages delayed by a nor’easter, all while trying to wrap presents and trim a tree before the kids arrive for a societally frowned-upon, socially-distanced, and all-too-brief Christmas. So I really don’t need any more stress, and I certainly didn’t need Donald Trump to pick this moment to once again break the unsound barrier.
And yet -- what to my wondering eyes should appear -- comes the news on MSNBC that the Russians have hacked every server in Washington except the Department of Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, and Donald Trump is considering ordering the implementation of martial law under the theory that the army could just wander into Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, conduct new elections, and reverse the results.
As added flourishes, Trump once again refused to accept the conclusion of the intelligence community that the Russians were responsible for the hack, is considering naming weapons-grade wingnut Sidney Powell as a Special Counsel to investigate voter fraud, and is pardoning all those people who deserve our mercy and beneficence, having only been found guilty of trifles like tax fraud, money laundering, and lying to the FBI and Congress.
Hearing all this left me stunned, although I must admit that my very first thought was to wonder if the Russians could tell me when my missing packages would arrive.
Soon enough, however, I mouthed the mantra of a four year ride down the escalator of national shame… “just when you think it can not get any worse.”
Maybe Donald Trump heard “Martial Law” and thought it was just a guy in the same line of work as “Marshall Dillon,” a tough guy with a badge who can go into any town in America, flash his six-shooters, and order a new election. Perhaps he did not realize that Michael Flynn was envisioning the 82nd Airborne brandishing AR-15s throughout Milwaukee to force citizens into voting booths where there is only one box to check.
America, it’s Christmas. You don’t need me dumping a stocking of coal comfort down your chimney. Right now all you want is an update of Magoo’s Christmas Carol, a rosy vision of the future that you can only get if you are blind to the reality that Trump could still blow up the entire world before his term ends and still find time to pardon every single felon on his Ancestry.com family tree.
So today we are lighting the bright candles of holiday schadenfreude, that mean-spirited bliss that those fun-loving Germans actually invented a specific word for. It means to “pleasure derived by the suffering of another person.”
Today, we shall find our joy of the season in the suffering that awaits Donald Trump at 12:01 p.m. on January 20th.
Sure, there’s one vision of Trump’s future: perhaps a month of rest, golf, and tanning in Mar-a-Lago while planning his first big “MAGA II Tour,” in which a glowing Trump plays to ever bigger stadiums of fiercely loyal, adoring crowds, pockets millions of dollars, tortures the new Democratic administration, all while deciding whether he, Don Jr., or Ivanka will head the Republican ticket in 2024.
We’ve already seen the ghost of Trump past, and we are now witnessing the ghost of Trump of the present rattling around the White House in desperation. It’s now time for the clock to strike three times and examine the ghost of Trump yet to come – a Trump that could look very different from the vision of a vibrant, confident, menacing shadow Presidency that some envision.
Get ready for still more – and more graphic -- revelations about the Trump White House.
2021 is going to be the year in which a full East River barge-load of putrid garbage about the Trump Presidency comes to light.
Sure, between Bolton and Woodward, the revelations of humiliated former employees, anonymous cries for help on Op-Ed pages, the evidence found in an impeachment, and the sins against humanity and the Constitution that were committed in plain sight on a weekly basis, you may think you already know every despicable thing Donald Trump has ever done as President.
A shrewder bet is that there is whole lot more stupid and ugly that we have yet to discover, an avalanche of pressurized sewage under the West Wing, ready to explode the moment Trump is no longer in a position to, uh, hold it in. It is going to be the grift that keeps on giving, revealing an ever expanding universe of executive incompetence, criminality, and other-worldly selfishness.
There will be claims of executive privilege and the rights of Presidents to preserve their official papers, and there are probably people running around the White House right now destroying documents. But the bet here is that through a combination of Trump-grade incompetence and sloppiness, the revelations of long-standing career civil servants in close proximity to power, the pay-for-juicy book contracts negotiated by Trump administration grifters and opportunists, 2021 will be a year of ever more toxic truths about the Trump administration.
