American troops probably won’t take to the streets over the next few weeks to keep President Donald Trump in the White House — but not necessarily because Trump doesn’t want them to. The New York Times over the weekend reported that the president had “asked about” deploying the military to impose martial law and re-do the presidential election — already fairly won by Joe Biden, the Democrat — to obtain a better result for Trump. The idea was rejected by some of his top aides, the Army wants no part of it, and Trump himself denied the discussion had occurred.
Still, the report raised the possibility that we still haven’t seen the worst days of this presidency.
That would be unusual. Just one month remains before Biden’s inauguration. This is the stage after the election when the outgoing executive is usually dreaming of vacation, book deals, and presidential libraries. But Trump is a different case. He continues to scheme fruitlessly to hold onto his job, no matter the cost to the country, and all the worst people have his ear.
Which means there is still plenty of time for this president to do more damage to the country.
The idea for martial law reportedly came from Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s recently pardoned former national security advisor and, more recently, a QAnon conspiracy enthusiast. According to the Times, Trump also entertained the idea of appointing Sidney Powell — purveyor of some of Trumpland’s more bizarre conspiracy theories — as a special counsel to investigate her false allegations of election fraud. And Rudy Giuliani reportedly wants the Department of Homeland Security to seize swing-state voting machines. Taken together, the proposals alarmed the remaining Trump advisors who still have a foot planted in reality.
“I’ve been covering Donald Trump for a while. I can’t recall hearing more intense concern from senior officials who are actually Trump people,” Axios‘ Jonathan Swan tweeted on Saturday. “The Sidney Powell / Michael Flynn ideas are finding an enthusiastic audience at the top.”
All this takes place while the COVID-19 pandemic grows ever deadlier. More than 18,000 people have died of the coronavirus within the last week. That’s horrific — and will only get more so — but the president seems completely uninterested in the carnage.
Trump, in other words, is doing little to ameliorate the deadly problem we do have, while expending his energy and passions on a doomed effort to overturn the expressed will of the voters. The combination of willful impotence and Ahab-like obsession would usually be pathetic. For the next few weeks, though — and this is the important part — Trump remains one of the most powerful human beings on the planet.
The problem is compounded by the way bad ideas and bad people tend to enter and remain in Trump’s orbit. The president once fired Flynn because Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contact with the Russians; now Flynn is advising Trump how to steal the election. Just a few weeks ago, Trump’s campaign distanced itself from Powell after her election theories proved embarrassingly outlandish. Now Trump proposes giving her federal prosecutorial powers. (She was back in the White House on Sunday night, continuing to pitch investigations.) The specter of martial law has been raised and rejected, but this tendency means it wouldn’t be a surprise if we hear about it again within the next few days.
There isn’t much, if anything, that can be done about this situation. A #25thAmendment hashtag trended Sunday on Twitter, but it is impossible to imagine Pence and Trump’s collection of acting cabinet secretaries being audacious enough to functionally depose their boss. Another impeachment isn’t going to happen, and Republicans in the Senate wouldn’t convict, anyway. The best bet, for now, might be to try to ride out the crisis of Trump’s last weeks, then work for reform after he has left Washington.
For now, though, thousands of our fellow citizens are dying every day while the president rejects the plain obligations of democracy. The United States at the end of 2020 is in terrible shape, perhaps the worst in living memory. Under President Trump, though, things can always get worse.