What next for Donald Trump? That is the question being mulled over in Washington DC even as the US president had a rapidly narrowing – but still existent – path to re-election.
Trump may still win – that must be said. But if he doesn’t, what path could the man who upended the norms of the Oval Office take in the months and years ahead? There are many possibilities.
First of all, we have the next two months. Trump is president and will remain so until at least January 20, 2021 – inauguration day. So his hands, for now, stay on the levers of power.
The most obvious pressing question is whether – should he be defeated – he will accept the result. Unlike every defeated US president in modern times, that remains unclear.
Trump has left little doubt he plans to fight his corner through the courts. A blizzard of lawsuits, some already knocked back, have been submitted by his campaign.
In his address to the nation on Thursday night, Trump predicted the result could end up in the “highest” court in the land. Three of its nine justices were put there by him.
The validity of these legal challenges and whether they could make a difference are open questions. Joe Biden’s campaign is dismissive, calling them “meritless”.
Here, the vote margins are critical. Assuming Biden wins, is it by a single state with less than 1000 votes, or multiple states by tens of thousands of votes?
It is worth recalling the infamous contested 2000 US election, when the result was determined by the Supreme Court more than a month after polls closed, was over a margin of about 500 votes in Florida. Biden may – may – end up winning by a much bigger margin. The vote win margin is critical for the lawsuits, because kicking out tens of thousands of postal ballots is very different from hundreds.
But it also matters because of party dynamics. The cracks have begun to open up in the Republican Party – gaps that will become yawning chasms over the coming years if Trump is indeed booted from office by the electorate.
His sons, lawyer, media supporters and loyalists demanded that Republicans get out and back up the president’s “stolen election” claims on Thursday night.
Some did. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, two Trump-supporting senators who ran for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016 and may do again in 2024, went all-in on Fox News. But many others did not.
Republican senators and Trump were never a match made in heaven. It was a relationship of convenience. They needed him, he needed them. But do they need him now? If senators decide that Biden has clearly won, US elections must be upheld and Trump is on his way out, they may criticise his legal challenges.
That could be where we are heading: Biden, assuming office, pushing forward with the transition; less Trumpy Republicans saying it is over; focus turning to what’s next. Maybe.
In that case, even as Trump’s various legal challenges work their way through the courts and the long process of formalising the election result takes place, life will be moving on.
Let us assume that Trump does not go down the dark path of calling his supporters out onto the streets and refusing to leave office at the inauguration. What comes next?
Business or politics?
The choice, put simply, is this: business or politics? Trump has not been thrown from office in humiliation by voters in a landslide defeat. Far from it. He won at least six million more votes than 2016. He defied the polls, again – although perhaps not by enough. The Republican Party, for now, remains the Trump Party.
There is nothing stopping him from running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. You can already see the narrative that would be laid for such a bid – “the election was stolen from me, the swamp fought back”.He would, admittedly, have to add a third “again” to his 2020 “Make America Great Again, Again” slogan, but it should not be ruled out.
What is more, he could win the nomination. The election results have left no doubt that his base is still loyal. At least 69.5 million people voted for him, more than voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
Perhaps there is a middle path, too. Trump was infamous for teasing election runs that never came true before he took the plunge in 2016, revelling in the attention it brought.
There are reasons he may rather not seek a return. Right now, he can claim (however incorrectly) that he would have won but for election fraud, denying there was a mass voter rebuke. That may not be the case in 2024. He could turn back to the party he transformed only to find it has changed again in four years and picks someone else, or he could get nominated but lose the election.
The possibility of humiliation on a national scale – the great comeback that turned to dust – may make Trump, well-known for sensitivities to coverage about himself, think twice.
But if he does not run, he will still play a major role in who the party picks in 2024. His endorsement could be one of the most sought-after of the Republican primaries. That explains, perhaps, why figures like Cruz and Graham are weighing in publicly on his side over election fraud claims. He will remember who stood with him now.
The president moving away from politics also does not mean there will not be a Trump competing for the 2024 ticket – his children Don Jr and Ivanka are being closely watched.
So if it is not politics, it is likely to be business. Trump’s greatest financial achievement, many argue, was to turn his name into a brand he could monetise across the world.
As the New York Times revelations about his tax returns showed, during The Apprentice he had business success licensing his name to scores of ventures for vast sums.
Now the Trump name is many, many times better known internationally than it was in 2015. Could he pick up where he left on with his business ventures and accelerate?
One project could be the Moscow Trump Tower his team had been pursuing deep into the 2016 campaign, despite denials at the time, or building projects in the Middle East.
Another business avenue has also been much speculated upon: Trump TV. Trump was reported to have been considering setting that up should he have lost the 2016 election.
The ultra-Trumpy One America News Network has been pointed to by pundits as one possible route for him to achieve that, taking it over and making himself the star.
Other relevant claims have always floated around in recent years. One eye-catching one that got tongues wagging was Trump reportedly taking interest in an Apprentice: White House edition.
But whatever plans he could be hatching are not guaranteed to go smoothly. One great, grey cloud looms on the horizon for Trump – the ordinary citizen.
Out of the Oval Office means gone are the presidential protections from prosecution, ones that special counsel Robert Mueller ultimately cited in his Russian election-meddling investigation.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office has been pursuing Trump’s tax records, sending warning signs that, when he leaves government, legal headaches await.
Allegations still remain about whether his hush-money payment to former porn star Stormy Daniels after an alleged affair, which he has denied, breached campaign finance laws.
Where such lines of inquiry lead, their merit and ultimate outcomes, are anyone’s guess –but the chance of Trump facing court battles of his own is not negligible.
One last, tantalising possibility awaits – the ultimate tell-all book. Trump has bemoaned insiders in his administration for writing such works, but in an overlooked moment last month he raised the prospect. “Do I have the all-time great book?” he asked as an aside in a speech with the cameras rolling. “I have the real book.”
Whatever path he takes should he lose this election, do not expect him to disappear from the limelight any time soon.
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