It was once said about a famous TV personality that when he left a job, he didn’t burn bridges with his past employer, he napalmed them.
That’s exactly what Donald Trump is doing in the final weeks of his presidency – as he savages longtime allies, pardons criminals solely because of their loyalty to him and threatens to rob the country of much-needed Covid-19 relief money just because he can.
“This is rotten to the core,” Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse said Wednesday night in the wake of Trump’s latest round of pardons that included his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his political svengali Roger Stone.
That is, of course, true. But, what Trump is doing in his last days is also utterly predictable. This was always how this story was going to end. Anyone expressing shock and amazement simply hasn’t been paying attention.
From the earliest days of his presidency, Trump made clear that he would use the office to which he had been elected to simply further the work of his lifetime: Rewarding himself (and his friends) while punishing his enemies. Trump didn’t act differently in office – as he said he would if and when he was elected – because he didn’t (and doesn’t) see the presidency any differently than any other job he’s done in his life; it was simply a higher-profile way to make himself more famous and more powerful while continuing to seek vengeance on the ever-growing list of people who have wronged him in some way, shape or form over the years.
He lacked any sense that being president was about more than him, that there was, in theory, the need to look out for the collective good of the country.
It’s why Trump would say things like “my generals” or “my military” without any sense of why that might be wrong.
And why he spent his entire term clashing with his attorneys generals — whether it was Jeff Sessions or Bill Barr – over their unwillingness to use the Department of Justice as his own personal police force.
And why he has used his presidential pardoning power less as a way of righting wrongs and more as a way of wronging rights – granting clemency to people, like former Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter, who clearly and knowingly violated the law.
And why he is refusing to sign a bill that would not only provide $900 billion in Covid-19 stimulus money but also keep the federal government running because of his personal pique with Republican members of Congress who refuse to support his fever dream that he won the 2020 election.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about all of this, well, rottenness, is how none of it is ever enough for Trump. No matter how much he gets, he always wants more. No matter how loyal his sycophants are, it’s never loyal enough.
Take Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Kemp ran unapologetically as a Trump acolyte in 2018 – winning the praises of the President in the process. Kemp took his governing cues from Trump too – particularly on Covid-19 as he waited (and waited) to issue a stay-at-home order in the spring to placate the President.
Didn’t matter. None of it. Because when Kemp refused to aid Trump’s extra-legal (at best) efforts to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the Peach State, Trump savaged him. Repeatedly. And urged a primary challenge against him in 2022.
“Governor Kemp (@BrianKempGA) is down 18 points in a recent poll,” tweeted Trump earlier this month. “Don’t believe it, must be more!”
Then there’s the case of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose ardent support of the President’s agenda led to Trump’s single-most lasting accomplishment: The confirmation of three new Supreme Court justices as well as hundreds of federal judges in lower courts around the country.
Trump loved McConnell right up until he didn’t. The Kentucky Republican’s offense? Acknowledging, after the Electoral College vote earlier this month, that Biden was, in fact, going to be president. Which amounts to McConnell saying, after months of staring directly at a blue sky that the sky is, in fact, blue.
Trump, by way of retaliation, sent a slide to McConnell’s Republican Senate colleagues suggesting that a supportive tweet and an automated phone call he did for the Majority Leader were why McConnell had been reelected in November. “Sadly, Mitch forgot,” was written at the top of the slide. “He was the first one off the ship.” (McConnell’s victory had zero to do with Trump’s tweet or robocall.)
He turns on everyone. No one can ever be loyal enough. No one can do everything he asks of them. Because what he asks, in many cases, is either illegal or a dereliction of duty.
That approach to life – and politics – inevitably ends the way this presidency is drawing to a close: Trump bunkered in – either at the White House or Mar-a-Lago – with the last remaining dead-enders who will indulge his increasingly wild fantasies about staying in office. And using the remaining powers of the presidency for purely personal satisfaction – whether in rewarding those last few loyalists who have traded dignity for the proximity to power or punishing his one-time allies who, he believes, have double-crossed him.
It’s a sad image: A president backed into a corner by his own selfishness and bitterness, isolated from all but a few – and not even necessarily trusting them to, ultimately, have his back.
It’s also a scary moment: Trump retains considerable powers as president and now has only his personal whims to steer how and whether he uses them.
Anyone who spent five minutes watching how Trump has lived his life – in and out of the White House – could, of course, have seen all of this coming. This is how it was always going to end for Trump – and the country. Which makes it all the more damning that so many Republicans have supported him for so long.