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On Monday afternoon, President Donald Trump fired his secretary of defense, Mark Esper, via tweet.
Which, well, wasn’t terribly surprising. Esper had been on Trump’s naughty list for months — ever since he opposed using the military to crack down on sometimes-violent protests that broke out in major American cities following the death of George Floyd in May. Several weeks before the election, Esper had a resignation letter pre-written. So he knew his day was coming.
The removal of Esper then isn’t terribly notable in and of itself. (In ANY other administration, firing the secretary of defense in a tweet would be a massive story, of course. As would a president on his fourth acting secretary of defense in two years.)
But what Esper’s firing means is something that is very much worth taking note of, because it marks the first move in what could well be the wildest and most unbound 72 days in modern American political history.
Here’s why: While Trump has yet to concede the election — and his top campaign officials insisted in an all-staff meeting on Monday that he’s still very much alive in the race — the reality has and will continue to set in over these coming days and weeks that he is just not going to win. And that is going to be a very tough pill to swallow.
“Winning is easy,” Trump told his campaign staff on Election Day. Losing is never easy. Not for me it’s not.”
So losing will make Trump very angry. And embittered. And vengeful. And less willing to even attempt to paint within the lines of acceptable behavior.
Which means that the firing of Esper is the tip of the spear when it comes to what we should expect from Trump between now and January 20, 2021. If you thought the President was unconstrained up until now, well, in the words of the Joker, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
In the run-up to the election, Trump repeatedly attacked FBI Director Christopher Wray for his failure to effectively investigate alleged corruption within the bureau. The Washington Post reported in late October that Trump was considering removing Wray after the election, a move that could also jeopardize Attorney General William Barr, a Trump loyalist who has fallen out of favor with the President because of the delays in the investigation of potential wrongdoing in the FBI’s counter-intelligence probe during the 2016 election. Axios also reported in late October that Trump might fire CIA chief Gina Haspel.
The elimination of the heads of the Defense Department, CIA and FBI — not to mention, potentially, the Justice Department — could be just the start in an across-the-government culling of those deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump. According to a senior administration official speaking with CNN’s Jake Tapper, “John McEntee, director of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, is spreading the word throughout the administration that if he hears of anyone looking for another job they will be fired.”
And then will come the pardons and commutations. As Mark Osler, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas, wrote on CNN.com on Oct. 29:
“Win or lose, President Donald Trump may well seek to pardon members of his family, officials in his administration, and possibly himself — even, as Gerald Ford did for Richard Nixon, before any of them are convicted of anything.”
Which, yeah. Especially when you consider that Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime political Svengali, Roger Stone, in July — not to mention the likes of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
And then there are the other moves — whether via executive order or on the regulatory front — that we might not even be thinking about right now. And that we may not even realize Trump has done until he is formally out of office at noon on January 20.
The point here is simple: Pandora’s box is open. The genie is out of the bottle. Pick whatever cliche you like but they all add up to the same thing: A President who has always seen his office as a way to reward friends and punish enemies will now have a 10-week period that will be increasingly consequence-free for him as the realization that he will not win a second term sets in. (The only thing potentially tying Trump’s hands somewhat is his interest in running again in 2024. But his most loyal supporters would likely see any actions taken by Trump in his final days as a fitting kiss-off for the establishment in both parties.)
Donald Trump in a good mood — and somewhat reined in by his advisers and future political concerns — is a scary thing. An irate Trump with lots of power and no compunction about how he uses it? That’s downright terrifying.