Trump drops out. Biden gets sick. Pence is fired. What if 2020 gets really crazy?July 8, 2020
Sure, could happen, can’t rule it out: Perhaps the most astounding year in American life in generations, presided over by the most norm-shattering leader in American history, might culminate with a surge of normality.
What would normal even look like? Maybe a series of sharp but nonetheless civil and substantive debates. Or a close election that nonetheless ends with an unambiguous and uncontested result.
Even to contemplate these bland scenarios is to highlight their improbability. Based on the record so far of the Trump years — and especially of the crisis-infused year we are in now — it borders on crazy to imagine that the balance of 2020 will unfold without becoming even more crazy.
Multiple interviews in recent days with influential people in Washington’s political class, including strategists and government veterans in both major parties and figures who have served at high levels in the Trump White House, found most people expecting some sort of dramatic shift of plot in this election year.
Three factors, in the calculations of these insiders, increase the likelihood of an event that in a conventional era would be highly unlikely:
•President Donald Trump’s psychology, predisposed to dramatic and unorthodox actions, as he contemplates public polling and news coverage that increasingly describe him as an underdog for reelection.
•The age of Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, 74 and 77, respectively, during a coronavirus pandemic that has disproportionately affected elderly people.
•The general tumult in which the 2020 election is taking place, because of the pandemic and the vast decline in the domestic and world economies as a result of related shutdowns.
But if there is consensus on the high odds of more disruption, there is hardly uniformity on its precise manifestation. Here are seven scenarios that are something less than predictions but — by virtue of the experience of the people interviewed — something more than pure parlor-game speculation.
Trump finds an exit
One veteran Republican operative, close to many in the GOP’s donor class, said in the past couple weeks it's been stunning the extent to which people who have some association with Trump are speculating he might drop out of the race. “He doesn’t want to be a loser, and that’s all in jeopardy now,” this strategist said. “It’s less than 50-50 [Trump would pull himself off ticket] but I’m amazed at the amount of New Yorkers that are talking about this — his former friends. ... They think he’s looking for an excuse to get out.”
Worth emphasizing: This speculation is not coming from people claiming firsthand knowledge of Trump’s thinking in recent weeks, amid reports that he realizes that, on the current trajectory in national and swing-state polls, he is losing.
By these lights, Trump’s complaints about the alleged — though factually unsupported — vulnerability of postal voting to fraud could be a predicate for him saying the election is unfair and so he’s getting out. Or he could come up with a host of other reasons — he’s achieved his important objectives, he wants time with family, and so on — for bailing on a showdown.
In different manifestations of the scenario, the logic is the same: Trump has shown in his business career that he is willing to declare bankruptcy and shed liabilities in order to fight again another day. If remaining in the public eye, and perhaps fashioning a path for his children or some other designated political heir to keep the Trump brand alive in coming years, he might calculate that is better to get out early rather than risk a massive repudiation in November.
Trump shakes things up
The most dramatic version of a shakeup scenario is something that at least in some moods Trump has previously pondered: Dumping Mike Pence.
“He would throw Mike Pence in a wood chipper if he needed to,” said one former White House official who frequently interacted with Trump. “I’m still very surprised that he’s on the ticket. If someone walks in there and tells him, ‘The only way you’re going to pull this out is to put an African American on the ticket or to put a woman on the ticket’ — if it’s good for Trump, he’ll do it in a second.”
The problem with this scenario is that it is likely too late to do any good, even if Trump were willing to betray the loyal Pence. It would smack of desperation and endanger the support of religious conservatives who have a marriage of convenience with Trump but genuine devotion to Pence.
A more conventional shakeup scenario is one that campaigns in trouble often have turned to — firing the campaign manager or reinforcing that person with some wizened party pooh-bah — almost never to good effect.
Trump circles in recent days have been abuzz with speculation that Trump’s confidence in campaign manager Brad Parscale is shaken or even that he is second-guessing son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. Illustrative of the chatter is gossip that veteran George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove might be taking on an enhanced role. Rove has said he consults episodically with Parscale, but people familiar with his thinking regard it as far-fetched that he would take on a more expansive role.
Mitch McConnell cuts his losses
For most of the Trump years, most Republicans who once disdained Trump have become so acquiescent to him that it may be easy to forget: The president is far from being the only ruthlessly transactional politician in the capital.
