The people who work with President Trump are getting scared.
According to Jonathan Swan in Axios, “Trump is spending too much time with people they consider crackpots or conspiracy theorists and flirting with blatant abuses of power.”
Granted, these words could define Trump’s entire tenure in office, so this is all relative. But it does, at least on the surface appear that things are getting worse.
The aforementioned crackpots include disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has been publicly floating the idea of Trump declaring martial law; Sidney Powell, who has claimed that Democrats – along with deceased Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez – organised a theft of the 2020 election; and, I kid you not, the former chief executive of Overstock.com, who famously had an affair with a Russian intelligence agent.
I’m actually disappointed that the My Pillow Guy didn’t wrangle an invite to this Algonquin Round Table of Tin Foil Hat Wearers.
The ideas floated by Trump’s kitchen cabinet of crazies run the gamut, from getting the Department of Homeland Security to seize voting machines, trying to get “state legislatures to rescind their electoral votes” and having House Republicans try to overturn the election result on January 6 when Congress needs to certify the results of the presidential election.
In addition, it seems Trump has warmed up to Flynn’s idea of declaring martial law.
According to Axios, “A senior administration official said that when Trump is ‘retweeting threats of putting politicians in jail, and spends his time talking to conspiracy nuts who openly say declaring martial law is no big deal, it’s impossible not to start getting anxious about how this ends.'”
Don’t get me wrong. I understand why this seems terrifying, especially when it’s accompanied by off the record quotes from Pentagon officials saying, “We don’t know what he might do. We are in strange times.”
But, in reality, none of this is going to happen. There’s no constitutional authority for the federal government to impound voting machines and everyone from now former Attorney General Bill Barr to Chad Wolf, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security have said they won’t go along with the idea.
And so, what if they did? It’s not as if a close examination of voting machines is going to reveal evidence of fraud.
Sure, a few Congressional Republicans might try to block proceedings in the House but it’s not going to affect the outcome. I seriously doubt that Trump would even attempt to enlist the military in an effort to declare martial law, but even if he did, it seems unimaginable that the military would go along with orders that are almost certainly illegal.
Just because the president asks the military to do something that is against the law doesn’t mean they will. Indeed, they are duty-bound to not carry out illegal orders.
It’s not by chance that Ryan McCarthy, the Army secretary put out a statement last week making clear, “There is no role for the US military in determining the outcome of an American election.”
It’s also not coincidence that Gen Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reminded Americans in a speech last month that the US military does “not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or religion. We take an oath to the Constitution.”
Both men were making clear to Trump and to the American people that they are not going to get involved in his misdeeds.
The president’s increasingly hare-brained and delusional ideas remind me a bit of the German film “Downfall,” which traces the last days of Adolf Hitler in his bunker in Germany. Hitler, refusing to accept that the war is lost, issues orders for armies that don’t exist. Trump is floating ideas that not only won’t work, but there’s seemingly no one who will carry them out.
This is not to say that Trump cannot do serious and enduring damage. We were reminded of that this week when he issued pardons for three former House Republicans convicted of public corruption, four Blackwater guards who murdered 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007, and several individuals, including Paul Manafort, who had been convicted of crimes in the Mueller investigation.
To pardon individuals who have not repented for their crimes, who in several cases pleaded guilty, and who in the case of the Blackwater guards committed heinous war crimes is appalling. It is yet one more example of Trump’s degradation of the rule of law.
Even worse, those pardoned by the president have close connections to him. One of the former members of Congress set to be released from prison is Chris Collins, who was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump’s presidential bid in 2016.
In fact, according to Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith 88 per cent of Trump’s pardons and commutations went to those with personal ties to the president or are “people who furthered his political aims.”
It’s still possible that Trump could convince the new acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to appoint a special counsel to investigate President-elect Joe Biden’s son Hunter – a step that even Bill Barr would not take.
Surely there are plenty of other norms that Trump can shred, not the least of which could include him pardoning himself and members of his family. Those are bad acts and they shouldn’t be minimised. But while overturning the election or declaring martial law might sound scary neither are going to happen.
Earlier this year I wrote a piece for Gen Medium, right after the South Carolina primary, on how Joe Biden had up to that point been incredibly unlucky in his pursuit of the Democratic nomination for president.
It began when former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg shifted course and began running as a moderate, which meant he was competing with Biden for the same group of voters. Then former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg jumped in the race spending hundreds of millions of dollars and further competing for that middle-of-the-road group.
Senator Elizabeth Warren began to see her polling numbers decline in the Fall, which gave Senator Bernie Sanders a boost that he took into the early primaries. Finally, the first two states to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire, contained few of the minority voters who were key to Biden’s nomination strategy.
But then after South Carolina good fortune began to shine on Biden. Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the race and endorsed him. Bloomberg was eviscerated by Warren in a pre-South Carolina debate, but it still gave her little traction in her presidential bid.
That meant that after Super Tuesday the race became a two-man contest between Biden and Sanders, which locked up the moderate vote for Biden and created, for him, the perfect political contrast.
Biden’s luck continued in that he faced off against an incumbent president who was broadly disliked by the American people and who lacked the ability to shift course or respond appropriately to either the pandemic or the murder of George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protests against racism.
And now as he prepares to take office in three weeks, Biden could be in a prime position to benefit from what looks to be an improving economy. First, Congress this week finally passed a Covid relief bill and assuming that Donald Trump’s temper tantrum fades and he signs the legislation, it will pump more than $900 billion into the economy.
For all the fixation on the bill’s $600 stimulus payments, that represents less than 18 per cent of what Congress is allocating. There are hundreds of billions for extending unemployment benefits and the PPP small business loan program.
There is money for infrastructure and schools, as well as food stamps and rental assistance. Is it enough? No. But $900 billion is not nothing and it’s going to help the economy.
Then there are the Covid-19 vaccines. Assuming there are no major hiccups in distribution, millions of ordinary Americans will start receiving the vaccine in the Spring, when the boost from the relief bill will begin to dissipate.
Widespread vaccination should lead to a burst of economic activity. Companies and small businesses may start to rehire and Americans, cooped up for the past year, could start to travel again. When you combine those two potential massive fiscal jolts, it’s not hard to imagine that in the Fall of 2021 the economy might be doing pretty well.
There is, of course, another wild card. If Democrats can find a way to win the two Georgia Senate seats up for grabs on January 5, they will control the Senate and can pass another stimulus bill in the Spring to get the country through vaccination and put the economy on an even stronger long-term footing.
Surely, plenty can go wrong between now and then and Biden will still have to manage a country that is facing a host of challenges, not to mention an obstructionist GOP and an unruly Democratic coalition.
But we can say with some certainty that the Covid-19 vaccine will likely transform the country in a positive way. It will, for the first time in a while, give Americans hope for the future and an economic renewal that can only resound positively for Biden’s political standing. Happy days indeed.
- A Boston Globe opinion/Michael A. Cohen