Editor’s Note: Joe Lockhart is a CNN political analyst. He was the White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration. He co-hosts the podcast “Words Matter.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
President Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to leave office peacefully if he loses the election. Instead he rails about voter fraud and a rigged election. His untruths and obstinacy are by now an old story, but they remain both dangerous to our democracy and maybe to our lives if the President continues on this path.
Many law enforcement and homeland security experts have raised the alarm about possible violence after a contested election. Nothing in the President’s words or behavior suggests that he will be a calming force or will leave the White House without a fight, either in the courthouse or the streets. We all know, after four years of this, that it’s a pretty good bet he will make a bad situation worse.
I share many of these worries. But I’m not expecting the worst. Not because Trump will have an attack of conscience – I don’t think he has a conscience. And not because he will put the country ahead of his own personal interests – that fantasy is no longer even debatable.
I simply assume, as you should, that if he loses next month, the President will put his own interests ahead of the country’s, as he always does. And that may actually guarantee a peaceful transition of power.
Donald J. Trump has a powerful survival instinct.
Recent news reports have exposed what a terrible businessman he is, over many decades. His presidency has been an international calamity, alienating our allies and empowering dictators and other enemies. America is stumbling through the worst pandemic in 100 years, with an economy that is teetering on the brink.
At the center of these tragedies is our President, a member of the survival Hall of Fame. He has survived multiple bankruptcies of his companies, massive legal judgments and a business instinct that can best be described as “How to lose money without even trying.”
But somehow, every time, after every colossal failure, he has always been able to repackage himself and sell the next version of Donald Trump to the public. Real estate developer. Casino mogul. Reality TV star. President of the United States.
This pattern has been noted by the President’s biographer Michael D’Antonio, who says that Trump in times of peril has always found a way to protect the thing he values most – his self-image. “It’s not success as others see it, or achievement as others define it,” D’Antonio told me recently. “What matters to him is the story he can tell himself, or sell to himself, in order to feel like he prevailed. That instinct is one of many that allows him second, third and fourth chances at escape and reinvention.”
And it’s those very instincts that may lead a defeated Trump to just leave town.
Trump is good at recognizing the personal risks he faces and staying one step ahead of his personal demise. That skill seems likely to kick in right about now, because Trump has a lot to be really worried about.
First, even if he pardons himself for all federal crimes, the state of New York and the district attorney of Manhattan are reportedly well along in investigations into his business practices. And since pardoning himself is not yet a tested constitutional right, the Department of Justice could drop a legal anvil on his head next year on multiple issues including obstruction of justice, tax fraud and defrauding the Treasury through payments to the Trump Organization.
The second worry is purely financial. He owes hundreds of millions of dollars, according to The New York Times. He will need some flexibility from his creditors and a new business venture to make that money quickly Paid speeches will help, but won’t generate a billion dollars.
Here’s where the survival instinct will kick in. What can Trump give prosecutors, creditors and potential investors to allow him to live his life freely and build the kind of media empire he so craves?
What he can give them is – wait for it – a peaceful transition of power. Freedom for peace.
To avoid violence in the streets, prosecutors of all stripes may decide it is in their – and the country’s – interest to cut a deal. Trump may agree to go quietly to save his own skin. There is the basis of the win-win.
And the same goes for creditors and investors. There is not a bank in the world whose shareholders would allow any renegotiation of credit terms with a man who’s promoting violence on the American streets and creating international instability in the capital markets. No one is going to bankroll the Trump media network if our cities are burning and Trump is lighting the match.
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So, all sides in theory will have incentive to make a deal. As much as it might pain our new president, peace may be better for the country than revenge. The same goes for politicians of both parties and every institution involved with Trump.
In the end, the one thing that has severely damaged this country from Day One – Trump’s utter devotion to himself – may serve all of us in the end. We know he only cares about himself and will believe whatever he tells himself. That form of narcissism may just be the disease that allows all of us, especially our democracy, to survive this grave threat.