Facing possible defeat, Trump ponders 'leaving the country'

"Maybe I'll have to leave the country," Trump said. It's likely this was a clumsy attempt at humor, though it's a curious thing for him to joke about.
President Donald J. Trump
President Donald J. Trump walks to board Marine One and depart from the South Lawn at the White House on Feb 7, 2020.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Imagesfile

It's become a strange running joke at Donald Trump's campaign rallies: the president keeps telling audiences that they'll never see him in their home state again if he loses the 2020 race. At a recent event in Iowa, for example, the Republican said if he comes up short in the Hawkeye State, "I may never have to come back here again.... I'll never be back." He used the same line in Minnesota, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina.

But campaigning in Georgia on Friday night, Trump used a new line for the first time.

"Could you imagine if I lose? What am I going to do? ... I'm not going to feel so good. Maybe I'll have to leave the country. I don't know."

It's likely this was a clumsy attempt at humor, though it's a curious thing for the president to joke about.

For one thing, Trump has spent several years embracing a performative patriotism, surrounding himself with American symbols as a way to demonstrate love of country. But his apparent joke in Georgia suggests the Republican has actually adopted a conditional patriotism: Trump loves the United States, and plans to stay here, just so long as he believes enough of the electorate loves him back.

What's more, the president weighing the possibility of "leaving" his own country raises notable questions about extradition. As New York's Jon Chait noted over the weekend, "He faces serious legal jeopardy by prosecutors in Manhattan and New York State for what seems to be, on its face, fairly cut-and-dried criminal fraud in his private business dealings. It is also possible that, having left office, prosecutors may turn over some rocks and discover more criminal behavior as president of the United States. (The Department of Justice has a policy of not charging the president with crimes, but that expires if he leaves office.)"

But it's also worth emphasizing that for all of Trump's bravado, chest-thumping, and dubious confidence about an overwhelming 2020 victory, it's likely the president is talking this way because he's slowly coming to terms with the fact that his defeat is a distinct possibility.

As he confronts increasingly long odds, Trump is apparently thinking less about changing his electoral strategy and more about where he might go after Election Day.