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Imagine if Donald Trump had gone down a very different path these last few weeks.
He could be taking a victory lap on the lightning-quick success of the vaccine program, now that both the Pfizer and Moderna versions are being rolled out.
He, not Mike Pence, could have received the first televised injection, cheering on the grand hope of vanquishing the pandemic, and taking a leading role in the virus relief bill that is finally passing Congress.
While the rollout has hit some bumps and doesn’t erase his earlier missteps on Covid-19, the president can make the case that he was right and the media that scoffed at the notion of a vaccine by year’s end were flat wrong.
At the same time, Trump could be working with Joe Biden on a smooth handoff to ensure no loss of momentum on health care and the economy, and efforts against Russia for the massive cyber hacking that his own secretary of State has pinned on Moscow.
But that is not Donald J. Trump.
Instead, we have a White House meeting at which martial law and the seizing of voting machines were discussed. Instead, we have the president and his side trying for a third time to get the Supreme Court to overturn election results from Pennsylvania. Instead, we have a Trumpian tweetstorm with such messages as "GREATEST ELECTION FRAUD IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY!!!" and "Republican politicians have to fight so that their great victory is not stolen. Don’t be weak fools!"
The president may well have strategic reasons for continuing this increasingly long-shot battle, even as Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders have congratulated Biden in the wake of the Electoral College vote. He can spend the next four years arguing that he was wrongfully ousted as he remains the de facto leader of the Republican Party and teases the possibility of another run. But it has turned his last months in the White House into the most bitter and unnerving partisan warfare of his stormy term.
Even for a media establishment that openly disdains and mocks the president, this New York Times piece has boosted the hostile attacks into the stratosphere. And that’s because, well, we’ve never seen anything like it.
Trump considered naming Sidney Powell, who was pushed off the campaign legal team, as special counsel to probe election fraud. He listened to Mike Flynn pitch his idea to have the military rerun the election in key states won by Biden. Rudy Giuliani argued that Homeland Security should seize Dominion voting machines–which department officials already told him would be illegal.
Since Mark Meadows and Pat Cippolone pushed back hard on these ideas, you could write it off as just a venting session, like Trump talking about buying Greenland. And Trump tweeted "martial law=Fake News. Just more knowingly bad reporting!", though it’s not clear exactly what he’s denying.
But the Army secretary took it seriously enough to issue a statement saying the military has no role in American elections. And the leak itself, while not uncommon in this White House, showed a pretty high level of concern.
An unnamed official told Axios that Trump "spends his time talking to conspiracy nuts who openly say declaring martial law is no big deal" and "it’s impossible not to start getting anxious about how this ends."
At a news conference yesterday, Bill Barr said he sees "no basis now for seizing machines by the federal government." He said he would appoint a special counsel to investigate election fraud if that was appropriate, but sees no need for one. (He also finds no reason to name a special counsel to further probe Hunter Biden.)
Of course, the president and some of his loyalists have now soured on the attorney general–who critics dismissed as a Trump loyalist–for doing his job. And by the way, Barr’s resignation means tomorrow is his last day.
Trump has a history of entertaining ideas that strike many of his aides as bizarre or dangerous, but most of the time nothing actually happens. That could be the case here as well.
The media, which often crank it up to 11 on Trump controversies, is now at about a 15. I know many Trump supporters believe the election was rigged, but he has lost every big court battle and what Flynn and Giuliani and Powell are talking about is really out there.
CNN White House correspondent John Harwood said the meeting took place because "the president himself is a kook," which I suppose is notch down from having previously called him a "psychopath."
Trump could have the country’s attention riveted on life-saving vaccines and helping the jobless and struggling small businesses. Instead, he’s waging a war he seems destined to lose.
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