The days are counting down, and there's nothing in polling or approval ratings to indicate that Donald Trump is making any headway against Joe Biden. Trump spends more time railing against mail-in ballots than articulating a measured argument for his re-election, creating fear of a prolonged and chaotic period of uncertainty about who is the legitimate winner of the election. Steve wonders whether Trump sees the writing on the wall and is simply working on his exit strategy. Here's one theory of how the weeks following Election Day could unfold.
When you are driving in a Cat 5 hailstorm of horror, and two-inch thick ice balls of deceit, crudity, and racism are raining down on the highway, you just have to hope one won’t crack your windshield and send your Republic careening down the ravine.
Which is kind of where we are now.
A presidential debate that was a national humiliation, a White House is super-spreading, and a roid-rage President thinks that his political rivals should be indicted, that COVID-19 should not have really dominated the lives of 222,000 dead Americans, and he is maniacally flogging the notion that Americans should not trust the validity of their election.
Still and all, there is that one ice ball that is maybe just a bit bigger, more densely packed, and more destructive than the rest, and it is headed straight for our windshield.
Stand back and stand by.
With these words in the debate, the President of the United States gave a clear indication of just how ugly he will let things get as this nation tries to navigate one of the most consequential and challenging elections in our history... and as he personally tries to avoid the fate that awaits him if he loses.
Some people contend that “stand back” could have meant that Trump was offering some modest notion of restraint upon his white supremacist pals. There is no such wiggle room, however, for “stand by,” however, which is defined as “to be waiting and ready to do something or to help.” Of course, all of that is just so much irrelevant nuance when you consider that Chris Wallace’s original request was simply that Trump “condemn white supremacists,” which he most certainly did not come near doing.
Yes, the ice ball that we should all be worried about is that Donald Trump is signaling white supremacist militia groups all across the United States to be ready to spring into action the minute he sends the signal, which is rather likely to be at or around the moment that some entity – whether it is NBC, Congress, the Electoral College, or the Supreme Court – declares that Joe Biden is the winner of the election.
It feels a bit like 2016, when Trump very flagrantly and publicly asked an enemy of the United States to assist his effort to undermine the U.S. elections. “Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Only this time, the assistance he is calling for is not from a foreign power. It is a call for domestic violence. It is a call for civil war.
“Stand back and stand by.” Yep, Proud Boys, President Trump will let you know when he needs you.
If that day is to come, it is going to come very soon.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, once famously noted that Donald Trump had “no desire” to President, and that Trump never thought he would win. “Mr. Trump would often say this campaign was going to be the greatest infomercial in political history. He never expected to win the primary. He never expected to win the general election. The campaign for him was always a marketing opportunity."
Once in office, Donald Trump seemed to enjoy all aspects of being President, with the exception of the part about actually, uh, being the President. He seemed to like Air Force One, big military spectacles, MAGA rallies, and triggering liberal outrage with his tweets.
But all that policy stuff? Comprehensive thinking about global strategy? Actually building that wall? Defending the United States against cyberwarfare? Doing more about infrastructure than hosting “infrastructure week?” An immigration policy? Developing an actual plan to replace Obamacare? A grand, unifying vision for his Presidency?
As we near the end of his first, and God willing, only term as President of the United States, it is fair to infer that the only unifying policy themes of this administration are (1) to undo as much of Barack Obama’s legacy as possible, (2) manipulate and amplify the powers of the Presidency for the purpose of personal enrichment, and (3) to fully exploit the levers of government to stay in power.
It is this last point that is our topic for today.
Here at BTRTN, we’ve long held that the primary reason that Donald Trump wants to stay President is so that he can stay out of jail.
We suspect that in the wee hours of Wednesday, November 9, 2016, Donald Trump was stunned by the realization that in winning the Presidency, he had ensured that the media would have a field day tearing into his lifetime of business failure, tax avoidance, shady dealing, sketchy borrowing, and -- who knows? -- probable outright corruption as a real estate developer in New York City. He suddenly realized that in his cavalier hubris to pursue the highest office in the land, all he had accomplished for certain was to ensure that chapter and verse of his reckless, dubious past would come to light.
