WASHINGTON — After President Trump began his last two weeks in office by inciting a deadly insurrection, what could his final days hold?
Some of his closest allies have abandoned him and condemned his actions leading up to Wednesday’s violence at the Capitol. Aides and two Cabinet secretaries resigned and others are considering it. Questions are being raised about his mental state. And congressional Democratic leaders are calling him a threat to the nation’s democracy and urging his removal from office.
As the Trump presidency winds down, there is a growing fear of what he might do next.
“While it’s only 13 days left, any day can be a horror show for America,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday, calling Trump “a dangerous man.” “My phone is exploding with ‘impeach, impeach.’ The president must be held accountable — again.”
Lawmakers, national security experts, and political analysts said one thing is clear: The nation stands at a critical and fragile moment.
“It will take a few days to see how much of this is a sign of things to come or something that is exceptional and not to be repeated,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy at the University of California Riverside, said of the mob violence at the Capitol.
The chaos in Washington has plunged a presidential transition that was already dangerously rocky further into the unknown. National security experts, historians, and political leaders said the violence at the country’s most iconic building exposed a fundamental breakdown in the country’s defenses. It also was the culmination of four years of Trump mainstreaming white supremacy, spewing racist rhetoric, and empowering hate groups, leading to upticks in hate crimes and fueling armed protests at state capitol buildings across the country.
“We wish we could say we couldn’t see it coming,” President-elect Joe Biden said Thursday. “But that isn’t true.”
Trump finally said there would be “an orderly transition” of power in a statement early Thursday morning after Congress certified the Electoral College votes, the last formal step before Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20. But Trump’s commitment came after weeks of spreading false election fraud claims and the attack on the Capitol by supporters he fired up to protest his election loss.
National security experts, top Democratic congressional leaders, and at least one House Republican, Adam Kinzinger, called for Trump’s Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. Thirteen House Democrats, including Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and David Cicilline of Rhode Island, unveiled a resolution to impeach Trump for a second time, a step that Pelosi told reporters was overwhelmingly favored by her caucus — and, she asserted, the American people — after Wednesday’s “acts of sedition and acts of cowards.”
Massachusetts Representative Katherine Clark, one of Pelosi’s top lieutenants, called the few remaining days of Trump’s presidency “a great risk for the nation’s security.”
“All of his 60 lawsuits have failed, the election is certified, and I am very concerned on what that is going to mean for what he is willing to do to hold on to power,” she told the Globe.
Inversely, John Kelly, a former Trump Homeland Security secretary and White House chief of staff, saw a silver lining in that time frame. “The one thing we have going for us is it’s only 13 more days,” he told CNN, after saying he would vote to remove Trump from office under the 25th Amendment if he were still in the Cabinet.
Other presidents have been deemed ill-fit to govern in their final days in power.
Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith Wilson, quietly ran the country his last weeks in office when he was relatively incapacitated by a stroke. Franklin Delano Roosevelt leaned on his staff because of poor health before he died in office. And Richard Nixon’s defense secretary later said he was so concerned about Nixon’s mental state in the face of impeachment that he told military commanders that any order for a nuclear strike needed to be cleared by him or the national security adviser.
But none of those occurred in the midst of a presidential transition, a deadly pandemic, and the kind of demagoguery generated by Trump, said William Inboden, who heads the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. The concerns about the nation’s security were underscored when defense and administration officials reportedly consulted with Vice President Mike Pence, not Trump, to deploy the DC National Guard to try to quell Wednesday’s violence.
“We are here in uncharted and very perilous territory with a fundamental breakdown in the chain of command,” said Inboden, who as a congressional staffer in 1998 had his own brush with a Capitol lockdown when a gunman broke in and killed two Capitol Police officers. “It seems pretty clear that the commander in chief is now disconnected from the rest of his government, including potentially the national security system and the military.”
Trump’s isolation and ruptured relationships could potentially be exploited by US adversaries, he said. The violence at the Capitol comes as Iran has resumed increasing uranium enrichment at a key nuclear facility, and China arrested another wave of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
The tumult is distracting from the work Biden has ahead not only in tackling issues abroad but the white supremacist movements at home, political analysts said.
Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of the progressive BlackPAC, said the last gasps of Trump’s administration are overshadowing important developments, including Biden’s historically diverse Cabinet, the election of the nation’s first female and person of color as vice president, and the Georgia Senate Democratic victories — powered largely by Black voters — of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
“We should be talking about Reverend Warnock right now and how he brings something completely different to the US Senate,” she said. “We should be talking about how Jon Ossoff is a millennial that millennials and young people are excited to see in office.”
The attack on the Capitol, one of the nation’s most visible symbols of democracy, came after Warnock was elected as Georgia’s first Black senator, and days before Harris, a Black woman, is to ascend to the White House.
“The growing white supremacist threat is without doubt a reaction to the ways we have seen Black people show up in electoral ways,” Shropshire said. “And I think we can expect more of that unless there is a concerted effort and commitment to tamp down the white supremacist uprising.”
In the wake of Wednesday’s violence, there could be attacks on state capitals across the country in Trump’s final days, Ramakrishnan warned. But the failed insurrection, he added, could also spark forceful pushback against racism and a new era of bipartisan efforts to strengthen and preserve democratic institutions.
“We are all going through a very important lesson on democracy right now,” he said.