Joe Biden is the president-elect of the United States. But we are now in President Trump’s lame-duck period, a roughly two-and-a-half-month interregnum that the country must endure before Biden takes the oath of office to become the nation’s forty-sixth president. Until then, Trump retains control of the executive branch. His appointees remain in charge of federal departments and agencies; his orders to civil servants and the military carry legal weight and force; American diplomats around the world carry out foreign policy on his behalf.
In stable times, the lame-duck period between Election Day and Inauguration Day is relatively orderly. Departing administrations wrap up their final policy goals as top officials ready themselves for life outside of Washington. Incoming presidents rush to line up their Cabinet and top White House appointments, while hundreds of staffers prepare for a smooth assumption of power. Federal law outlines how agencies are supposed to plan for such a transition months in advance; that below-the-radar process reportedly has been ongoing, so far without significant hindrance.
This year, however, Trump’s self-interested approach to wielding power could lead to a more chaotic transition than Americans are used to experiencing. Perhaps the greatest constraint on his behavior over the past four years was the knowledge that he would need to run for reelection this year. Now that burden is lifted. Trump is, in some ways, freer to act without fear of political consequences than at any other point in his tenure. The consequences from that flexibility—or perhaps impunity—could be profound.
Among the top concerns for an incoming Biden administration are the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recession. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin failed to reach a deal on a stimulus bill before Election Day. Prior to election day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that such a deal might not be possible until 2021. Trump himself may also be little help. He already broke off negotiations with Pelosi at one point in October when such a bill may have bolstered his political fortunes; now he might see little personal incentive to push lawmakers to pass a stimulus bill—or for him even to sign one—if Biden will ultimately reap the rewards of recovery.
Another danger is that Trump’s laissez-faire approach to the pandemic in recent months will only harden, even as a third wave of infections surges across the country. Last month, The Washington Post reported that the White House hadn’t spent an estimated $9 billion allocated for Covid-19 testing despite the urging of public health figures like Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. Trump’s disinterest in confronting the pandemic only seemed to grow after he was hospitalized with the virus in October, when he repeatedly told supporters on the campaign trail that the nation was “rounding the corner” and asserted that a vaccine would be imminent. As the nation braces for a dark winter, that disinterest could be one of the virus’s greatest allies.
On foreign policy, Trump is even less encumbered by domestic constraints. His instincts have been largely deconstructive over the past four years: pulling the country out of international agreements like the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, limiting U.S. participation in the World Health Organization, and eschewing traditional American allies while trying to forge ties with illiberal and authoritarian regimes. A lame-duck Trump may feel emboldened to do what he could not get away with while up for reelection.
Trump may reignite the U.S. trade wars with China and the European Union, claiming that he was carrying out his America First trade policies while also deepening the economic hole out of which a Biden administration would have to climb. The president could follow through on his threats to withdraw U.S. forces from Europe or even pull the country out of NATO entirely. And he could give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a parting political gift by sanctioning the formal annexation of large swaths of the West Bank, a move long forestalled by U.S. diplomatic opposition. Biden could try to reverse some of these moves after taking office, but the long-term damage for American credibility would already be done.
There is one area where Trump would actually be following in the footsteps of his predecessors: doling out controversial pardons in the waning days of a presidency. The practice arguably began with Andrew Johnson, who failed to obtain the Democratic nomination to run for another term in 1868. After Ulysses S. Grant won in November, Johnson used the pardon power to grant a mass amnesty for any former Confederates who hadn’t already been pardoned, including former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and former General Robert E. Lee. After years of clashes with Republicans in Congress and a heated impeachment battle, Johnson also declined to attend Grant’s inauguration. Trump has already used pardons to achieve personal and partisan goals throughout his term, and he may be inclined to ramp up that behavior as his presidency winds down.
The most obvious recipients would be those prosecuted during the Russia investigation, such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. But he could also try to protect all sorts of allies, such as embattled National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre or former strategist Steve Bannon, from current or future investigations. He could issue blanket pardons for his adult children and top allies as a reward for their support. Trump may even follow through on his 2018 threat to pardon himself, which would be constitutionally dubious, at best. While he couldn’t insulate himself from state charges through such a maneuver, he could gamble one last time that the Supreme Court would intervene on his behalf if the Biden administration later opens an investigation.
Perhaps the most obvious way in which Trump will respond to defeat is by firing government officials. It took Trump less than 48 hours after the 2018 midterms to push out Attorney General Jeff Sessions and install a more loyal subordinate atop the Justice Department. In recent weeks, he reportedly has signaled to aides that he plans to fire multiple top national-security officials—including FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper—after the 2020 election. And then there’s an executive order Trump signed in October that would give the White House greater flexibility in recategorizing civil servants and stripping them of legal protections—a possible prelude to a purge of high-profile civil servants like Fauci shortly before Biden takes power.
There are less dramatic ways that Trump could still leave a lasting imprint on the nation. Federal departments rushed to finalize pending regulatory changes over the past few months so they would be enacted by the time Trump left office. The administration even cut short the 2020 census so it could submit the final count to Congress on December 31, ensuring that it would be delivered under him instead of a possible Biden administration. That maneuver, combined with the Trump administration’s efforts to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment, underscores how Republicans are still trying to tilt the decennial count—and the next decade of American politics—in their favor.
Historically, the lame-duck period hasn’t been entirely free of significant political activity or legislative change—and in recent memory, outgoing administrations have faced charges of small-minded chicanery during the presidential transition. But as was true at the outset of his political career, Trump’s detachment from norms, his utter self-absorption, his lack of shame, and his vindictive streak make him a unique concern during this handoff to the incoming Biden administration. Trump is ultimately a vandal; our government, a blank canvas. The likelihood that he’ll use the next few months to further deface the nation is high, but a few months of sabotage is better than four more years of it.