Pride goeth before a fall, and Donald Trump knew that his fall would be as spectacular as it was inevitable.
However, once in office, Donald Trump grasped that the very
powers he had acquired or could seize by virtue of his new position gave him
the tools to delay his destiny, and to perhaps elude it entirely. He realized
that he could simply refuse to cooperate with any investigation or comply with Congressional oversight. He could
use the power of his office to attempt to de-legitimize the free press. He could
control the Department of Justice to serve the twin purposes of aborting any inquiry
into his own misdeeds while using its massive investigative power to destroy
opponents. He realized that he could bargain using the name and budget of the
United States of America to reward foreign governments who helped him stay in power. He learned that sitting Presidents of the United States cannot be the subject of criminal indictments, even when they break campaign finance laws to pay for the silence of porn stars.
He realized that being the President of the United States was his very best strategy for staying out of jail.
So, Michael Cohen, we offer this variant on your theory: Donald Trump never wanted to be President until he realized that being President was the only way he could stay out of prison.
It’s important to pause and reflect on that hierarchy. Implicit is the notion that there is something that is actually far more important to Donald Trump than being President. If he could find a way to not have to be President, but could be assured that neither he nor anyone in his family would ever go to jail… why, that would be excellent. And if he could find a way to stay out of jail and walk away from the Presidency still claiming that he belonged on Mt. Rushmore… well, that would be the best.
As the 2020 election approached, Donald Trump was no doubt increasingly aware that his chances of actually winning re-election were growing more and more remote as each month passed by and the numbers hardened. The polling never moved. Trump was stuck at an approval level that would never lead to re-election, and most every poll gave Joe Biden an imposing advantage.
Trump is no doubt acutely aware of the Catch-22 he had spent four years creating. With an approval rating locked in the low 40s, he probably knew that the best path to win re-election was to expand his appeal beyond his loyal base. But any attempt to do so – softening his positions on immigration, changing his tune on his administration’s handling of the coronavirus, acknowledging the profound weakness and vulnerability of the economy, recognizing the urgent need for police reform in the wake of a wave of racist killings – would be viewed by his base as traitorous. He had made his bed.
Besides, he realized that every time he said an horrific
thing about BLM, immigrants, “nasty” women, radical left-wing extremists, and
the fake news, his base ate it up. And these tantrums ever strengthened the
loyalty of his base, giving him a choke-hold on the Republican Party and all its
weak sycophants and enablers in Congress and in Governors’ mansions. His relationship with his loyalist base was symbiotic: in their mutual devotion, they owned they Republican Party.
Slowly, the plan began to form in his mind.
First: he must double-down on his most basic base instincts, basing his entire campaign strategy on a ferocious fear campaign designed to bring his base out it droves. There would be no attempt to win over independents and moderates… only a relentless drive to increase the number of his die-hard supporters who would go to the polls.
The objective of this exercise would be to make the race close enough in enough key battleground states that he could justify challenging the results all the way to the Supreme Court, where he would expect that the conservative majority would steer the Presidency to him.
Trump would view the raging coronavirus pandemic through the lens of electoral self-interest. There was the obvious need to downplay the deadly threat of the virus so that Americans would be willing to resume work and school, and thereby – Trump hoped -- restore momentum to the economy that had been his primary argument for re-election.
But there was a second dimension to Trump’s attempt to use the pandemic for the purpose of retaining the Presidency: the unchecked spread of the virus triggered a massive movement to mail-in ballots, so that citizens could exercise their right to vote without risking exposure to the virus in a crowded indoor polling place. With absolutely no evidence,Trump immediately seized on mail-in voting as a massive breeding ground for corruption and manipulation. A rigged election, he screamed.
