Editor’s Note: This story was originally published November 18, 2020, and has been updated with additional policy changes affecting the US Treasury Department.
President Donald Trump continues to howl on Twitter – between rounds of golf – spreading the lie that he won the election he lost, and promising he will be in the White House come January.
He is simultaneously taking steps to sabotage Joe Biden’s presidency in ways that harm the economy and US foreign policy.
Meanwhile, a “bunker mentality” has set in, according to CNN’s reporting, and the first family has canceled plans for Thanksgiving in Florida to instead stay in the White House he’ll leave in just more than two months.
Across the government Trump oversees – with actions at the Treasury, the Pentagon, inaction on the economy and denialism about the pandemic – the President and his allies are undercutting President-elect Joe Biden and harming the American people, even as none of them acknowledge that they’re about to be replaced.
Instead, Trump’s been busy firing officials who admit anything counter to the election-fraud narrative – Tuesday it was Christopher Krebs, the DHS official who confirmed the election was safe from meddling.
Here’s a short guide to how Trump is leaving things for his successor.
Sabotaging the Fed
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has demanded the Federal Reserve return $455 billion in unused funds from a lending program meant to prop up American businesses. The Fed could legally continue with the funds if Mnuchin didn’t claw them back, but he argues the program should end at the end of this year – a decision panned by the US Chamber of Commerce.
This will create political headaches for Biden, but it’ll also have a negative impact on everyday Americans.
Biden and Congress would have to come to a new agreement to spin the program back up again. Mnuchin said the goal of the funds – to help get banks lending – was achieved, but anyone else can see the pandemic is far from over and states are now closing back down. Mnuchin’s move drew a rare rebuke from the Fed, which usually takes great pains to be apolitical.
Boxing Biden in on foreign policy
A report by CNN’s national security team is emblematic of how Trump’s administration is working actively in ways to make Biden’s life more difficult.
The goal is to set so many fires that it will be hard for the Biden administration to put them all out, an administration official tells CNN in the report.
Trump’s administration is:
- Further removing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq in the final days of Trump’s time as President.
- Contemplating new terrorist designations in Yemen that could complicate efforts to broker peace.
- Rushing through authorization of a massive arms sale that could alter the balance of power in the Middle East.
- Planning a last-minute crackdown on China.
- Floating the idea of a last-minute military strike on Iran, according to The New York Times.
- Building a wall of sanctions that make it difficult for Biden to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal Trump scuttled.
- Sending Mike Pompeo on the first-ever official visit by a US secretary of state to an Israeli settlement.
Intentionally making things more difficult for Biden could set up Trump’s argument for a 2024 rematch, according to experts in the report.
And Trump’s last-minute change of civilian leadership at the Pentagon is part of this effort.
Handing Biden an economic grenade
Trump’s failure to negotiate a new Covid stimulus with Congress will set Biden up for a political fight on Day One about how to help Americans hurt by the pandemic.
Here’s what expires in December without further action:
- Provisions to beef up unemployment insurance
- A deferral on student loan payments
- A paid family leave provision
- Coronavirus relief funding for states whose tax base has been decimated
- And a moratorium on evictions
Trump could potentially address these items with executive orders if he were to focus on them. Regardless, the first major political fight of Biden’s presidency is likely to be this standoff with either a narrowly Republican- or Democratic-controlled Senate.
Trump also signed a temporary delay on payroll taxes this year. Not all employers took part, but with Trump unable to make the tax delay permanent or to forgive it, Biden will have to figure out how not to make the accumulated payroll taxes feel like a tax hike when the bill comes due in 2021.
Read more here from CNN’s Katie Lobosco and Tami Luhby.
Weakening American democracy
The most important of these various nails left under the couch cushions is Trump’s steadfast refusal to accept the legitimacy of Biden’s win, an ultimately futile bit of pique, since Biden will take the oath of office and Trump will no longer be President in January.
Either because he wants to retire campaign debt, seed a new media empire of democratic disbelievers or is personally incapable of admitting defeat, Trump’s actions will have consequences.
We keep fact-checking these allegations and theories. They all spin a kernel of something into lies.
Related: CNN speaks to Georgia voter the Trump campaign falsely accused of casting ballot in the name of a dead woman
It’s clear many of Trump’s followers are all-in in their disbelief of the election results. If Republican orthodoxy is that Biden is not a real president, it will legitimize and even demand standing in the way of his efforts to govern in the next four years, and endanger the democratic process.
If Biden is to govern as a uniter, as he’s promised, he’ll first have to find a way to reach people being groomed to believe the counterfactual notion that he’s an election thief.
Republicans will argue Trump was similarly set up for failure by sour Democrats, but that’s a false equivalence, since Democrats from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on down acknowledged Trump’s victory in real time. It also ignores the evidence that led to the Russia investigation, Trump’s impeachment and more.
Why ‘bunker mentality’ is so insidious
That term from above – bunker mentality – is an interesting one for White House aides to anonymously self-apply. I’ve always associated it with Adolf Hitler’s end, in the bunker, surrounded by sycophants – rejecting facts in the face of certain defeat.
But the historian Benjamin Carter Hett writes about it more expansively in the LA Times, and makes the point that Trump pushing the massive lie that he won the election and his party’s enabling of him will have corrosive effects on democracy.
I’ll put the final two paragraphs here, but you should read the whole thing, and apply it to what we’re seeing at the White House.
Now we see the GOP gladly catering to Trump’s delusions about his election “victory.” Such prominent politicians as Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are eagerly following along. Their lies too will linger and sow bitterness for years.
They have shown that winning – even flattering Trump’s fragile ego – means more to them than the survival of our democracy. How long can we go on as a democracy with one of our two great parties in the hands of such people will be the urgent question of the coming years.