Is This a Coup, or Just Another Trump Con?

Ever since Saturday morning, when Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 Presidential election, Donald Trump has been hunk...




Ever since Saturday morning, when Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 Presidential election, Donald Trump has been hunkered down in the White House, refusing to concede defeat, raising money for an “election-defense task force,” and pushing vague conspiracy theories about voter fraud to his millions of followers. That part we expected. What was not entirely clear in advance was how Republicans, when faced with decisive results pointing to Biden’s victory in every single one of the remaining battleground states, would choose to respond. It turns out they have reacted as they have to virtually all of Trump’s norm-shattering behavior for the last four years: by enabling it.

The exceptions, as of this writing, have remained so few as to be notable and, at the national level, countable on two hands: four sitting senators who have dared to call Biden the President-elect (Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse), a handful of House members, a few governors, and a host of formers, including former President George W. Bush. Another half-dozen or so Republican senators, trying to split the difference, have stopped short of congratulating Biden or calling him the next President, but say that Trump should at least let the official transition process begin or allow Biden to start receiving intelligence briefings. On Thursday morning, when Governor Mike DeWine, Republican of Ohio, said on CNN, “Joe Biden is the President-elect,” it was treated as breaking news. Merely acknowledging basic math, it seems, is now considered an act of political courage. More foreign leaders have so far acknowledged the outcome of the American election than Republican Party officials. Needless to say, this is not a good look for the world’s longest-running constitutional democracy.

At times, during this unnerving week in America’s capital, it has felt as though we were watching events unfold in Minsk or Kyiv, or some other dictator stronghold, where elections are not stolen the day votes are cast but in the weeks afterward, as the defeated President holes up in his palace, defying reality and increasingly urgent crowds in the streets. Here in Minsk-on-the-Potomac, Trump has been perpetrating the Big Lie, claiming the election was stolen from him and apparently persuading millions of Americans to go along with this evidence-free fantasy. Biden, so far, has urged calm. It’s an “embarrassment,” he told reporters Tuesday in Wilmington, Delaware, where he continued to plan his transition, took congratulatory phone calls from world leaders, and appointed a White House chief of staff. The official line from Biden has been clear and simple: concession or no concession, Trump will have to leave office at noon on January 20th, and that is that.

But is it? That we are reduced to even asking this question is a defeat for the United States and a win not only for Trump but for all the Trumpists to come, who will forever have the example of a President of the United States flouting the most basic principle of American democracy: accepting the election results and the consequences that come with them.

On Monday, after a weekend of jubilation in America’s heavily Democratic big cities—where the unofficial anthem was a rap song by YG, “Fuck Donald Trump”— the President left off sulking on the golf course long enough to fire the Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper. He was “terminated,” Trump tweeted at around noon.

I found out about the Pentagon chief’s ouster from Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House communications director, who has since become a fierce critic of Trump, as we were about to start an interview. It seemed somehow appropriate to hear the news of this latest firing from someone whose own short-lived tenure in the Administration—a mere eleven days—has since become a unit of measurement signifying the attenuated life cycle of a Trump-era official. Scaramucci has fully embraced the linguistic legacy of his brief government service. Trump, he told me, “will have been President for 132.78 Scaramuccis, and unfortunately right now for the country we have six and a half more Scaramuccis to go. I think the last six are going to be really tough on the country, because the guy’s basically a sore loser and a big-time baby.”

Trump himself has declined to offer an explanation for just what exactly he is doing. Throughout the week, he remained publicly silent, aside from various tweets denouncing the “Rigged Election,” complaining that Fox News has abandoned him, and insisting, “WE WILL WIN!” At the same time, unnamed senior Administration officials and outside advisers to the President told reporters that Trump was not, in fact, serious about defying the election results to remain in office. With Biden on track to receive far more than the two hundred and seventy votes needed to win the Electoral College, Trump was reported to be “very aware there is not a path to victory,” as the NBC correspondent Peter Alexander put it. Others suggested that the President’s intransigence was merely a “circus,” a “performance,” or a temper tantrum that would amount to nothing. Republicans, it was said, were just humoring Trump, or giving him time to accept his fate, or helping to boost turnout in the upcoming Georgia runoff elections that will decide control of the Senate. Scaramucci theorized that maybe Trump would simply retreat to Mar-a-Lago, his winter home in Palm Beach, and never come back to the White House.