Remember when Donald Trump put the squeeze on Volodymyr Zelensky, the new President of the Ukraine who sought to secure desperately needed military aide from the United States? And how Trump defended it as a “perfect call?” We can look forward to CNN playing the actual recording of Donald Trump extorting the Ukrainian leader, saying he “would like you to do us a favor though,” sounding every bit the thug as he clumsily shakes down his helpless victim.
Somewhere there is a translator who made notes about what Donald Trump said to Vladimir Putin behind closed doors in Stockholm in 2018. Perhaps this – or some other stunning revelation now hidden in Deutsche Bank, the Trump Organization, or the Kremlin – may finally reveal the kompromat that causes Trump to live in mortal terror of Putin.
For the past four years, many career public servants in the U.S. government no doubt felt they could not speak out for fear that Trump would use the machinery of the Federal government to retaliate, destroy their careers, and cut off their income. As of January 20, they will no longer feel that terror.
There will be the notes of meetings between Trump and medical professionals, campaign aides, and cabinet officers about the COVID-19 pandemic that will provide a fire hose of new evidence that the President’s refusal to deal with the reality of the pandemic caused hundreds of thousands of American deaths. The only question will be whether the deaths were first degree or second degree manslaughter: were they caused by his ignorance, incompetence, and refusal to engage, or by willful intent to help his re-election?
There will be comic close-up portraits drawn from interviews with White House employees that chronicle how much time was spent watching television and eating cheeseburgers while a nation burned with fever.
There will be revelations about Trump’s inability to focus on intelligence briefings, his ignorance about complex and nuanced geopolitical conflicts, evidence that he was keenly aware of things he denied knowing, and fully aware that so many of the statements that he made were lies. Heck, there must have been someone who witnessed him changing the weather map with a sharpie, which, believe it or not, was actually a crime.
In an Instagram world where everyone is a camera, a microphone, and a distribution network, there are certain to be razor-sharp iPhone recordings of meetings of Trump’s inner circle that were made by corrupt opportunists who knew how to monetize being in the room where it happened. The possibilities are endless: candid assessments that Mike Pence is a zero, anger that Don, Jr. had screwed up yet again, and – best of all – juicy quotes of Trump belittling the intelligence of his own supporters.
There will be the tell-all books priced on their combination of credibility and sensationalism. Indeed, expect an entire new genre of prose that bridges fiction and non-fiction, the “revisionist autobiography.” These will be variations on a theme of “How I Saved the Country from Donald Trump,” in which cabinet officers and senior advisors describe their heroic efforts to carry the conservative torch while providing checks against Trump’s worst impulses.
William Barr seems to be positioning himself for such a payday. The moment William Barr realized that Trump had definitively lost, he went on a rehabilitation campaign to distance himself from Trump. Barr rapidly and publicly broke with Trump on three key issues -- asserting his belief in the validity of the election, identifying Russia as the definitive source of the computer hacks, and dismissing Trump’s call for a special prosecutor to investigate the election. The former AG will set the bar for administration officials who write memoirs about how they bravely stuck it out working for Trump, risking their reputations, all because they were the only thing standing between Trump and Armageddon.
Finally, we should prepare ourselves for the extreme likelihood that we will learn of horrendous episodes, catastrophes barely averted, and incidents of reckless endangerment that Republicans managed to keep hidden for fear of a public relations humiliation.
Indeed, some of the very worst of these stories will be the ones about what is happening in the White House right this moment, where a pardoned criminal is urging that martial law be invoked so that the military can stage new elections. Beware the actions of a President who is desperate to try anything to stay in power, because that man knows better than anyone else just how much dirty linen is there to find in his lifetime of corruption.
Yes, get ready for a January horror show in which Trump pardons an unfathomable number of criminals, hoping to spare his family from prison while setting a hefty price-per-pardon in the open commercial market. He will indeed pardon himself, leaving it to politicians to argue whether such an action is legally permissible. In a final gesture, he may actually refuse to leave the White House, forcing the nation to witness a split screen horror show: a defiant man screaming that the election was stolen, just as a new President is sworn in.
It is all theater to Donald Trump, and he instinctively pounces on the plot line that allows him the maximum media coverage, the greatest sense of victimization at the hands of the “corrupt deep state,” and the most adoration from the hard-core base.
