Trump’s Scorched Earth Farewell

Not only is Trump attempting a coup, he’s trying to leave everything in flames for the Biden administration.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Supporters of President Donald Trump sing the national anthem during a rally outside the Governor's Mansion on November 14, 2020 in St Paul, Minnesota. Thousands have gathered in cities around the country today to contest the results of the election earlier this month. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Supporters of President Donald Trump sing the national anthem during a rally outside the Governor's Mansion on November 14, 2020 in St Paul, Minnesota. Thousands have gathered in cities around the country today to contest the results of the election earlier this month. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

The problem is not just that President Donald Trump is denying the outcome of the Nov. 3 election and seemingly attempting a coup to reverse that result. It’s that on almost every front from COVID-19 response and economic rescue plans to the fate of hotspots such as Afghanistan and Iran, the outgoing president is sowing chaos within his own administration that has left every world capital in a muddle and President-elect Joe Biden in a bind. 

The most immediate and dangerous challenge is the Trump administration’s failure to respond to the alarming upswing in COVID-19 cases, or to coordinate pandemic response or vaccine distribution with the incoming Biden team. But that same scorched-earth policy applies to the economic carnage caused by the virus, which is likely to persist next year as cases and deaths increase dramatically.

The latest confusion erupted Thursday when U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell in a letter that he wants the Fed to close down most of its emergency lending facilities, even as COVID cases reach new highs across the country that will no doubt be exacerbated by the coming winter weather, flu season and holiday travel.

In a rare public disagreement, the Fed retorted that it “would prefer that the full suite of emergency facilities established during the coronavirus pandemic continue to serve their important role as a backstop for our still-strained and vulnerable economy.” The U.S. outbreak has already exceeded 11.5 million cases and 250,000 deaths, and vaccines remain in early testing stages as thousands of schools and businesses shut down anew. 

On Friday CNN reported that more than 2,300 Americans could be losing their lives every day by Dec. 18, according to new numbers from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). “We expect daily deaths to reach a peak of over 2,500 a day in mid-January,” the IHME modeling team said. 

There’s little progress on additional economic aid, either, as Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remain stalemated over renewed financial relief, and after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky sent the upper chamber on recess. Meanwhile, Trump is threatening the growing number of Republicans who are challenging his efforts to overturn the election; Trump pointedly fired the head of the government cybersecurity unit that touted the “most secure” election in U.S. history.

Rather than focus on the pandemic, or the lingering economic pain it has caused, Trump has poured all his attention into staying in power, reportedly trying to strongarm Republican lawmakers in Michigan to certify him as the winner of that battleground state, despite a resounding margin of victory for Biden. Trump met with two of Michigan’s top state lawmakers at the White House Friday afternoon in a last-ditch effort to reverse the will of the voters. At a news conference Friday he declared once again that he had “won” the election. 

“It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president,” Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, a frequent critic of Trump, tweeted on Friday.

Longtime political observers say that, as with so much Trump has done during his presidency, all this behavior is unprecedented. “The chaos and the complete abandonment of the basic principles of orderly transition of power are undermining our ability to provide global leadership,” said former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.

Trump is also breaking all sorts of diplomatic crockery when it comes to foreign policy. In Afghanistan, Trump purged Pentagon leadership to ensure a hasty pullout of most of the remaining U.S. troops in the country, even though the conditions on the ground for the U.S. withdrawal have not been met, according to U.S. commanders. That’s leading to some rare intra-party fights. McConnell, usually a stalwart Trump ally, blasted the troop withdrawal.

“The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011, which fueled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism,” McConnell said on the Senate floor this week. “It would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.”

“Trump’s behavior suggests he does not care about what happens in or to Afghanistan as long as he gets to claim to his base that he did what he promised to do,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. “In acting against the advice of almost everyone, Trump wants to force Biden to resend troops to Afghanistan after Biden’s inauguration. Trump would then be able to crow that he is against forever wars while Biden is the one who sent troops back to Afghanistan.”

Haqqani added: “President Obama had also set a schedule for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan but he stopped its implementation closer to the 2016 election, saying he did not want to tie down the hands of the next president.” 

Trump is also still ramping up his maximum pressure campaign on Iran to limit the Biden administration’s room for maneuver. The administration is reportedly weighing additional rounds of sanctions to further squeeze Iran’s battered economy. And this week, the New York Times quoted officials saying Trump sought options for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities before leaving office, since he has failed to persuade Tehran to negotiate with him after abandoning the 2015 nuclear deal. Officials reportedly dissuaded Trump from doing so. 

But some government officials are concerned about more surprises to come. According to one well-placed Capitol Hill source, some intelligence professionals expressed concern that Trump, outraged by what he called the role of the “China virus” in his defeat, may be planning action of some kind against Beijing. Those worries have increased with the firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other senior Pentagon officials, and their replacement by Trump loyalists. 

Yet the most urgent crisis lies with COVID, and the administration’s ongoing refusal to sign off on additional rescue money while allowing five of the Fed’s nine emergency facilities to expire at the end of the year. As fall turns to winter, and Covid cases continue to rise, most experts expect further economic turbulence just as the Biden administration comes into office. That makes the decision to hobble the Fed look like a landmine.

With the COVID-19 crisis worsening and activity slowing in the absence of fiscal aid, the decision to curtail the Fed’s firepower could unsettle markets and exacerbate economic stress,” wrote Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics on Friday.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh