The president’s recent conduct has raised alarms of an increasingly desperate power bid in his last 30 days. So what can we expect?
As the Trump show nears its final episode, America is bracing for potentially the most dramatic, disturbing and outlandish twists yet.
Donald Trump’s recent conduct has led critics to suggest that he has lost touch with reality and raise alarms over an increasingly desperate, deranged power grab in the climactic month of his presidency.
Trump has entertained extreme ideas such as military intervention and appointing a conspiracy theorist as a special counsel to investigate voter fraud. He has turned on allies and retweeted threats to put Republicans who failed to back him in jail. He has also undermined his own secretary of state’s assessment that Russia launched a massive cyber-attack on the US government.
And that was just in the past week. “I guess we cannot quantify the level of crazy that could come out of the Trump White House in his final days here,” said Tara Setmayer, a former Republican communications director on Capitol Hill. “This behavior is 100% a by-product of Donald Trump’s psychosis.”
Trump appears to have adopted a bunker mentality since the 3 November election, making few public appearances but continuing to air grievances on his increasingly manic Twitter feed. Even as one American dies from the coronavirus every 33 seconds and hospitals struggle, he is said to have all but mentally checked out on the pandemic.
Late-stage Trumpism is consumed instead by overturning Joe Biden’s election win, which he still refuses to concede. His campaign and its allies have filed roughly 50 lawsuits and almost all have been dismissed or dropped; they have lost twice at the supreme court but are preparing yet another effort.
The electoral college has spoken, confirming Biden’s victory by 306 electoral votes to 232, prompting Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, to acknowledge him as president-elect. Even William Barr, the outgoing attorney general and a Trump loyalist, has found no pertinent irregularities.
Yet still Trump has continued a downward spiral into preposterously false claims and dependency on a dwindling band of zealots whose tactics are ever more reckless and extreme.
Last week he weighed the prospect of naming lawyer Sidney Powell, who was dismissed from his campaign’s legal team after pushing conspiracy theories too extreme even for Rudy Giuliani, as a special counsel investigating allegations of voter fraud. During an acrimonious Friday meeting at the White House, the president went as far as discussing getting Powell security clearance, according to multiple media reports.
At the same meeting Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, urged him to seize voting machines in his hunt for evidence of fraud. And Michael Flynn, a former national security adviser recently pardoned by Trump for lying to the FBI, suggested that the president could impose martial law and use the military to re-run the election. Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and White House counsel Pat Cipollone voiced their objections, the New York Times and other outlets said.
Meanwhile the president is preparing a futile last stand against the electoral vote count when Congress gathers on 6 January to formally ratify Biden’s victory. Trump spoke to House Republicans about challenging the result during a White House meeting on Monday, the Axios website reported, and even sent them a PowerPoint slide attacking McConnell for being “the first one off the ship”.
The president raised further concern over the weekend when, hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a radio interview that Russia was “pretty clearly” behind the the hacking of US government agencies and businesses, Trump sought to undercut that message and play down the severity of the attack.
He tweeted that the “Cyber Hack is far greater in the Fake News Media than in actuality”. He also claimed without evidence that China could be responsible, even though Barr has joined Pompeo in blaming Russia – renewing questions over why Trump is consistently reluctant to criticise president Vladimir Putin.
It means a cloud of uncertainty over what Trump is still capable of and how to assess the threat level.
Setmayer, an adviser to the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, pointed to an incident earlier this year in which state security forces tear gassed peaceful protesters outside the White House as a warning sign.
“I think a lot of people wouldn’t have imagined what took place on Lafayette Square on June 1 would ever have taken place in America but it did, which I think is what raises the alarm for many of us who are watching what’s unfolding,” she said. “The fact that the idea of martial law or seizing election machine voting machines is even coming out of the White House in any capacity is alarming.
“Now, the changes that have been made in personnel and the people that Donald Trump has put in place at the Pentagon in these final weeks is worrisome. Ultimately, I think our institutions will hold. We’re a long way away from seeing troops on the street or any kind of martial law being declared. That is beyond the pale.”
Indeed, even as the president escalates what is effectively an internal coup, he is running out of road as the transition proceeds, the country moves on and more allies turn their back on him. Barr said on Monday he saw no reason to appoint a special counsel while Vice President Mike Pence has kept a low profile, reportedly to Trump’s consternation.
The military also felt compelled to draw an extraordinary line in the sand. Ryan McCarthy, the army secretary, and General James McConville, the army’s top officer, released a joint statement that said: “There is no role for the US military in determining the outcome of an American election.”
Some observers have expressed concern over Trump’s psychological state as walls close in and he stares into the abyss of the one thing he could never contemplate: becoming a loser. His niece Mary Trump told the Politico website: “He’s never been in a situation in which he has lost in a way he can’t escape from.”
Others believe there is method in the madness and he is preparing for his next career – in business, media or politics – after he leaves the White House on 20 January.
Michael D’Antonio, author of The Truth About Trump, said: “I think he’s trying to stir up enough energy and anger in his base to see him into his post-presidency. It’s almost like an effort to gain momentum while he retains the Oval Office, understanding that a lot of the attention will fade away rather quickly.
“So I don’t think that this is necessarily intended to produce any real results other than to make the people who abhor him upset and make the people who are part of the cult more firmly attached.”
Trump has raised at least $200m on the back of his false assertions that the election was rigged. “It’s all of a piece,” D’Antonio added. “The campaign to raise money that began as soon as the result was known through a mechanism that allows him to spend it almost any way he wants is part of the cashing in. He wants to energise that and make it as fruitful as possible in the waning weeks.”
News – America braced for final month of madness as Trump show nears its end