Op-Ed: Trump will remain President-elect Biden's greatest obstacle even after he takes office

  • President Donald Trump's continued refusal to concede 2020 elections poses a host of national security dangers.
  • The failure thus far of a host of such leaders globally to recognize President-elect Biden's victory underscores this reality.
  • President-elect Biden wishes to counter President Trump's continued influence and fulfill his goal of being the unifying leader for all Americans and for global democracies.

President Donald Trump's continued refusal to concede 2020 elections poses a host of national security dangers. However, the most hazardous of them all won't be found on the conventional list of threats that occupy Washington's legion of foreign policy experts.

That doesn't mean there isn't potential for increased peril across the usual list of concerns: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea or terrorism. It's just none of them – as significant as they are – pose as existential a danger to U.S. interests at home and abroad as the growing prospect of continued domestic political polarization and growing cultural divides.

Those, in turn, prompt adversaries to seek advantage by fueling these divisions and finding advantage in them. It leaves even the most hopeful of allies, encouraged by President-elect Joe Biden's commitment to restoring a more traditional U.S. approach to international common cause, hedging their bets.

President Trump's actions following his electoral defeat, which won't alter the outcome that he leaves office on Jan. 20 next year, underscore his intention to emerge as the Republican Party's most significant force and thus a continued international rallying point for populist and nationalist politicians across the world.

The failure thus far of a host of such leaders globally to recognize President-elect Biden's victory underscores this reality. They have included Russia's Vladimir Putin, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, and Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša has congratulated Trump on his victory.

The closer Trump's day of departure comes, the more he talks to friends about preparing the ground for a 2024 run to retake the office he is so reluctantly leaving. He promises to be as untraditional a former president, remaining in the spotlight through whatever means prove to be most effective, as he has been in office.

President-elect Biden wishes to counter President Trump's continued influence and fulfill his goal of being the unifying leader for all Americans and for global democracies. If he can do that, his team believes he could be one of those transformative presidents that comes along now and again at historic moments. What could be more so than our time of health crisis, economic threats, authoritarian resurgence around China's rise and democratic weakness?

To achieve that outcome, his team first must slay the Trump Dragon, which remains their most significant obstacle. To do so, they'll need to study the four central motivations for President Trump's actions that have followed the Nov. 3 elections.

These include:

  1. Trump maintaining his leadership of the Republican Party. He is determined to remain the kingmaker for primaries and state races, while at the same time being able to kill candidacies that have been disloyal to him. It would be shortsighted not to take seriously Trump's musings about running again for president at age 78 in 2024. Even if he doesn't run, just the suggestion he might would keep him at the center of national and international attention.
  2. Trump emerging from his electoral defeat with enough standing and authority to refinance his business and get new loans. By all accounts, he is under significant financial pressure, including a debt load of anywhere from $400 million to $1 billion. To maintain his brand, he'll need to finance it, including the possibility, reported by Axios, that he's planning to launch a digital media channel to compete with Fox.
  3. Achieving immunity from federal prosecution. President Trump believes law may allow him to even pardon himself, a concept that almost certainly would be tested, up to and including the Supreme Court. Trump also has other options: he could resign before Jan. 20 and have Vice President Mike Pence pardon him. President-elect Biden on the campaign trail has said he wouldn't pardon Trump.
  4. Finally, Trump would want to protect his family members and ensure they could continue to pursue their business and political interests.  

The dilemma for the Biden team is that if President Trump achieves these four goals, he is far more likely to retreat quietly from office. However, his success in doing so also would ensure that he would remain as an immovable obstacle.

Republican leaders, particularly those in the Senate, who have failed to criticize President Trump or call for him to concede the election, privately cite several motivations. 

First, they say they don't want to corner Trump, which they believe would make him more difficult, and they are trying to provide him room to make his own decision to step away. Second, they recognize he won more than 72 million national votes, the most of any Republican presidential candidate in history, and thus he will have continued influence on their political futures.

 Finally, the Republican party is focused on winning the two Senate runoffs in Georgia in January, where more than $100 million is likely to be spent on get-out-the-vote efforts. What's at stake in Georgia is whether Republicans will hold the Senate. Even those Republicans who want Trump far from the scene don't see mileage in a confrontation with him that could risk Georgia.

The 2020 elections were a personal defeat for President Trump, but they weren't the repudiation of Trumpism that his opponents, both Democrat and Republican, had hoped. His party did better in Senate and House races than expected.

"If the 2024 Republican nominee isn't Mr. Trump himself," writes Brooking's William A. Galston in this weekend's Wall Street Journal, "it will likely be someone who embraces the president's orientation without his loud rhetoric and character flaws."  

Wrote Galston, "Mr. Trump's critics saw him as a threat not only to racial progress and social inclusion but to the Constitution. And they came to understand that this threat represented the culmination of long-standing trends."     

Should President Trump and Trumpism remain as a central factor in American politics, even in opposition, that will have global consequences. Trump challenged party orthodoxy on alliances, on the use of American power, on democracy promotion, on cooperative trade policy with democratic partners and in the harsh tone he normalized in international statecraft.

To understand what's driving President Trump most at the moment, a colleague pointed me to a must-read interview By Gaby Wood with him from January 2007 in the Observer of London. She closed by asking, "If no one were looking at you, do you think you'd still exist?"

Replied Trump, after a pause and with palms together in front of his face, "No. Because, honestly, I wouldn't have any fun. There are people who are successful, but nobody knows who they are, and I say what's the purpose? Everyone knows who I am."   

Whatever impact that might have in President-elect Biden's ability to lead, that reality seems unlikely to go away.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.

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