But January 20 will come, and Trump will no longer be in the Oval Office. Life will change.
A Sizeable Percentage of the Headlines about Donald Trump in 2021 Will Relate to Court Cases
In addition to the steady drip of past-tense stories of Trump’s White House years, next year will undoubtedly hold real-time headlines from criminal and civil actions that will provide further embarrassment and potential heavy legal exposure for the former President.
Even if he manages the pretzel logic of pardoning himself for Federal crimes, he remains open to prosecution from state officials.
For years, prosecutors in New York have been patiently collecting evidence about Donald Trump’s behavior as a private citizen and as a corporate officer… behavior that has been shielded from prosecution by the DOJ policy to not indict a sitting President. It will not take long for Cy Vance and Letitia James to decide whether or not to charge the former President of the United States with financial crimes that may carry hefty jail sentences.
These cases may be relatively dry exercises in forensic accounting that demonstrate tax evasion and fraud by over-valuing properties for the purpose of securing loans while undervaluing the same properties for tax purposes. It could be, however, that the prosecutors in New York can unearth evidence of money laundering and indebtedness that point to why Trump has been terrified of confronting Putin.
There is, of course, the case in which Donald Trump was, for all intents and purposes, already indicted for a federal crime: the payment of hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels.
The most certain embarrassment for Trump in all this litigation? His claims of brilliant business acumen will be challenged by a very public airing of his bankruptcies, failed business ventures, and the paltry sums paid in income taxes.
Expect Donald Trump to spend a great deal of 2021 on his heels, yet again trying to dismiss mountains of evidence as just so much fake news from bitter political opponents.
But these are court cases, not debates. These will be trials in which the audience is a jury, not a posse of Fox News Prime Time anchors. At the end of these legal battles lies the very real possibility that the former President of the United States will be convicted of a crime that warrants time in prison.
Ever wonder why Donald Trump is fighting tooth and nail to keep a job that he has spent most of his presidency not doing? It is the one job in the world that is guaranteed to keep him and his children out of a Federal Penitentiary.
A Year of Increasing Frustration at His Diminishing Role in his Party and in the Media
So you think 2021 is going to be a non-stop MAGA II Tour, raising billions and rehabilitating Trump for another run in 2024?
Every bit as likely: Donald Trump will morph into a “single issue” candidate, and that issue will be his denial that he was defeated in 2020. Obsessed by his sense of victimhood, he will completely lose sight of the issues that drove his initial popularity. He will forget that he won because he spoke to the anger and alienation of “forgotten Americans,” as he focuses ever more on his own anger, alienation, and self-pity.
Trump has known for a long time – perhaps better than all the Republican leaders who kneel before him – that losing the Presidency would be his kryptonite. He knows that once the powers of the Presidency are stripped from him, he will lose the shield that prevented him from facing any prosecution. He will lose the ability to wield the power of government to help friends and destroy enemies. His iron grip on the base of the Republican Party will be weakened. After all, he is the reason Joe Biden is President.
That kryptonite is why he absolutely refuses to concede the election, and why he continues to push his fantasy of “election fraud” and his claim that he actually won “in a landslide.”
Refusing to move off this increasingly moot point, Trump will allow a rift to form in the Republican Party between those who refuse to budge from strict loyalty to Trump the individual, and those who want to move on. Increasingly the latter group will believe that the loser of the 2020 election – and the guy who won’t stop litigating the 2020 election -- is even more likely to lose in 2024.
We can already see early indications of that internecine strain. The outcome of the two Georgia Senate races is going to be an early indication of potential climate change in a post-Trump Republican Party. Both Republican candidates – Loeffler and Perdue -- have had to publicly embrace Trump’s “fraudulent election” rhetoric, refusing to acknowledge Biden’s win even as senior party leaders like Mitch McConnell have already accepted reality.
And yet Trump’s supporters are actually angry that Loeffler and Perdue have not done enough to help Trump. Were Loeffler and Perdue to be defeated, it would seem reasonable to conclude that the price of allegiance to Trump’s fantasy may have just gotten too high – acutely so in heavily contested swing states. Think what will happen if Trump's current circus act is cited as contributing to the defeat of the two Republican candidates in the Georgia run-offs, resulting in the loss of control of the Senate? Certain Republicans -- perhaps one Kentuckian in particular -- will seethe in anger.
