Predicting Trump as a Lame Duck
On Friday, President Trump commuted the sentence of longtime friend Roger Stone.
Even for ever-descending Trumpian standards, the move was so brazenly corrupt that staunch allies and enablers felt the need to condemn the act or distance themselves from it. “Unprecedented, historic corruption,” one GOP senator noted. Another Republican senator called it “a mistake.”
Attorney General Barr, who normally throws himself upon the embers of Trump’s inadequacy, was quick to denounce the move in a strategic, face-saving maneuver. Barr (or his associates) leaked to NBC News that he recommended not pardoning Stone.
The Stone saga was certainly interesting to follow. He was arrested (and later sentenced to 40 months) for making false statements, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice. The bulk of his legal challenges arose when he attempt to thwart the Russian election interference investigation.
But it was no run-of-the-mill debauchery. For Stone, who dresses like a cross between a Gotham villain and a 19th century hot air balloon thief, banal criminality is no fun — it must be a circus.
Stone allegedly threatened to kill radio host Randy Credico if he cooperated with the Mueller investigation. For good measure, Stone also threatened Credico’s dog. Associates of Stone, like Michael Caputo, were routinely kicked out of the courtroom for playground shenanigans, and Stone instagrammed a picture of his presiding judge with crosshairs.
But there were always excuses. He derailed the Russia investigation because it was a hoax. Stone’s defense of threatening Credico’s dog was, essentially, “couldn’t have been me — I love dogs.” And that threatening Instagram picture about the judge? That was an assistant. A stark lack of personal responsibility from the side that normally preaches it. There is a vacancy atop Mount Pious.
“It’s rare that I’m accused of something that I’m not guilty of,” Stone once said. He’s right.
Stone joins right wing Sheriff Joe Arpaio, former aide to Dick Cheney Scooter Libby, conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza, and former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik. Trump’s commutations and pardons looks less like a list of those needing corrective justice and more like the prime time green room at Fox News. The swamp is being drained, at least.
Trump’s slimey, Stone’s slimey; it’s a logical marriage. But one thought crept into my mind when watching the unfolding of this foreseeable act of malfeasance. If Trump can act so brazenly corrupt when he still has to face voters (and soon), what could Trump do if that thin shield of restraint is lifted? What unprincipled actions could Trump commit if there were truly no repercussions, say, in a lame duck period after having been voted out of office?
The first and most obvious move would be a self-pardon. Whether the president can issue a self-pardon is actually the center of a fairly fierce debate (I recommend reading Phillip Bobbitt’s summary). Essentially, the arguments pit Article II, Section 2 against Article II, Section 3, and what constitutes a plenary power.
Setting aside the legalities, Trump would most likely issue a self-pardon, even if it were ultimately in vain. “As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?” he tweeted.
It is Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. This broad albeit temporary protection seems to be the only thing between Trump and trouble. It is possible, for example, that Trump could be indicted if he left office in 2021.
What other goodie bag treats await the American public during Trump’s lame duck period? He could use his office to further enrich himself, as he has done over 2,000 times.
Consider the following numbers, courtesy of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington:
-63 political events held at Trump properties
-362 visits by President Trump to Trump businesses
-82 events held by specula interest groups at Trump properties
-59 foreign trademarks granted to Trump businesses
-111 foreign officials who visited a Trump business
-90 members of Congress visited a Trump business
Expect a lame duck Trump to financially capitalize on his dimming power, with Steve Mnuchin’s duplicity being vital to the operation. Perhaps escalate tensions with Iran, just for good measure. It also wouldn’t be shocking if a spiteful Trump purposefully torpedoed the incoming administration.
But whatever Trump does, almost nothing is shocking at this point.