Beware the Lame Duck Presidency

James Denseiow

A week away from what observers are saying – perhaps without hyperbole – is a once in a generation election and President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, was confirmed by the US Senate.

The confirmation locks in a conservative majority to the court and is a reminder that whilst many focus on Trump’s bellicose tweets, his judicial appointments could leave an enduring legacy even if he is only a one term president. Whilst polling and the tsunami of early voting would suggest that Trump is unlikely to secure a second term, the prospect of what he would do with the rest of his first term is worth serious scrutiny.

The ‘lame duck’ presidential period tends to be more absolute for a second term president contemplating the design of their presidential library rather than the leader whose dreams of four more years of power were taken suddenly away by the electorate.

Much of the debate to date has examined the implications of Trump being unwilling to surrender power. Could he simply remain in the White House tweeting whilst kicking questions as to what he considers a disputed outcome to the courts? But if we were to park this rather existential question to the future of American democracy to one side and consider a scenario in which Trump is soundly beaten next Tuesday and is accepting of the result, what would happen for the next few months until President Biden in inaugurated on January 20th, 2021?

The first and most obvious aspect of the lame duck Trump presidency to flag is that it could come as the country faces the darkest period of is encounter with the Coronavirus. The US is already seeing the beginnings of a third peak as the colder weather forces people indoors.

The US has set a record for new coronavirus cases reported in a single week with more than 481,300 infections, as the virus continues to surge across the Midwest and the South. The seven-day moving average of new daily cases stood at 68,767 after Sunday – the highest peak since late July and a 5.9 percent increase from the week before, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Could a Trump unencumbered by trying to proritise the economy to win an election finally set out an approach towards getting the virus under control? Could a chastened loser of the election reach out to the Biden transition team and agree a cross party consensus for the approach over the winter months? This could both tackle the deadly pandemic and poor cold water on the increasing febrile partisan political atmosphere in the country.

Sadly, it is also highly unlikely. Trump would understandably see the Coronavirus as the single biggest factor in his losing control of the White House and choose to continue his approach of wishing it away and blaming China. Considering the rhetorical lengths he went to try and open the US up ahead of Easter it is hard to imagine him championing restrictions around the Christmas period, with obvious public health potential harm.

Beyond Covid and presuming that Trump doesn’t become obsessed by the prospect of post-presidency criminal proceedings being brought against him, as hinted to by Special Investigator Mueller, there is another prospect of a more rapid US withdrawal from treaties and multilateral bodies as his Presidential clock runs out.

Trump has already make it hard for a Biden presidency to pivot back into engagement with the world through his record-breaking withdrawals from international agreements; from the Open Skies Treaty, to the Paris Accords to points where some speculated he would take the US out of NATO and even the UN.

Could a Trump ‘lame duck’ administration flail at the levers of power available to the executive branch to ensure that his successor has a true reality of ‘American carnage’ to pick up on. His Iran policy in particular has been unpredictable to date and could be rocket fuelled by a Trump who feels he doesn’t have to think beyond a period of months.

The fundamental point is a simple one. Whilst many will be subsumed by celebration of a Trump defeat next week, holding him accountable for the period up to late January is the way a responsible democracy can conduct its affairs

James Danselow

by : jamse danselow