One indicator to watch if the president remains in parlous political health is whether leading Republicans — many of whom have long resented Trump — perceive an incentive in distancing themselves from him as the election nears.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, shares an interest in having Trump stay president in order to install conservative judges. But if he perceives Trump is a loser who endangers the GOP’s Senate majority, their interests could violently collide. “At the end of the day, the Senate majority leader wants to be the Senate majority leader,” said another former senior White House official. "He cares about the Senate, he cares about maintaining that majority, so if that means walking away from Trump at some point, he absolutely will.”
A September surprise
In days past, journalists and campaign operatives would entertain themselves with fantasies of an “October Surprise” — some news big enough to change perceptions of candidates or the stakes involved in choosing one over the other just before the November election.
The contemporary variant of that would have to be a September surprise in order to have maximum effect. Many states allow early voting to begin more than six weeks before Nov. 3, Election Day.
Among the candidates most frequently mentioned for a narrative-jolting event: A Supreme Court vacancy in the fall. “I couldn’t even fathom the chaos a [high court] vacancy could bring to this race,” said one GOP operative close to the Trump campaign. “McConnell’s going to go forward, the president’s going to go forward and the left is going to go crazy.”
Other scenarios we heard: Trump baits Twitter with tweets so inflammatory that the social media giant kicks him off the platform. Either big advances or big setbacks in the effort to contain Covid-19. Seismic endorsements, such as Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, resigning from the executive branch and endorsing Biden.
A high temperature and a dry cough
No need to get too macabre or dwell on this at length. It’s just a statement of the obvious that if either Trump or Biden were your aging parent in the midst of a pandemic, you would likely urge them to stay home and avoid any unnecessary human contact. You would not urge people creeping close to the average life expectancy for American men (78.5 years) to run for president, even if they were careful about wearing masks (as Biden apparently is and Trump self-evidently is not).
A rough transition
We should note that the none of the Washington veterans we spoke with is seriously contemplating a constitutional crisis in which Trump contests the election and refuses to leave power, even though this scenario is sometimes invoked on social media and elsewhere.
But multiple sources do find it plausible if Trump loses he might disparage the results as tainted by fraud or other irregularities. A former White House official who worked closely with Trump said, “That will be his rationale and for the rest of his life, we’ll never hear anything but, ‘It was stolen.’ ... He can’t admit that he lost, so how he’ll comfort himself or justify it is that it was stolen.”
One scenario to watch closely if Trump decides to leave the race or loses it: his use of pardon power to insulate allies and family members from any post-presidency legal probes. One point of constitutional ambiguity: Can a president pardon himself?
George Conway, husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and who often publicly lashes Trump, predicted that if Trump loses he will skip the inaugural ceremonies: “I can’t imagine him attending Joe Biden’s inauguration because it would be to him the ultimate humiliation. He would rather blame other people, claim that the election was stolen from him but he’s [departing voluntarily] because he’s a good guy [but in protest] he will not attend the inauguration."
Trump triples down
In some sense, this is the wild scenario that is already underway. Under pressure, Trump is relying on rhetorical themes that have worked for him before — just doing so even more loudly. His July Fourth remarks denouncing a “new far-left fascism” — and tweet Monday knocking NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag — are illustrative.
In some ways, his reelection struggles are offering us a glimpse of an unfamiliar Trump. A business associate who worked with Trump during his early 1990s bankruptcies said his signature was never letting anyone see him sweat.
“I would have been looking for the nearest building to jump off of, and he just remained upbeat all of the time,” Steve Bollenbach, a lender-mandated financial fixer who helped Trump avoid personal bankruptcy and lasting business humiliation, told Trump biographer Tim O’Brien. “I never suspected that he lost a moment’s sleep.”
That recollection is quite different than the image of Trump returning from a disappointing crowd at last month’s rally in Tulsa Okla., when he was photographed tieless, slumped and demoralized, as he departed Marine One.
And POLITICO’s Michael Kruse has written that Trump usually returns to old patterns, in particular the fighting ethos he learned from lawyer and Joseph McCarthy protégé Roy Cohn. “Deflect and distract,” Kruse summarized, “never give in, never admit fault, lie and attack, lie and attack, publicity no matter what, win no matter what, all underpinned by a deep, prove-me-wrong belief in the power of chaos and fear.”
That could make for an interesting second half of 2020.