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The last months of Trump's first presidential term will be brutal

A growing pandemic, a furious commander-in-chief, and Rudy Giuliani — what could possibly go wrong?
Image: The concrete fence outside the white house has a red overlay
President Donald Trump is hunkering down in the White House for a very stressful winter.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

There are now 2½ months left in the first — and possibly only — term of the Trump administration. This post-election lame duck period is normally uneventful, mostly focused on keeping the lights on between Congresses and occupants of the White House. But because 2020 refuses to give us the least bit of comfort or time to breathe, these next months are much more likely to be among the worst of the last four years.

President Donald Trump shows no sign of conceding even as former Vice President Joe Biden's performance in key states looks like it just may net him enough electoral votes to win. Instead, Trump is, as expected, grasping for any chance that he can remain in office. While he blatantly lies on Twitter about Biden's attempting to steal the election, his campaign is launching a scattershot legal effort across the battleground states to heighten distrust of the official results.

Trump's campaign has already said it plans to file for a recount in Wisconsin, because of Biden's reported 20,000-vote lead. Under state law, though, that challenge can't be filed until the beginning of December. Even former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — no stranger to recounts — seems pragmatic about the chances of success here.

Trump's campaign is also eyeing both getting the courts to ensure that every single solitary vote is counted — because, democracy — and halting the evil, terrible, deeply horrible practice of counting every vote. A meme swept through the Trumpsphere on Twitter that said ballots that Arizona Republicans filled out in Sharpie were at risk of being tossed. They're absolutely not, the Arizona secretary of state has said, but the Trump campaign is keeping an eye out for any way to potentially flip the state back to red.

In Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania, though, Trump's lawyers are demanding that vote-counting be stopped entirely, so ballots can be "reviewed." Campaign officials in Michigan aren't able to access "numerous counting locations," the Trump team said in a statement, prompting a lawsuit seeking to "halt counting until meaningful access has been granted. We also demand to review those ballots which were opened and counted while we did not have meaningful access."

In Georgia, the Trump campaign and state GOP's filing is limited to the count in Chatham County, home to the city of Savannah, alleging that late ballots are being illegally mixed in with the rest. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania — the prima donna of this election cycle — Trump is also looking for a temporary halt in counting because of "transparency." He's also keeping his eye on the Supreme Court as a potential ace in the hole to get rid of the pesky mail-in ballots, which, as of Wednesday afternoon, were breaking hard toward Biden. The campaign filed a motion to intervene in a case the state's Republican Party had filed, asking the court to block potentially thousands of ballots that could arrive by the deadline Friday.

And in case you thought this legal battle was set to be boring and not an absolute trash fire, don't worry — it will definitely be a trash fire. With all the misinformation flowing out there, heightened and boosted by the president, expect a lot more moments like this one in Nevada on Wednesday:

Speaking of misinformation, Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani is on the case, making this entire process that much more awful. He showed up in Philadelphia to join Trump's legal team and gave a presser that was almost impressively devoid of facts. His rambling was so intense that Fox News opted to cut away to project that Biden would win Michigan.

As that havoc is playing out in the judicial branch, the executive branch is much more at risk of directly feeling Trump's wrath. These coming weeks could see a historic wave of terminations coming out of the Oval Office. He may or may not be president after January, but that doesn't mean he can't get rid of some of the officials who have been lacking in the debasing-level of servitude that he demands.

FBI Director Christopher Wray is reportedly near the top of that list. Even after the firing of James Comey prompted Robert Mueller's investigation, Trump still hasn't accepted that the FBI isn't his personal goon squad. He's spent months now wondering with increasing volume why the FBI is being a bunch of dummies and focusing on right-wing agitators instead of his political enemies.

Joining Wray on the possible chopping block are Defense Secretary Mark Esper and CIA Director Gina Haspel. Esper earned Trump's ire for publicly disagreeing with him over deploying military units into "Democrat-run" cities as Trump wanted over the summer when Black Lives Matter protests were at their peak. Trump has shown little concern about installing appointees without Senate approval, making whoever he chooses to sit at the Pentagon more likely to agree with him on turning armed forces against protesters.

Haspel, meanwhile, hasn't gone along with National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe's plans to declassify unverified materials that would help sow doubt about the Russia investigation. A new CIA chief and a new FBI director in lockstep with Ratcliffe could direct the intelligence services more directly at political enemies in a backslide to the days of President Richard Nixon.

Getting rid of all three would be considered a proverbial bloodbath in any other administration, one that could have serious repercussions for the resilience of any remaining guardrails against Trump's further abusing the state security services. But that wipeout pales in comparison to the absolute massacre that Trump laid the groundwork for in October.

An executive order he signed would "reclassify thousands of professional civil service jobs as 'political,' thus permitting the president to replace professionals and experts throughout the federal government — who swear an oath to the Constitution, not to any president — with sycophants," as MSNBC Daily columnist Brett McGurk explained.

In theory, Trump could fire all of these officials in one fell swoop, either immediately filling some of their positions with loyalists or leaving the government's ranks depleted for a Biden administration to scramble to fill. All in all, it's a situation set to make the Midnight Judges at the center of the landmark legal case Marbury v. Madison look like a thunderstorm compared to a hurricane in terms of damage.

As all this high drama is playing out, Covid-19 isn't going to take a break just because our political system is in a state of chaos. It was somehow only on Monday that The Washington Post reported that Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, has been issuing increasingly dire warnings that the country is, in so many words, absolutely screwed this winter.

But Birx's calls for "much more aggressive action from messaging, to testing, to surging personnel around the country before the crisis point" are likely to fall on deaf ears. If the president didn't care about managing the pandemic before the election, he's not going to suddenly start caring now.

Instead, we're likely due two months in which the federal government spins its wheels in the face of upward of 90,000 new Covid-19 cases per day, as there were on Election Day. Democrats look like they might have fallen just short of their bid to capture control of the Senate — Georgia's two Senate races are too close to call, possibly prompting runoffs in each of them in January that would decide the majority. Either way, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is in the driver's seat for what's left of the 116th Congress. McConnell had dangled the prospect of coronavirus relief after the election, but without Trump as a north star to guide their voting bloc, it's back to basics for Senate Republicans. A possible Biden administration waiting in the wings means now is not the time for big spending. Not when there's at least two years of obstructing Biden and the House's progressive plans still to come if the Senate doesn't flip.

The Senate's failure to take up any of the House's proposals will mean at least two more months of suffering for people whose unemployment insurance has run out, two more months of hospital systems' coming to the brink of collapse, two more months in the depths of winter in which people are struggling to keep roofs over their families' heads and pay the heating bills.

With any luck, we'll have the election fully decided in the coming weeks, far ahead of the deadline for the Electoral College to cast its votes. That would take at least one uncertainty off the table, even if it would do little to improve what lies ahead. It still would mean a long, dark winter for most Americans — one full of death, disorder and despair — in a fitting, tragic finale to Trump's first term.