Donald Trump is losing—which is not news. He’s been losing to Joe Biden since the first hypothetical poll was taken pitting the two men against each other. But what has changed is that, by all accounts, Trump now knows he’s losing.
What he doesn’t know is how to fix it.
Which leaves him with two options.
Trump never planned on playing fair in the election to begin with.
From Trump undermining investigations into Russia’s 2016 electoral interference to Attorney General William Barr instructing the Justice Department to go easy on Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, the president spent his first term signaling that his administration will protect people who get into trouble while helping him.
He’s publicly asked China for help, and, according to former National Security Advisor John Bolton, prioritized his reelection with Chinese officials in private too. He tried to extort Ukraine for electoral assistance, contravening U.S. law and the Constitution, which got him impeached. And his various Russia-friendly stances — such as pushing to readmit Russia to the G7 — suggest he’d like Russia’s help again too.
Because states run elections, voter suppression isn’t something the president can do by himself, so he’s working to encourage it. There are the usual techniques of purging voter rolls, shrinking voting times, and closing polling places in more urban, less white, more Democratic areas.
But Trump is fixated on vote by mail.
The pandemic created more challenges for voting. Mail-in ballots offer a straightforward solution, but solving it is clearly not the president’s goal.
Trump has been denouncing vote by mail for months, falsely claiming it’s a common avenue for fraud. Bill Barr claimed without evidence — or, when you think about it, logic — that foreign countries would mail in counterfeit ballots. The reason they’re making these accusations isn’t subtle. As President Trump said on Fox & Friends about expanding vote by mail, “If you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
He’s obviously wrong about that. This is a large country and never is a long time. But normal Trumpian exaggeration aside, there’s no evidence mail-in ballots give either party an advantage.
There’s the pandemic factor to consider, though. Voting by mail is popular and Trump is on the wrong side of the issue. Why would he do that? Because he is betting that limiting vote by mail will impact Democrat-leaning urbanites more than Republican-leaning senior citizens.
And this strategy dovetails nicely with his efforts to downplay the coronavirus. Polls show that Democrats view COVID-19 as more of a serious issue than Republicans do. So if Biden voters think COVID is dangerous and Trump voters don’t, restricting vote by mail favors Trump.
But Trump’s problem is that these sort of electoral shenanigans only pay off at the margins. Maybe they can swing a closely-divided state, but they can’t overcome the kind of 5- and 7-point deficits Trump is seeing in most battleground state polls.
Which means he’d need to do something next-level, like changing vote totals, suspending the election, or refusing to leave after a certified loss. And those would be extremely difficult.
Large-scale vote tampering would take a massive operation and be difficult to hide. Changing Election Day requires an act of Congress. Refusing to leave after a loss would require support from the military and the Secret Service.
Trump could certainly contest a close election. Definitely if it’s within recount range. And if Trump’s leading on Election Night, but mail-in ballots give Biden the victory a week later, Trump could cry fraud, launch lawsuits, tell his supporters that it’s not over, and fight it out all the way to the Supreme Court. (Neil Gorsuch being the deciding vote against Trump would be the greatest irony of them all.)
But contesting an unambiguous loss takes on a lot of additional risk — to himself and his family, let alone the country — for a relatively low chance of success. The man who went to the White House bunker in response to Black Lives Matter protests probably doesn’t have the stomach for the public reaction if he loses and tries to stay.
Especially when there’s another option.
Do you ever notice that sometimes it looks like Trump’s heart isn’t really in it?
It’s been four tiring years. Running as an outsider is more fun than running as an incumbent. And neither he nor his supporters hate Joe Biden like they hated Hillary Clinton. Even the rallies and Fox interviews aren’t as ego-boosting as they once were. So instead of plotting an elaborate cheat or hoping for a miracle, maybe Trump turns the strategic goal of his campaign from winning the election to setting up his post-presidency and protecting himself, his kids, and their money.
I don’t buy theories that Trump doesn’t want to be president and is hoping to lose. Being president means he can tell people what to do, powerful people show him respect, he gets tons of attention, and he’s effectively above the law. You think he’d give all that up if he didn’t have to?
Trump reportedly expected to lose in 2016 and didn’t mind, because running boosted his brand and set up lucrative media opportunities. And that scenario could still be operable if he plays his cards right.
Donald Trump talks about #winning so much that people often forget that one of the defining aspects of his life have been his bankruptcies.
Going bankrupt taught Trump a very important lesson: If you fail, make sure other people pay the price.
Trump’s companies have declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy six times, and he sometimes managed to make money for himself even as the business went broke. With his Atlantic City casinos, Trump had the company pay him millions in salary and bonuses before filing for Chapter 11, stiffing contractors and creditors, and leaving his partners holding the bag. Stock and bond holders lost over $1.5 billion. And, using now-illegal accounting tricks, Trump even managed to get hundreds of millions in tax write-offs for himself.
Well, Trump’s presidency is going bankrupt. Which means that he will put himself first and get out with as much as he can, screwing over whoever he has to on the way out the door. In this scenario, after losing the election Trump would focus more on issuing pardons and setting up new business ventures than trying to remain in power.
Pardons! Maybe Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, and 2016 campaign chair Paul Manafort, all confessed or convicted lawbreakers. Maybe Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who allegedly misused government resources, bypassed Congressional regulations to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, and then got the inspector general investigating it fired. Maybe Jared and Ivanka, Don Jr., and — sure why not — Eric. The pardon power is basically unlimited.
Except for this: can a president pardon himself? Lawyers are on various sides of that question, and it hasn’t been tested. Maybe we’ll find out.
Or maybe Trump will resign in January so Pence can pardon him.
What is Trump Doing?
Interestingly, Trump’s public behavior so far fits both of these theories.
For example, his attacks on vote by mail could be an attempt to suppress Democratic voters, an effort to preemptively establish a post-election challenge to results, or the groundwork for luring aggrieved Republicans to Trump TV, or whatever operation he stands up after leaving the White House. It could be either. Or both.
So no, I don’t claim to know what he’s thinking. And yes, he could come back and win outright. He could keep it close enough that electoral shenanigans make the difference, or at least so that the Republican party puts its institutional support behind post-election legal challenges. And even if he doesn’t pull any of this off, he might currently believe he can, and act accordingly.
But there’s also the possibility Trump thinks his presidency is ending and is running his old bankruptcy play, projecting confidence while anticipating a loss — a loss that he won’t let land on him.