Look, anything’s possible, right?
We talk a lot about impeachment, or electoral defeat, or the 25th Amendment (the topic of my first post on this blog). But what about resignation? What are the chances of Donald Trump saying, “I’m tired of this” or “I can see the writing on the wall,” and simply walking away?
I readily admit that it isn’t the most likely of the foreseeable scenarios. In fact, I think that it is only slightly more probable than the controversial 25th Amendment route. Chances are it’s never going to happen, and this type of piece is, at best, premature. Still, it’s fun. What’s more, the dynamics involved in a Trump resignation are still of critical importance in all of the more likely outcomes.
Why won’t it happen? Basically, it goes against a lot of what we know about Trump, and it flies in the face of a great deal of political logic.
On the personal side: Trump is extremely arrogant, narcissistic, and concerned almost solely with his own legacy and enrichment. If you’re being generous, you can extend his greed and self-interest to encompass the welfare of his closest family. But most of all, he’s obsessed with being seen as winning. For him to resign, then, no matter the circumstances, would be the most obvious sign of the greatest loss of his life. And even for someone who has spent his career spinning blunders into victories (losing almost a billion dollars was great for his taxes!), that would be a bitter pill to swallow. His shining legacy would lie in ruins, and most people would recognize it.
Beyond Trump’s personal reasons for keeping a death-grip on the presidency, there are also convincing political reasons why a resignation would be unlikely. As I mentioned in my piece on impeachment, it is unlikely that Republicans will force him out, as deposing your own party leader is understandably unpopular with the base. As I wrote a few weeks ago, they still hope that they can find a helpful Trump. Even more practically, a willing resignation is unlikely simply because we are more likely to get impeachment (or electoral defeat) first, assuming that Trump is personally incapable of taking the Nixon route and resigning first.
So on both fronts — the personal and the political — we have some convincing reasons why Trump will never resign, more’s the pity. So what am I basing this fanciful piece on? Well, there are at least a couple things that make resignation a slim possibility, at the very least.
On the personal front, there is ample evidence that Donald Trump simply hates being president. Media report after media report notes that he easily gets frustrated by the processes of government and the structures of the White House. He doesn’t like attending briefings and his short attention span severely hampers his ability to function in meetings and consult with advisers. He often seems beset by isolated awkwardness when he goes overseas. He has angry outbursts and, it was said at the beginning of his tenure, he was surprised by the amount of work that was required of the president. If his frequent golfing trips are any indication, he wants to spend as much time outside of the Oval Office as possible.
On the political side, the matter is more complicated. There are only a few circumstances that would make resignation the most appealing option to Republicans. In fact, it only seems to be likely if Democrats regain control of Congress in 2018 and impeachment is on the table. The other option would be if a scandal broke before then (or after, if Republicans maintain control of either the House or Senate) that was so bad, and so plain to see, that they had no choice but to dump him. Even then, it would be interesting to see if enough pressure could be brought to bear by a party that is often estranged from both the president and its own base.
There are a few signs that resignation is, at least, in the cards for the Republicans, and most of them centre around Vice President Michael Richard Pence. It’s been clear from before the beginning of Trump’s mandate that the GOP as a whole would much rather Pence be sitting in the Oval. Pence would obviously be the beneficiary of a Trump resignation, and he has set himself up well for that eventuality.
There are countless jokes about Vice Presidents, but they all come down to one thing: all Vice Presidents want to be Presidents. I have no doubt that Mike Pence loyally follows that rule. And to get to that point, he sold his soul to the Trump base.
(Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)
By joining with Trump, Mike Pence managed quite a tricky manoeuvre by simultaneously ingratiating himself with the new populist base and assuaging the fears of more establishment Republicans, who hoped he would help moderate their volatile new leader. Pence has been able to play both sides, appearing pres— I mean, vice-presidential and competent, while staying in the good books of Trump’s loyal following.
But in the months ahead, Pence has a dangerous road to walk. Push too soon, and he’ll be seen as orchestrating a palace coup against his own president. Push too late, and he’ll go down with the sinking ship of the Trump administration (assuming it sinks). There have been reports recently that Pence has been meeting with key Republican donors. Though this doesn’t necessarily mean that Pence is putting his plan in motion, it certainly shows that he is preparing for all eventualities, including a sudden ascension to the presidency.
But if Pence is able to play his hand well, a somewhat amicable Trump resignation may end up being the best case scenario for everyone. While that in itself is a terrifying thought, consider the alternative endings to the Trump presidency. Note that in each case (except perhaps the first), Pence becomes President, but with a very different situation to deal with.
First: defeated in 2020 or impeached by a Democratic Congress. This is an incredibly dangerous situation, as Trump supporters are unlikely to go quietly back into opposition. The best case here is that Republicans take a pragmatic approach to defeat, à la Japan after the Second World War, and adapt to the new world. This is unlikely, given their failures to do so in the past (2012) and the hyper-partisan and conspiracy-ridden climate Trump has encouraged. Though the Republicans would be out of power, the bitter divisions in America would be more severe than ever. And since this scenario relies on future elections results, which are difficult to predict, let’s mark it as uncertain for now.
Second: Trump is impeached or otherwise brought down by the Republicans themselves, likely after an enormous scandal, perhaps relating to the Russian investigation. While slightly better than destruction at the hands of the Democrats, this scenario would still be seen by many Trump supporters as either a palace coup or an establishment conspiracy. Still not good. Pence would have a difficult time controlling Trump’s base, the GOP would likely get trounced in the general, and the chance of true reconciliation between Trump supporters and the rest of America would be slim.
Third: Trump willingly resigns, and Pence takes over the Presidency. In this scenario, Trump isn’t necessarily forced out by a scandal, and since “spending more time with family” doesn’t make sense as an excuse, my money would be on “health concerns.” While there will be some on the right that will never support anyone other than Trump, Pence should have a good chance of slowly bringing Trumpistas back into a more normal, even conciliatory, political discourse. That will be, make no mistake, a monumental task, but it will be made easier with a quiet — and voluntary — Trump exit. All this is assuming that Pence’s long-term objective is a more orthodox, reasonable Republican party, which is uncertain. Demagoguery is addictive, and once he holds the reins, Pence may look to secure his own form of populism.
Doesn’t that sound ideal?
Obviously, it’s actually terrible, but by now we should be used to grading this administration on a curve. While a willing resignation is unlikely, then, it may actually lead us down the best of a few terrible paths, towards what is literally the lesser of two evils:
President Mike Pence.