Editor’s Note: Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. is Scholar in Residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College, a Senior Fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies, and a Professorial Lecturer at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution. She can be found on Twitter @lmchervinsky.
As the last remaining states count their ballots, many Americans are likely worried about the transition of power and what a lame-duck President Donald Trump might do in the short months before he leaves office.
Some public policy experts have argued that Congress, the courts and the Constitution would largely limit Trump’s ability to inflict damage on the country. But as we’ve seen in the last four years, Trump can easily foster chaos, endanger the lives of Americans and our allies, undermine trust in institutions and set back national security for decades to come. None of that will change because there is a new President-elect.
One of the most pressing political lessons of the last four years is this: the presidency is governed by very few enforceable rules and laws. Instead, there are norms and customs limiting presidential behavior—norms and customs that President Trump has repeatedly trampled and disregarded. For example, there are no laws prohibiting the President from lying to the American people. Yet, we expect presidents to tell the truth.
These expectations rely on political pressure and the power of shame to keep the president in line. According to the Washington Post’s analysis, however, President Trump has made false or misleading claims more than 20,000 times between January 20, 2016 and July 9, 2020.
While Americans have largely become numb to the daily violations of these norms and customs, unprecedented behavior from Trump could cause lasting harm during the transition, especially when it comes to national security, domestic institutions, and public trust in our government.
President Trump can undermine national security in two key ways. First, the President has the authority to declassify sensitive information. In May 2017, Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak and shared classified information. While Trump did not reveal the source, intelligence officials were concerned the Russians would be able to deduce where the highly sensitive information came from.
During the transition, Trump could declassify information or reveal other critical sources, thereby endangering the lives of our allies across the globe. If the President shares sensitive military information, he could also set back national security for years.
Second, Trump could order missile strikes or withdraw troops that would further destabilize our relationships across the globe. In October 2019, Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Syria after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. While the US forces that were pulled from the region were then largely replaced with another wave of troops, alliances were broken, territories were ceded, and the lack of a clear and well thought out plan lowered our standing in the world.
Just a few months later, on January 3, 2020, Trump authorized a missile strike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani without obtaining Congressional approval. An administration official told CNN at the time that White House lawyers deemed the strike was appropriate, saying the President did not have to ask for congressional authorization over a matter of national self defense. (While President Barack Obama did not seek congressional authorization when he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, he was targeting the leader of a terrorist group with which the US was already at war. The attack on Soleimani, on the other hand, targeted a nation in a way that could have dragged the US into a war.)
Iranian forces retaliated with a rocket strike on an American base in Iraq and tensions between the US and Iran remain high. In late September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to abandon the American embassy in Baghdad if Iranian-backed militias continued launching rocket attacks – a move that would come at the expense of the United States. During the transition, Trump could endanger American forces and interests abroad with another attack or strategic troop redeployment.
Trump can also threaten the nation by dismantling domestic protections against executive malfeasance. He may preemptively try to issue blanket pardons for himself and his family. While there is little constitutional law governing presidential pardons, there is precedent. In 1974, President Gerald Ford issued a pardon for his predecessor, Richard Nixon, “for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed.” Ford issued this pardon even though Nixon had not yet been charged with a federal crime.
Trump and his allies will likely continue to disregard the law. For example, members of the Trump administration have repeatedly violated the Hatch Act, which forbids federal employees from using federal resources for political aims. Trump has also ignored the Presidential Records Act, which requires the president to preserve executive branch records and members of his administration have previously taped together torn-up documents in an attempt to preserve them.
In the last few months of his presidency, Trump could demand his staff destroy important documents or any evidence of possible wrongdoing. As long as these laws lack a significant enforcement capability and Congress remains unwilling or unable to check the president, there is no reason to think Trump will alter his behavior or prevail upon those who work for him to do so.
The opportunity to hold officials accountable for their actions is one of the pillars of public trust in the government. While issuing pardons or destroying documents does not pose a danger to American lives in the way that rash foreign policies might, they could prevent the public from holding the administration accountable.
Peaceful elections and the reliable transfer of power are two other important factors. Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and his refusal to commit to the peaceful transfer of power undermine confidence in both the presidency and our elections. These actions have both short and long-term consequences. In September, the Pew Research Center found that only 20% of Americans trust the federal government to “do the right thing” just about always or most of the time. That trust will take decades to restore.
More immediately, Trump’s words have a tangible effect. The Department of Homeland Security warned that White supremacists are the most “persistent and lethal threat” in the US and that some violent extremists have capitalized on political tensions in 2020. These groups have been encouraged and emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and hesitance to denounce their activities.
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A new Biden administration can overturn many of Trump’s executive orders, follow the Hatch Act and other laws regulating the presidency, and work with our allies to improve our national security. But President-Elect Biden won’t be able to re-classify the names of intelligence sources, undo missile strikes or erase pardons. He can try to restore faith in our elections and institutions, both domestically and abroad, but that that could take decades. Trump could do real damage during the transition and we shouldn’t ignore his actions, even if we’ve seen similar behavior by him before.