Why Trump's lame-duck period is worth watching closely

History offers examples of presidents taking advantage of their lame-duck periods, and it's easy to imagine Trump doing harm in his final days in office.
Image: Donald Trump in Oval Office
President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing on Hurricane Michael in the Oval Office on Oct. 10, 2018.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

Ordinarily, the transition period between presidential administrations is relatively smooth and methodical. The outgoing president and his team start making preparations to vacate their offices, while preparing the incoming team to take the baton. There are occasional reports of practical jokes, but in general, the shift has lacked real drama in recent decades.

But as has become painfully obvious of late, words like "smooth" and "methodical" are rarely associated with Donald Trump and his White House operation.

There's already a problem with the outgoing Republican administration making the transition process more difficult. As the Washington Post reported overnight, the General Services Administration is responsible for making federal resources available to the incoming administration, but as of last night, the Trump-appointed GSA chief, Emily Murphy, "is refusing to sign a letter allowing President-elect Joe Biden's transition team to formally begin its work."

And while we wait for that to be resolved, it's not at all clear just how much damage the Republican incumbent might do before exiting the White House. Matt Ford had a good piece along these lines in The New Republic.

This year, however, Trump's self-interested approach to wielding power could lead to a more chaotic transition than Americans are used to experiencing. Perhaps the greatest constraint on his behavior over the past four years was the knowledge that he would need to run for reelection this year. Now that burden is lifted. Trump is, in some ways, freer to act without fear of political consequences than at any other point in his tenure. The consequences from that flexibility -- or perhaps impunity -- could be profound.

As is always the case, it's difficult to guess what Trump might do or where his next bad idea might come from. Americans can certainly hope that the soon-to-be-former president focuses much of his energies over the next 72 days on his golf game, prying himself from the course only to sign an economic aid package or endorsing meaningful work to address the coronavirus pandemic.

But history offers plenty of examples of American presidents taking aggressive advantage of their lame-duck periods, and it's easy to imagine Trump doing real harm in his final days in office.

I won't pretend to know what the incumbent may have in mind, but it seems the most likely area for abuses will be possible presidential pardons. Andrew Weissmann, a top deputy to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, recently told NPR, "I suspect strongly that if the president does not win re-election, that he is going to pardon a lot more people related to the Trump Organization, his family, people who work there, and even himself."

That, of course, would be a first -- though given what we know about Donald Trump, that may make it more likely to happen, not less.