In His Final Month in Office, Trump Works Overtime to Drag the GOP Down With Him
Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brockway / The Daily Beast / Getty
President Donald Trump spent his final weeks in office as he did in years past: he set fire to the relationships that underpinned his rise to power.
In the past few days, the president has held primaries against senior Republicans, displaced administrative officials who were base allies, threatened key bills drawn up in collaboration with his team, and attacked officials who did not help him hold on to power . The response in the White House to all of this has been alarming, along with resignation that this is the 45th President's approach. Trump's deep self-interest is no secret. But never before has this feature been so visible against the background of this consistency, as his attack on the democratic processes of his legal team and administration was so obviously anti-democratic.
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"The president spent much of the Christmas weekend [in Mar-a-Lago] talking about other Republicans who were not doing what he wanted and behaving like failures and defeatists," said one person in his private Club present in Florida was received at the end of his complaints. Even behind closed doors, the source said, "He didn't find much to look forward to this Christmas."
But Trump's actions also raise questions about his future. And they have - once again - illuminated the fundamental paradox behind his political ascent: How can someone burn so many bridges and ultimately not find himself alone?
“He's no longer the famous Mughal magnate he was in New York, and now he's part of ... that exclusive Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush Club, ”said Sam Nunberg, a Trump supporter and former political advisor. “He didn't go out of his way to maintain that power base, which he now had to go through conspiracy theories and hand over the portfolio to two fools in Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell… they don't want to go out with him like that. It's not like you're in a bunker at the end of WWII. You're in Crazy Town. "
Trump has always distinguished himself as an iconoclast. His audacity even stood out in New York City in the 1980s. His love of attention left him gauche among his contemporaries. He initially considered running for independent president. And even when he secured the Republican Party nomination, it did so as part of a hostile takeover.
One surprise of his tenure is that he was so firmly stuck with a traditional Republican agenda. But Trump was never really part of the party, at least in no way recognizable to someone like his deputy Mike Pence. He wasn't a traditional politician either. He showed no loyalty to his aides or other GOP lawmakers or his cabinet members. He sacked people on Twitter, ridiculed his GOP critics, ran away from renegades, and chastised the leadership if they disagreed.
And yet, in recent days, even by these standards, insiders have found their destructiveness shocking. Trump has attacked Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for admitting that Joe Biden is the president-elect. He has threatened Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) For failing to participate in efforts to block the election certificate. He drove from Attorney General Bill Barr for not doing enough to overturn the election with departmental resources. He attacked his White House attorney, Pat Cipollone, for failing to support authoritarian initiatives such as the seizure of voting machines. and he struck a deal to allow Morocco to annex Western Sahara, in part in retaliation against Senator James Inhofe (an opponent of the annexation), who wouldn't use a major defense bill to track down social media giants like Trump. He attacked the Republican leadership in Georgia as the state prepares for a runoff election that could determine control of the US Senate.
Most recently, he took a torch on a COVID relief bill negotiated by his own finance minister and threatened not to sign a state funding bill for provisions that largely met the requirements of his own budget office. And for those who have complained that his behavior was erratic and deeply problematic, he put out two huge middle fingers.
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"I don't care," Trump said in recent days of private, conservative criticism of his rejection of the financial bills, according to two people familiar with the matter. Instead, Trump has accused his GOP stalwarts of not doing enough for him, the sources said. One person speaking to Trump told softly, reminding the president that his move towards relief laws could make life difficult for his Republican allies in DC and Georgia, only to respond to Trump by saying (as this source paraphrased) "Well, that's life." The president then quickly turned to grumble about how these Republican elected officials should focus more on 2020 election fraud and undo Joe Biden's clear victory, complaining that they Didn't fight aggressively enough or had a unified front, the source said.
That Trump would disregard his party in a time of need and turn on the best helpers certainly could not have come as a surprise to those at the short end of the exchange. Few, if any, relationships with Trump end in a better place than where they started.
Take Nunberg. When he joined Trump's campaign it was despite the fact that Trump - in his words - "had screwed my father's company out of the money". But the past can be the past and Nunberg said he saw something historical in what Trump did. So he got in. And it worked for a while. Until it didn't happen. He was fired after racist Facebook posts were discovered on his page. He claimed they weren't his at the time, but later apologized for the posts in an interview with MSNBC.
The Trump campaign quickly distanced itself from Nunberg and Trump sued his former election worker in 2016 for $ 10 million. He alleged that he breached a confidentiality agreement by speaking to the press. The two settled the lawsuit later that year.
In retrospect, Nunberg believes that Trump "ruined my career". And he won't be the only one either, he predicts. "Hope Hicks," he said, "should have stayed with Fox [Corps]." Corey Lewandowski, he predicted of the one-time Trump 2016 campaign manager and his archenemy, "will be back to a low rental price in New Hampshire in no time."
Others have even less definite futures. Senior administrators like John McEntee and Dan Scavino have worked to a great extent in the Trump White House, with the former serving as the president's purge leader, the latter one of Trump's most trusted advisors and conductor of much of the in-house social media and MAGA messaging. Both are avatars of the Republican operator, who at this point is so closely associated with the outgoing president that it is hard to imagine their public life as a vehicle without him. Trump's 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, suffered notable public stigma after he was ousted from his post and the police were called to his home. Other aides were forced to endure legal drama and the massive bills that came with it - political isolation and uncertain returns for the private sector. Some have been pardoned in the past few days. But these pardons carry some kind of shame.
For his part, Nunberg couldn't explain why people are drawn to Trump because they know the harm he will do to them. Some, he guessed, want power close by. Others believe they can shape it. Many see that money can be made with it. But much of it was a mystery.
"I don't know. I don't know. I don't know," said Nunberg. "I was the one who was mistreated worse by someone."
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