Indeed, Trump exponentially torqued the intensity of this issue be announcing that he might not respect the results of the election due to his alleged concerns about the legitimacy of mail-in ballots.In his September 23 press conference, Trump said “Well, we're going to have to see what happens. You know that. I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster ... We want to have -- get rid of the ballots and you'll have a very trans- -- we'll have a very peaceful -- there won't be a transfer, frankly; there'll be a continuation. The ballots are out of control. You know it."
The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg was manna from heaven for Trump: no doubt he felt that nailing down one more Justice before Election Day would mean that he didn’t need to worry about that wild card of a Chief Justice, John Roberts. Now the plan for taking the election out of the hands of the people and to the Supreme Court suddenly seemed all the more realistic.
The final piece of Trump’s plan falls into place when Chris Wallace asks him in the Presidential debate to condemn white supremacists.
Throughout the national debate over systemic racism in our nation’s law enforcement, Donald Trump has taken the view that Americans who stood with the Black Lives Matter movement represented a wave of left-wing violence and anarchy that would emerge from inner cities to destroy the peaceful white suburbs. Trump viewed it as an opportunity to motivate his base with a toxic cocktail of racist rage and Second Amendment aggression.
Invited to speak on the opening night of the Republican National Convention in August, suburban St. Louis vigilante Patty McCloskey – the woman who was arrested for pointing a pistol at peaceful BLM protestors -- put it like this:
“They (Democrats) are not satisfied with spreading the chaos and violence into our communities, they want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning. This forced re-zoning would bring crime, lawlessness, and low-quality apartments into thriving suburban neighborhoods. These are the policies that are coming to a neighborhood near you. So make no mistake: no matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.”
Second Amendment Patty is the toast of the Republican Convention, where pointing guns at peaceful Black Americans is lionized as an example of heroic vigilantism in Donald Trump’s white America. This is the behavior that Donald Trump celebrates in his nominating convention: angry white racists taking arms against Black America.
Hey, Proud Boys – wink, wink – Stand back and stand by.
There is, perhaps, a broader vision of all of the above that provides a unified theory of all of Trump’s actions.
Trump knows he is going to lose the popular vote again, and he can be pretty certain that this time he is going to lose in the Electoral College. His hope is to keep the vote close enough in just enough swing states that he can claim massive voter fraud, and sue to have enough mail-in ballots thrown out to put the decision in the hands of the Supreme Court.
But maybe that isn’t really the point.
What if his real goal is this: to amass enough leverage that he can cut a deal.
Yeah, Trump doesn’t really want to take a chance on a
Supreme Court that could easily slam him down 9-0 based on the speciousness of
his claim and the absence of evidence of substantial voter fraud. If that happened,
he’d be out of office – and completely vulnerable to all of the criminal
charges that New York County District Attorney Cy Vance, New York State Attorney General Letitia James, and the Feds can pile up. Sure, he could try pardoning himself, but Presidential pardons only forgive Federal crimes. New York State could -- and would -- plow ahead unchecked.
No, Trump can’t take that risk.
But if he could put together enough bargaining chips, bluster, and bluffing in the form of a threat to create utter chaos around the question of the election and transition, maybe he can create the perfect deal to walk away a free man.
Let’s just say for sake of argument that it’s November 10, a week after Election Day, and most signs are pointing to a victory for Joe Biden. But the races in five states – enough to change the Electoral College tally away from Biden and to Trump – are close enough that the number of mail-in votes in each state is far higher that the margin of difference between the candidates. Trump argues that there has been widespread voter fraud that, if thoroughly investigated, would throw the election to Trump. He sues in each state to prevent the results from being validated prior to resolving the alleged voter fraud in the mailed ballots. He urges states with Republican-held legislatures to refuse to ratify the voting results and send their own list of electors to the electoral college.
He angrily screams that he won’t leave if the election is being stolen. It would be, he notes, “unacceptable to his voters,” who are “extremely angry with all the voter fraud and corruption by the radical left.”
The question of who will lead the United States of America for the next four years is frozen in a series of state courts.
