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Michelle Goldberg: The post-presidency of a con man

Michelle Goldberg: The post-presidency of a con man

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It’s hard to tell whether Donald Trump is attempting a coup or throwing a tantrum.

Crying voter fraud, his administration has refused to begin a presidential transition despite his decisive electoral defeat. Some Republicans have floated the idea of getting legislatures in states that Joe Biden won to disregard vote totals and instead appoint pro-Trump electors to the Electoral College. The president has decapitated the Pentagon, putting fanatical loyalists in some of its highest ranks. Anthony Tata, who called Barack Obama a “terrorist leader” and tweeted a lurid fantasy about the execution of former CIA Director John Brennan, is now the Pentagon’s policy chief. This is all supremely alarming.

But there’s cause for comfort, of a sort, in signs that the president is preparing for life outside the White House in exactly the way one would expect — by initiating new grifts. Trump has been sending out frantic fundraising requests to “defend the election,” but as The New York Times reports, most of the money is actually going to a political action committee, Save America, that “will be used to underwrite Trump’s post-presidential activities.” Axios reports that Trump is considering starting a digital media company to undermine Fox News, which he now regards as disloyal.

These moves suggest that while Trump may be willing to torch American democracy to salve his wounded ego, at least part of him is getting ready to leave office.

When he finally does, some political observers and Republican professionals assume he’ll remain a political kingmaker, and will be a favorite for the party’s nomination in 2024. The Times reported, “Allies imagined other Republicans making a pilgrimage to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida seeking his blessing.” Sen. Marco Rubio told The Daily Beast’s Sam Brodey, “If he runs in 2024, he’ll certainly be the front-runner, and then he’ll probably be the nominee.”

Maybe. There’s no doubt that Trump has a cultlike hold on his millions of worshippers, and a unique ability to command public attention. But there are reasons to think that when he is finally ejected from the White House, he will become a significantly diminished figure.

Once Trump is no longer president, he is likely to be consumed by lawsuits and criminal investigations. Hundreds of millions of dollars in debt will come due. Lobbyists and foreign dignitaries won’t have much of a reason to patronize Mar-a-Lago or his Washington hotel. Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch could complete the transition from Trump’s enabler to his enemy. And, after four years of cartoonish self-abasement, Republicans with presidential aspirations will have an incentive to help take him down.

“His whole life he’s been involved in a bunch of litigation,” said superstar liberal attorney Roberta Kaplan. But post-presidency, “I have to assume that, given the amount of civil litigation and potential criminal exposure, it’s going to be at a completely new dimension.”

Kaplan is pursuing three high-profile lawsuits against Trump, including writer E. Jean Carroll’s defamation case. Carroll, you might remember, accused Trump of raping her in a department store dressing room during the 1990s. Trump called her a liar, and she’s suing him for damaging her reputation.

Under Attorney General Bill Barr, the Department of Justice has tried to shut down the suit, arguing that Trump was acting in his official capacity when he said Carroll had made up the story to sell books. In October a judge rejected the department’s theory, but had Trump been reelected, Kaplan expected an appeal.

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