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The Grim Prospect of a Trump Second Term

If you think things are bad now…
October 21, 2019
The Grim Prospect of a Trump Second Term
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: President-elect Donald J. Trump arrive at the inauguration of Donald J. Trump at the United States Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Donald J. Trump became the 45th president of the United States. (Photo by Doug Mills - Pool/Getty Images)

In the past two months, the president of the United States has invited the Taliban to Camp David just before the anniversary of 9/11, pressured an ally (Ukraine) to interfere in American elections, invited a foe (China) to do the same, called off a retaliatory strike on Iran for shooting down an American drone at the last minute, cajoled the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to validate his blunders and lies about a hurricane forecast, accepted the resignation of his fourth (second acting) Secretary of Homeland Security, ordered the American military to retreat from northern Syria (greenlighting the Turkish invasion and ethnic cleansing of the American-allied Kurds there), and sent a flailing letter to Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan warning him, “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”—which Erdogan promptly threw in the trash.

This is a different administration from what it was in 2017, when so many Republicans initially made their peace with it. The Scaramucci era looks calm by comparison to this fall. Jim Mattis isn’t around to give Trump sound military advice, and it doesn’t seem like President Trump listens to Defense Secretary Mark Esper much at all. Jeff Sessions, who with the help of Rod Rosenstein was able to maintain a baseline level of independence and professionalism at the Department of Justice, has been replaced by Attorney General Bill Barr, who spends his time trying to “investigate the investigators” of the 2016 election. The legislative agenda of the first two years—failed health reform and lackluster tax cuts—has been replaced by . . . nothing.

Those who thought that Trump would be constrained once he took office were right—for half a term. But now the president is unhinged, unwell, and unaccountable.

And this is still his first term.

According to an analysis by Mark Zandi and colleagues at Moody’s, strong economic indicators suggest another Electoral College win for Trump in 2020. “If the U.S. economy sticks to our script over the next year, record turnout is vital to a Democratic victory,” Zandi and his colleagues write. That is, if Democratic and independent voters turn out at levels that match their historical highs, the Democratic nominee could “win a squeaker,” but a strong economy and less than record-level Democratic turnout would point to a Trump victory.

So consider what President Trump could do in a second term, with no constituency to please.

He could end the “forever war” in Korea by ordering a total American military withdrawal from the peninsula. He could withdraw from Japan, too—where 54,000 American military personnel, 42,000 of their dependents, and 8,000 civilian Defense Department employees are currently stationed. One carefully scripted phone call from Chinese dictator Xi Jinping could convince Trump to cede all of northeast Asia to the People’s Liberation Army in return for, say, a few billion dollars in trade concessions.

He could get caught in the middle of the Kashmir conflict again, and risk inadvertently driving the Pakistanis closer to the Chinese or poisoning the delicate but crucial American relationship with India.

He could start ignoring court orders. So far he’s avoided openly defying the judiciary (though he has attacked judges who have ruled against him).

President Trump has yet to experience a foreign policy crisis that wasn’t of his own making, but his luck might run out in a second term. If the Russians—sorry, “separatists”—decide to bite off a piece of Estonia, would the president rally NATO to respond?

Given the immense power of the office of the president, the list of calamities a second-term President Trump could spark is long. The Brennan Center has compiled a list of the various powers a president can exercise during national emergencies—a realm of authority which President Trump has already demonstrated he’s unafraid to abuse. Among those powers are more than 80 that the president could grant himself with a unilateral emergency declaration, including the powers to:

  • waive restrictions “regulating withdrawal, reservation, restriction, and utilization of public lands by or for the Department of Defense”;
  • disregard legal protections for farmland if the acquisition of farmland is for “national defense purposes”;
  • create, maintain, protect, expand, or restore domestic industrial base capabilities that are essential for the national defense”;
  • limit or ban the export of any agricultural commodity.

The question facing independents and Trump-skeptical Republicans in 2020 isn’t whether or not they want four more years of this. It’s whether they want to risk things getting much, much worse.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.