It could be that McConnell made his big statement on the Senate floor acknowledging Biden’s win to provide cover to Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue so that the two Georgia Republican candidates could moderate their stances in their own races. At this point, McConnell would much rather keep the Senate Republican than keep Donald Trump happy.
Mike Pompeo publicly declared that the hack on our government was a Russian operation. When Trump undercut Pompeo, suggesting that the hack could have been the work of the Chinese, Pompeo felt zero obligation to walk his own statement back. And then there is William Barr, who in the span of days has made huge public breaks with Trump. It is as if all three senior party officials recognized simultaneously that Trump’s power is in decline, and each has the acute political instinct to test the degree to which Trump’s influence has been sapped.
Apparently feeling that Republicans in Congress have not done enough to help him in his moment of need, Donald Trump has now vetoed the COVID-19 relief package that Republicans leaders worked to negotiate. Worse still, he has very publicly taken the side of the Democrats who sought bigger relief checks, humiliating his own party. So utterly preoccupied is Donald Trump with his own personal crisis, he is prepared to spend his final month in office not simply trashing Democrats, our institutions of government, but members of his own party who are judged insufficiently loyal to him.
Not a strategy to win friends and influence people for another run in 2024.
Yes, 2021 is going to be a personal hell for Donald Trump.
The truth is that there has always been a simple explanation for the “It can’t possibly get any worse” phenomenon.
Donald Trump has an addiction to media coverage. Like any addict, he must strengthen the doses over time to get the same high. Which means that he must keep raising the stakes, doing ever more outrageous things to ensure that he gets the attention he craves. His instinct to gradually increase the shock and outrage of his public commentary is not unlike the steady increase in dosage by the self-medicating alcoholic.
This may be the dynamic behind Trump’s current behavior. Unable to concede defeat, as this would permanently brand him a “loser,” Trump has rapidly accelerated the incendiary nature of his challenges to the election results. The more desperate he sees his situation – and the more he watches the nation shift focus to Joe Biden – Trump cases about for ever more outrageous lines of attack, and ever more emotionally charged ways to churn up his base. Martial law was just one more example of an addict upping the dosage. Throwing a wrench in the stimulus bill is another. The man needs his fix.
If Trump is already experiencing withdrawal related to
reduced media coverage, then come January 20, he will surely crash. Trump will continue to shout from the sidelines, but
he will be animated only by the subjects that are urgent to him. His boredom
with COVID-19 is so complete that he punted the opportunity to race to the
front of media coverage and take credit for the surprisingly rapid development
and distribution of vaccines. The bet is that Trump will squander the generous
doses of Fox News time he will get by continuing to talk only of election fraud. A nation that
has already moved on will find such talk – and the talker -- increasingly
irrelevant. Every minute he spends bemoaning his own fate is a minute that he is not talking about helping the people in his base... and that will take a huge toll on his appeal.
What Trump appears to not realize now is that the more crazily and recklessly he acts in his effort to retain the Presidency, the less he will be viewed as a plausible candidate for 2024. Invoking martial law is not something that even the sycophants at Fox News are going to get behind.
And if his threat that he will run again in 2024 loses credibility, his power is diminished even further.
2021 is not going to be a happy year for Donald Trump. It is going to be a year of addiction withdrawal as he slowly drifts away from the center of the media universe. It is going to be a year of fear that he and his children could actually be headed for prison. Who knows? It could be the year that Trump slips the surly bonds of reality’s gravity and joins Rudy Giuliani in a loopy orbit, unable to see that they have become cartoon figures clinging to delusional quests in an all-too-real world.
If you have the capacity to revel in schadenfreude, now is the time. No, it won’t erase four years of national shame, it will not bring back 330,000 lost souls, and it will not make the horror of 2020 go away.
But think about it this way: as bad as 2020 was for all of us who were lucky enough to survive it, 2021 is going to be worse for Donald Trump.
And that is the gift that even the USPS can’t lose.
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