It may be hard to comprehend that the world’s sole superpower, the United States, has a fatal flaw in its system of handover from one president to another. The flaw has rarely shown up except in rare circumstances as now, with the defeated Donald Trump in office.
Elections were held on November 3 and within a week the results were out. Officially, the results will be confirmed on December 14. The handover from Trump to Biden will happen on January 20, almost 70 days after the results were first out – a period when the outgoing so-called lame-duck president remains in office. Lame-duck should technically mean a president with his powers curtailed but in the US the president retains his powers.
Contrary to convention, Trump, more than a month after his electoral defeat, is yet to concede the election to winner Joe Biden, meaning he has not categorically accepted defeat. Instead, he has attempted to stymie in several ways including legally challenging the mandate of the US electorate which resoundingly voted him out. So far, he has drawn a blank with the courts on this count.
What has not been highlighted enough is the fact that a defeated Trump with all his powers intact has the capability to inflict enormous damage. As president, he still retains his immunity and is protected from prosecution. Any mess he creates will have to be cleaned up by his successor-in-waiting Biden.
The recent assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was widely reported to be the handiwork of the Trump administration in connivance with Israel and Saudi Arabia, all sworn enemies of Iran.
Trump walked out of the nuclear peace deal signed with Iran in 2018, signed by his predecessor Barack Obama. The incoming president Biden had made it clear he wanted to re-engage with Iran and retrieve the deal. Unable to countenance that, Trump and his cohorts were seen to be sabotaging any possible make-up with Iran by killing Fakhrizadeh.
In fact, reacting to the assassination, a top Iranian official said they feared what else Trump might do before he left office on January 20.
The disaster could have been bigger had Trump gone ahead with his original plan. A New York Times report said Trump had asked his close aides if the US could mount an attack on Iran’s top nuclear site at Natanz. His advisers asked him not to. Instead, the nuclear scientist was killed in a targeted assassination.
What this shows is that a president who has lost elections and has to make way for the incoming candidate is a veritable loose cannon. Unaccountable, powerful and as the head of the most feared military in the world, if the president turns ‘rogue’ the damage could be incalculable.
Paradoxically, Western analysts have the habit of warning the world of the damage that someone like dictator Kim-Jong-un of nuclear North Korea can do or, for that matter, if the leader of an extreme group comes to power in any country. Trump has shown that none can match the destructive potential of a ‘rogue’ US president.
Trump, who has been criticised by a section of his own colleagues and officials in the Republican party for his refusal to accept the popular mandate, is smarting from his defeat and is easily that individual who the world would be relieved to see depart office. But that is still more than a month away. Trump has a precedent, though.
Way back, after the Great Depression, in the 1935 election, the defeated Republican president Herbert Hoover did all he could to prevent a smooth handover of power to his Democratic successor Franklin Roosevelt. At the time, the handover of power used to occur in March, some four months after the voting and results of elections.
Roosevelt, in what is known as the New Deal, had planned an array of policies that involved borrowing large amounts of money to construct new infrastructure including roads, bridges, dams etc. The idea was to create jobs, create demand and stave off the Great Economic Depression at the time. The Republicans were opposed to this plan as it meant a deeper state involvement in the economy which went against their ideological plank of a free market and limited government.
Hoover attempted to arm-twist Roosevelt into giving up the plan. But Roosevelt did not and the New Deal eventually turned out to be one of the most successful undertakings by any government anywhere.
As with Trump, Hoover was not short of vanity. He reportedly constituted a team to write favourable reports of his tenure and create documents supportive of his decisions as president.
But probably the most destructive move was Hoover’s attempts to block any relief to banks, many of which were in serious trouble and in danger of collapse. As a report in Time online puts it, “Federal Reserve officials and lawyers advised the president that he had the power to close the banks temporarily, providing time for officials to inspect their books and guarantee their safety, thus restoring financial confidence.” But Hoover refused to oblige.
Fortunately, before damage was done, Roosevelt took over. He, along with sympathetic Republican officials and his own party colleagues, moved swiftly and managed to aid in the recovery of the overall economy.
Having learnt a lesson, under the 20th amendment, the handover was brought forward from March to January.
In the case of Trump, it is not just the outside world that needs to fear an unhitched president. Even within the United States, Trump has attempted to push through some of his pet peeves. For example, the outgoing president needs to sign an annual authorisation bill to continue with the basic functioning of the government including the military.
Trump has threatened to veto the bill unless his proposal that some federal installations be named after confederate leaders be accepted. This issue is controversial as the confederates are viewed by the establishment as traitors who seceded from the Union resulting in the civil war between 1861-1865.
In general, any decision Trump takes through executive order can be reversed by Biden. But, others that impinge on national security, foreign policy and criminal justice are far more complicated and cannot be easily overturned.
The outgoing Trump is apparently planning to issue a list of pardons and commutation sentences of people involved in the controversial involvement of Russia during the 2016 elections in which Trump was elected as president. This, however, is a practice that most presidents including Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have exercised before they left office.
According to the investigative website ProPublica, the Justice Department under Trump is planning to reintroduce the death penalty by firing squad and electrocutions at the federal level, the exact opposite of Biden who is planning to abolish the federal death penalty.
Continuing with his scepticism of climate change, Trump is expected to lift limits on pollution in what is being termed a policy that will make it easier to pollute. During his term in office, he reportedly nullified some 125 climate-protecting rules. Biden is pro-environment and has a task in hand reversing his predecessor’s decisions.
The point, however, is while Trump was well within his rights to bring in any rules during his four-year tenure, his moves as lame-duck president is what has alarmed large sections of Americans. Already, he has blocked a smooth transition with his policy of non-cooperation with reports there is more drama in the offing before January 20.
Finally, Trump is expected to do what no other president has done, which is pardoning himself from any future attempts to prosecute him regarding his personal business and financial practices, among other shenanigans. This again is an untested area, as with many others hidden away in the labyrinths of the US politico-legal maze.
Each loophole in the system is proving to be a can of worms that ideally should be plugged before another president like Trump comes along and inflicts irreversible damage. For the sake of the world, if not for the US.