As for the firing of Esper, what appeared to be an act of pure vengeance by Trump began to seem even more sinister after the subsequent ouster of several of the Defense Secretary’s senior advisers. Was this a sweeping purge that might presage more worrisome acts to come? Some analysts called the post-election firings a “decapitation strike.” Many theorized that the White House power play might have something to do with pulling troops out of Afghanistan and the Middle East—something that Pentagon officials have been publicly feuding about with Trump’s national-security adviser, Robert O’Brien. Or maybe it was about politicizing intelligence. Or defending Trump in the case of a truly contested succession. What seemed clear was that the regime loyalists installed in key posts at the Defense Department and the National Security Agency weren’t there just to add a line to their résumés.

Even after a full four years of watching Trump, this might have been the most unsettling, and uncertain, few days in his Presidency. On Monday, as Republicans made clear that they would not publicly challenge Trump’s election denialism, there were moments when I worried this really was the power grab we’ve spent the past few years dreading. By late in the week, it seemed more like much of the tumult of the era: terrible for democracy, but ultimately a bad case of Trumpian bluster rather than an ominous portent of tanks in the streets. In private, the President reportedly was already telling advisers he would like to run again in 2024, which at least sounded a lot less like a man who plans to barricade himself in the White House rather than leave in January.

On Thursday, five days into this insane impasse, I asked a dozen of the smartest Washington hands I know what to make of it all: Was this a coup in the making, or just another Trump con? Taken together, their responses were modestly reassuring. “A little coup, a lot of con, and a total and reckless disregard for the health of our democracy or country,” William Kristol, the conservative leader of the Never Trump movement, told me. “He couldn’t organize a one-car funeral; he sure as hell can’t organize a coup,” a leading Republican pollster, who worked with a number of the Party’s candidates this election and asked not to be named, said. “Besides, a coup would not stand. It would end the best way possible for the G.O.P.—with him dead or in jail. He doesn’t want either of those, so it’s a con.”

Brendan Buck, a Republican strategist who served as a top adviser to former House Speaker Paul Ryan, called Trump’s actions this week “a national embarrassment,” but also “a fantasy with no endgame” that will “not change anything other than eroding confidence in elections among Republicans.” The dénouement of whatever this is, Tom Davis, a former Republican member of Congress, told me, will come when states begin certifying the election results over the next few weeks. “Republicans know that Biden’s won. They’re just giving him room,” he said, of Trump. “When these are certified, this all crashes and burns.”

Several of them said the Pentagon firings—and the threat of additional firings, of officials like the F.B.I. director, Christopher Wray, and the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel—were even more worrisome than the spectre of Trump refusing to leave office in January. “The Pentagon purges are most troubling because there are two months remaining,” William Antholis, the director of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, who has studied Presidential transitions and their national-security risks, said. Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, an N.G.O. that supports democracy around the world, told me that Trump’s moves resembled “authoritarian tactics” used elsewhere. “Will it be successful in helping President Trump keep power? I don’t think so,” Abramowitz said. “But is it a chilling move and a bad precedent? Very much so.” Perhaps the best-case version of what is going on came from Kori Schake, a Republican who served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and is now at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. She told me the Pentagon firings were a “spiteful indulgence rather than an ominous policy move.”

Miles Taylor, the former Department of Homeland Security chief of staff who later outed himself as the Anonymous author of a scathing anti-Trump Op-Ed in the Times and book, may have summed up the whole sorry episode best. Trump’s outrageous behavior since the election that rendered him the first one-term President in three decades is the latest, the worst, and the most worrisome example yet, he told me, of “Trumpism gone wild”—which strikes me as both quite accurate and not at all reassuring.


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Newsrust: Is This a Coup, or Just Another Trump Con?
Is This a Coup, or Just Another Trump Con?
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