But what Trump really wants to accomplish is to create such a blinding storm of controversy, uncertainty, Constitutional crisis, national trauma, and angry polarization in the days and weeks following Election Day that he can quietly go to Joe Biden and make an offer that he believes Biden can’t refuse.
Trump offers that he will concede the Presidency -- if Biden makes an airtight commitment that neither Trump nor any of his children will ever be prosecuting for any crimes or will ever serve any time in jail. Of course, Trump would never concede that he has committed any crimes. No, he would say that the reason for his demand is that "if the radical extreme left is in power, they will come after me and my family with phony charges and rigged juries, and we will be steamrolled.” Trump knows that Biden can only pardon Trump from Federal crimes, so he will demand that Biden call James and Vance in New York and ask them, for the good of the country, to go along and drop any investigations into Trump, the Trump Organization, and Trump’s family.
Refuse the deal, and Donald Trump makes it clear that Biden
can expect mayhem. Trump will refuse to leave the White House. He will go on
television and scream that the election was rigged and that the radical left is
trying to stage a coup. He will stoke his base into anger, hostility, rage... and action. Trump will tell Biden that he can no longer
expect the Proud Boys to “stand by” as Biden and the Democrats try to “steal
the election.” It is a direct threat to unleash the white supremacist militias that Trump has coddled.
Biden’s choice: refuse Trump’s offer, and risk that the election controversy will drag on, possibly for months, creating a crisis of leadership in the United States, tearing the nation apart, and emboldening our global adversaries. Refuse the offer, and the election could quite possibly end up in the heavily conservative Supreme Court, which thereby creates the very real possibility of a second Trump term. Refuse the offer, and trigger a tidal wave of vigilante violence from Trump-loyalist militia groups all across the United States.
Or, Biden can take Trump’s offer, become the 46th President of the United States, and get on with the work of healing the country.
Biden weighs the offer carefully, but he is most focused on one simple outcome… if he takes the deal, Donald Trump will give up the Presidency of the United States, full stop. If he does not, there is a chance that Donald Trump stays in the White House, and that in a second Trump term, the United States ceases to be a functioning democracy.
Biden lists the conditions he would lay out to make the deal. First, Trump must agree that he will take no consequential actions in the final days prior to Inauguration Day. Second, neither he nor any member of his family will ever seek or hold government office in the United States. Third, Trump must agree than neither he nor anyone in his family will make public appearances either in person or on television for a decade. Fourth, Trump must agree that neither he nor anyone in his family can ever own public or private stock in a media company.
Finally, Biden will demand that in conceding the election, Trump must declare that he no longer disputes the election result, does not believe the election was rigged, and the outcome represents the will of the American voters.
Biden is keenly aware that Gerald Ford was lambasted for pardoning Richard Nixon, and likely lost his chance for re-election the day he did it. Biden knows just how many Americans want to see Donald Trump held accountable for each and every instance of criminality in his private life, his business dealings, and as President of the United States.
Biden wants to move forward. He wants healing. And he most certainly does not want vigilante militias swooping in on towns all across Americas, terrifying citizens, and making Democratic office holders feel that they are open targets.
What if every bizarre thing Trump is doing now is just a crazy game of "heads, I win," -- he wins re-election, by hook or by crook -- or "tails, you lose ... you have to meet my terms for me to walk away."
What if this is all just about gaining leverage to cut a deal? To extricate himself and his family from the inconvenient reality he has created without paying any price at all? What if he actually wants to leave all this aggravation behind?
What does it mean for those of us in the majority? It means voting, and donating time and money to get the Democratic vote out as never before.
Because if the election isn’t close, then Trump as no leverage. If the election isn’t close, Joe Biden is President, case closed. And if the election isn't close, it's a good bet that Donald Trump goes to jail.
Imagine Biden tapping his fingers on the desk as he considers one last
time whether he would take that deal.
Ok, America: your turn. What would you do if you had that choice?
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