It’s hard to tell whether Donald Trump is attempting a coup or throwing a tantrum.
Crying voter fraud, his administration has refused to begin a presidential transition despite his decisive electoral defeat. Some Republicans have floated the idea of getting legislatures in states that Joe Biden won to disregard vote totals and instead appoint pro-Trump electors to the Electoral College. The president has decapitated the Pentagon, putting fanatical loyalists in some of its highest ranks. Anthony Tata, who called Barack Obama a “terrorist leader” and tweeted a lurid fantasy about the execution of former CIA Director John Brennan, is now the Pentagon’s policy chief. This is all supremely alarming.
But there’s cause for comfort, of a sort, in signs that the president is preparing for life outside the White House in exactly the way one would expect — by initiating new grifts. Trump has been sending out frantic fundraising requests to “defend the election,” but as The New York Times reports, most of the money is actually going to a political action committee, Save America, that “will be used to underwrite Trump’s post-presidential activities.” Axios reports that Trump is considering starting a digital media company to undermine Fox News, which he now regards as disloyal.
These moves suggest that while Trump may be willing to torch American democracy to salve his wounded ego, at least part of him is getting ready to leave office.
When he finally does, some political observers and Republican professionals assume he’ll remain a political kingmaker, and will be a favorite for the party’s nomination in 2024. The Times reported, “Allies imagined other Republicans making a pilgrimage to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida seeking his blessing.” Sen. Marco Rubio told The Daily Beast’s Sam Brodey, “If he runs in 2024, he’ll certainly be the front-runner, and then he’ll probably be the nominee.”
Maybe. There’s no doubt that Trump has a cultlike hold on his millions of worshippers, and a unique ability to command public attention. But there are reasons to think that when he is finally ejected from the White House, he will become a significantly diminished figure.
Once Trump is no longer president, he is likely to be consumed by lawsuits and criminal investigations. Hundreds of millions of dollars in debt will come due. Lobbyists and foreign dignitaries won’t have much of a reason to patronize Mar-a-Lago or his Washington hotel. Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch could complete the transition from Trump’s enabler to his enemy. And, after four years of cartoonish self-abasement, Republicans with presidential aspirations will have an incentive to help take him down.
“His whole life he’s been involved in a bunch of litigation,” said superstar liberal attorney Roberta Kaplan. But post-presidency, “I have to assume that, given the amount of civil litigation and potential criminal exposure, it’s going to be at a completely new dimension.”
Kaplan is pursuing three high-profile lawsuits against Trump, including writer E. Jean Carroll’s defamation case. Carroll, you might remember, accused Trump of raping her in a department store dressing room during the 1990s. Trump called her a liar, and she’s suing him for damaging her reputation.
Under Attorney General Bill Barr, the Department of Justice has tried to shut down the suit, arguing that Trump was acting in his official capacity when he said Carroll had made up the story to sell books. In October a judge rejected the department’s theory, but had Trump been reelected, Kaplan expected an appeal.
Once Biden is president, Kaplan told me, “It’s hard for me to imagine that the DOJ won’t change its position.” So the case is likely to proceed. Kaplan expects it to go into discovery shortly after Biden’s inauguration. She anticipates deposing Trump and collecting his DNA to compare with male DNA found on the dress Carroll was wearing at the time of the alleged attack.
If Kaplan and Carroll prevail at trial, it would be a high-profile legal validation of Carroll’s claims. Her suit has not, so far, been a major news story — there’s too much else going on. But a verdict in her favor could be the #MeToo version of the civil judgment against O.J. Simpson — not justice, exactly, but a powerful rejection of impunity.
Carroll’s suit is not the only one that could force Trump to answer for his predatory history with women. The former “Apprentice” contestant Summer Zervos, who says Trump groped and kissed her against her will, is, like Carroll, suing for defamation because Trump called her a liar. (Her lawyer is Beth Wilkinson, who defended Brett Kavanaugh when he was accused of sexual assault during his Supreme Court confirmation fight.)
