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The past week and its showcase of President Donald Trump’s erratic behavior offered a window into how he would deal with defeat.
Surely he would offer excuses and question the results. But would he do something more drastic?
For that matter, how would he act after a victory?
I reached out to Kate Andersen Brower, the journalist, CNN contributor and author of a number of books about presidents and the presidency, most recently “Team of Five: The Presidents’ Club in the Age of Trump,” about the most recent presidents and their relationships with each other.
Our Q-and-A, lightly edited, is below.
What if he loses?
Why we wait months to inaugurate a President and how Trump came in
CNN: We hold a presidential election on the first Tuesday after after the first Monday in November. But the new President doesn’t take office until January. What’s the reason for this gap and is it still necessary?
KAB: The reason for this gap is to provide for the peaceful transfer of power and it is absolutely necessary. Perhaps now more than ever before.
I interviewed more than two dozen people who worked for Barack Obama and George W. Bush and on both sides I was told that they had a smooth transition which was important at a time when the country was going through the worst economic crisis since the great depression. Michelle Obama’s first chief of staff, Jackie Norris, told me that she will “never forget the intense camaraderie and loyalty that the first ladies and members of the first ladies’ staffs have for each other.” The same was true for the West Wing.
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The haphazard way the Trump campaign approached the transition is dangerous. To be sure part of that is because no one on his campaign team had even taken the time to put together an acceptance speech. They did not think they would win.
Trump won the election in part by saying he would “drain the swamp” but there are basic responsibilities of the federal government that he would have been better equipped to manage if he had some level of institutional knowledge (Joe Biden is the exact opposite). And that takes time which means it takes a couple of months to make appointments and to learn how things work.
I wrote in my book “Team of Five” that Obama aides were told to prepare drafts of thick “how-to” manuals on how their offices functioned, including details as small as voicemail passwords.
This is from the book:
But Obama aides had no one to hand their carefully curated briefing books to.
Career government employees waited at the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, and all across the sprawling bureaucracy. They wanted guidance – they wanted to know who their new bosses were and how their jobs would change in a Trump presidency – but they got nothing. In fact, some high-level employees waited and waited until, after weeks of silence, they assumed they were no longer employed, and packed up their offices.
How Trump could go out
CNN: Having watched Trump’s first term, what are some things we should look for in a post-defeat transition?
KAB: I think that should Trump lose to Joe Biden (who is the epitome of a career politician after spending eight years as vice president and almost 40 in the Senate) he will feel no obligation to do for him what George W. Bush did for Barack Obama. I do not think there will be a genuine handover, or peaceful transfer of power. I think it’s unlikely in defeat that Trump would behave radically differently than he does in office. I would be surprised if Trump shows up to Biden’s swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol if he wins.
CNN: The US is known for its peaceful transfers of power. Is there any precedent for a losing president or his administration wreaking havoc on the way out the door?
KAB: Historically there were certainly some bitter defeats (see John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) but in modern times both parties have touted their abilities to peacefully transfer power. During the 2008 campaign, Bush’s director of national intelligence, John Michael McConnell, had arranged for Obama and his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, to get a report with the thirteen most important national security issues at hand. Once, during the last two months of the 2008 campaign, Obama and McCain found themselves sitting at the same table in the Roosevelt Room, with Bush sitting between them, as they discussed the $700 billion authorization by Congress to save the sickeningly sinking market.
Bush and Obama had a real respect for each other. At the May 2012 unveiling of George W. and Laura Bush’s official portraits at the White House, Obama said, “President Bush understood that rescuing our economy was not just a Democratic or a Republican issue, it was an American priority. I’ll always be grateful for that.” Contrast that with President Trump reportedly not inviting President Obama to his portrait unveiling at the White House.
It’s unlikely Trump would somehow refuse to go
CNN: Trump’s not the kind of person to simply go quietly. What kinds of things could he do if he wanted to throw a cog into the machine of government?
KAB: He could refuse to leave, but I do not see that happening. There has been discussion on the left, Bill Maher notably, so it is something on people’s minds. I have a hard time envisioning
Trump sitting on the steps of the Capitol with hundreds of thousands of people in the audience cheering for his departure.
Former presidents have traditionally had a grudging admiration for each other, even after having been forced out of office. After Ronald Reagan spoke at Jimmy Carter’s library opening Carter said, “I now understand more clearly than I ever had before why you won.”
Jimmy Carter apologized to George W. Bush at Bush’s library dedication for being too tough on him, especially for his outspoken criticism of the war in Iraq. “Oh, hush,” Bush replied. Can you imagine that happening with Trump and whoever succeeds him, whenever it happens?
What if he wins?
Emboldening the emboldened
CNN: No President has been impeached, acquitted and reelected. You can imagine that if he wins, Trump would feel more emboldened than anyone else in history. How might Trump treat the office in a second term as the ultimate winner?
KAB: I think he will feel emboldened to take whatever actions he wants. When I interviewed him for my book, it was shortly after the release of the Mueller report and he felt like he had been exonerated. He was frankly exuberant and eager to talk about how he thinks he has done more than any president in history. So I can only imagine his reaction to being reelected after being impeached. A lot of what he spends his time doing is governing only with his supporters in mind and if he is reelected that would prove the immense power of his voters. I think he would criticize reporters and the so-called “deep state” even more than he does today. It would not be a good scene.
No historical precedent for Trump
CNN: Is there another president who came to the White House unpopular and then won reelection unpopular? Is there another two-term president as divisive as Trump?
KAB: I think George W. Bush was incredibly divisive but not to this extent. His approval ratings have soared since leaving office. And like Trump he was elected without the popular vote. Bush has followed his father’s lead and stayed mostly on the sidelines. He’s watched his approval ratings soar because absence really does make the heart grow fonder. I cannot foresee Trump staying on the sidelines.
Unpopular presidents and second terms
CNN: What can we learn from the second terms of presidents who weren’t insanely popular at the time of their reelection and won against expectations (I’m thinking of Harry Truman here or Richard Nixon)?
KAB: If you look at Nixon and Watergate, winning by a thin margin (in 1968) only made him more paranoid and irrational and led to his resignation. That example does not bode well.
Trump and his GOP successor
CNN: We’re deep into conjecture here, but I have wondered, if Trump won, how he’d treat Mike Pence, who has been a loyal soldier during this first term. It’s hard to imagine someone with Trump’s reality show sensibilities just handing over the baton to someone like Pence, who undoubtedly lacks Trump’s flair for drama, as the next logical GOP nominee. What does history tell us?
KAB: Trump is not loyal to people just because they are loyal to him. I think he would treat Mike Pence well if reelected because logically Pence would have helped him convince evangelical voters to stay with him. But I don’t think that loyalty would last long and Trump could back someone else should Pence run in 2024. It would not translate into long-term support unless it benefited him somehow.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect the year President Richard Nixon won the election by a thin margin.