WASHINGTON — President Trump’s first acknowledgment that he was facing a post-White House life happened on Friday, as he was giving a coronavirus vaccine speech from the Rose Garden. His administration, he vowed, would not initiate another round of lockdowns. “Hopefully, the — the — whatever happens in the future — who knows which administration it will be? I guess time will tell,” he said.
Though he corrected himself in time, the slip revealed that Trump knew that he would soon be leaving the White House and President-elect Biden would be taking his place.
Some 36 hours later came a tweet that made that same acknowledgement more explicit. “He won because the Election was Rigged,” Trump tweeted, devoting the rest of that message—and many others sent to his 80 million followers throughout the course of a clement Sunday afternoon—to conspiratorial fantasies about Democratic operatives fixing millions of votes for Biden.
Even if his recognition that he had lost the presidency was limited, even if that recognition was qualified by delusions of fraud, this weekend nevertheless marked a new and perhaps terminal stage of the Trump presidency. Even if legal challenges to several states’ results continue, Trump appears to know that he has lost and is looking for a way to leave Washington in a way that will keep his supporters energized.
Trump “is never going to concede the election,” says Sam Nunberg, one of the original advisers from the 2016 campaign. At the same time, “he’d be happy to leave,” Nunberg believes. Governing no longer appears to interest the president; he has not attended a coronavirus task force briefing in nearly half a year. Millions have been left unemployed by the pandemic, but Trump has done little more to bring congressional Democrats and Republicans together than issue a series of tweets so confusing and contradictory that they have served only to draw the two parties further apart.
“We’re probably better at being in the opposition than governing,” Nunberg says of his former boss, by whom he was fired and later sued.
Being in the opposition to a Biden presidency means that Trump can continue to stoke grievances about how the election was “stolen” without having to confront the utter dishonesty of the claim. That prospect is plainly attractive to him: Saturday saw Trump greet supporters who gathered for a demonstration in downtown Washington, D.C. The greeting came as the presidential caravan was on its way to Northern Virginia, where Trump would spend that day—and the next—golfing.
Among those in attendance at what had been billed as the Million MAGA March but was, in fact, a significantly smaller event, were members of violent white supremacist organizations like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. They did not need much more than a presidential wave to know that Trump was on their side — and they on his.
“They stole the ballot in multiple ways,” Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes told a journalist on Saturday afternoon during the pro-Trump rally in Washington, invoking the same flimsy evidence that Trump has been blasting out on his Twitter feed.
“He’s not going anywhere,” another attendee at that rally said.
It is customary for a president to pledge that he will do what he can to help his successor, if only by remaining silent. Even though Barack Obama ran a campaign relentlessly critical of George W. Bush, his Republican predecessor stayed out of the way during the Obama administration. Obama did the same for Trump, even though Trump’s entire career as a national political figure had been predicated on spreading false insinuations about Obama’s country of birth, intelligence and loyalties.
Trump has no more intention of following the post-presidential playbook than he had in following the presidential one. As fights between his supporters broke out on Washington’s streets on Saturday night, Trump called anti-fascist counterprotesters “scum.” Reprising earlier calls for law enforcement, he urged the district’s Metropolitan Police Department to “do your job and don’t hold back.”
A perennial chaos agent, Trump knows that he is irresistible to editors and producers. This has frustrated Democrats, who recognize that every news cycle Trump dominates is a news cycle Trump wins. “Break the habit everyone,” Democratic operative Joe Lockhart pleaded on Sunday night, after a weekend that saw the outgoing president receive seemingly far more coverage than the incoming one.
“Stop giving him what he wants –attention,” Lockhart argued on Twitter. “The President elect is the story. Covid is the story.”
Trump insists otherwise. And to remain the story, he could join forces with a media organization that both gives him the attention he craves and keeps his political prospects alive, should he decide to run for the presidency again in 2024.
Although no single institution was more responsible for his political rise than Fox News, Trump has soured on the network in recent days, believing it called the race too quickly for Biden in crucial states, like Arizona.
That has raised speculation that Trump will align with either Newsmax, the conservative news outlet started by his South Florida friend Christopher Ruddy, or One America News Network, a more conspiratorial upstart that has also gained a large following with Trump’s base.
Ruddy told Yahoo News that he was not open to selling Newsmax, an apparent reference to a Wall Street Journal article, and other reports, that have Trump associates purchasing the network, which has thrived in recent weeks. Ruddy told Yahoo News that Trump called him last week to congratulate him on Newsmax’s ratings, a perennial concern of the president.
“I think he’ll be very active in the media. I think he’ll remain a force,” Ruddy said. He said he would be happy to give Trump a prominent position at Newsmax. Turning the outlet over to a man not given to sharing or compromise would be another matter. “I don’t want to turn Newsmax into Trump TV,” Ruddy said.
Asked about how he might conduct himself after leaving Washington, Ruddy referenced his friend Ed Koch, who served as the mayor of New York City throughout the 1980s. Koch was “depressed” upon leaving City Hall, Ruddy says, especially his last term was marked by several ugly paroxysms of racist violence. But he found himself a television star, cultural critic and political kingmaker, so much so that Obama wooed him (successfully) in 2012.
“In some ways he was more powerful and influential not being mayor,” Ruddy says of Koch, who died in 2013.
The question that will vex Republicans is whether Trump really does want to run for the presidency again four years down the road. An aggrieved base and untrammeled media access could be the perfect ingredients for such a run.
“I am telling you, if he decides to run, there is no Republican primary” for the presidency, says Nunberg, the former adviser.
Nunberg thinks that upon leaving the Oval Office, Trump should leave a note for Biden on the Resolute Desk, one that breaks from the customary good wishes presidents dispense and instead warns of what is to come: “See you in 2024, Joe.”
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