In addition to Carroll, Kaplan is representing Mary Trump, the president’s niece, who is suing Trump, his sister and his late brother Robert’s estate for fraud and civil conspiracy, saying they cheated her out of an inheritance. And she’s representing a group of people who are suing Trump and his three oldest children for enticing them to invest in an alleged pyramid scheme, run by a telecommunications company called ACN, which sold clunky videophones.
The plaintiffs are poor and working class, including a hospice caregiver who paid thousands of dollars to ACN because she trusted Trump’s fulsome endorsements, having no idea that ACN was paying Trump millions. As with the other suits, there is obviously no guarantee of success. But Trump’s alleged involvement in a multilevel marketing scheme that traded on a false image of his business acumen will be a minor subplot over the next few years.
It’s too much to expect any sudden exposure of Trump. There will be no cathartic moment when everyone realizes that the emperor was always naked. But the question isn’t whether Trump’s support will evaporate. It’s whether it will erode, especially once he loses the ability to make Republican dreams come true.
Besides, the threats to Trump are not only to his reputation, such as it is. In Bob Woodward’s book “Fear,” he wrote that Trump’s former lawyer John Dowd implored the president not to testify in Robert Mueller’s probe because he believed him to be an inveterate liar. (Dowd has denied this.) Should Trump face depositions in these civil cases, however, he’ll have no choice about submitting to interviews.
Andrew Weissmann, Mueller’s former deputy, told me he expects Trump to pardon himself for any federal crimes he might have committed. That would mean that even if a Biden Department of Justice wanted to take the extraordinary step of prosecuting a former president, it would also have to litigate the constitutionality of self-pardons, a complicated, time-consuming process.
But he might face state charges that he can’t pardon his way out of. New York state Attorney General Letitia James has a civil investigation into possible financial chicanery by the Trump Organization. Trump is under criminal investigation by Manhattan’s district attorney, Cyrus Vance. While the scope of the inquiry is unknown, his office’s filings suggest Vance could be looking at tax fraud, insurance fraud and falsification of business records.
The “Manhattan DA’s office is a really good office, and they’ve done a lot of white-collar cases,” said Weissmann. “If they were to prove — this is now hypothetical — but if they were to prove tens of millions of dollars in tax fraud or bank fraud, people go to jail for that.”
Let’s say Trump, ever the escape artist, avoids prison, setting himself up as the warlord of MAGA-world at Mar-a-Lago. His post-presidency still won’t be easy. As The Times has reported, he’s personally on the hook for $421 million in debt, most of it coming due in the next four years. If a long fight with the IRS goes against him, he could owe at least $100 million more.
“Trump still has assets to sell,” The Times reported. “But doing so could take its own toll, both financial and to Trump’s desire to always be seen as a winner.”
Trump is already trying to profit off his avid base, and he will surely continue. But it’s an open question whether, without the intoxicating aura of presidential power, he can sustain their devotion. There are several examples of once-formidable right-wing leaders reduced to footnotes after leaving office.
As Republican House majority leader, Tom DeLay was frequently described as the most powerful man in Congress. Then, in 2005, he was indicted on a charge of campaign money laundering. Though his 2010 conviction was eventually overturned on appeal, the last time he had any significant public profile was when he appeared on “Dancing With the Stars” in 2009.
Sarah Palin, too, was once a Republican icon; in many ways she presaged Trump. “Win or Lose, Many See Palin as Future of Party,” said a New York Times headline just before the 2008 election. It quoted right-wing activist Brent Bozell: “Conservatives have been looking for leadership, and she has proved that she can electrify the grassroots like few people have in the last 20 years.”
But since resigning as Alaska’s governor in 2009, Palin has lost her luster. Once a likely presidential prospect, she recently made headlines for wearing a pink and purple bear costume on the Fox reality show “The Masked Singer.”
Trump is in for years of scandals and humiliations. We will doubtlessly find out more about official misdeeds he tried to keep secret as president. Republicans who hope to succeed him will have reason to start painting him as a loser instead of a savior. He’ll have to devote much of his energy to trying to stay out of prison.
After all that, could he be back in 2024? Of course. Trump is, if nothing else, relentless. But this election was just the latest reminder that he is far from invincible. When he is no longer in office, there will be many more.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.