President Donald Trump has a lot riding on 2020. If he loses, he won’t just quietly resume his carefree snowbird lifestyle, albeit with millions of new Twitter followers. He’ll be dogged by big legal bills as he fends off criminal investigations in multiple jurisdictions.
But what if he wins?
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The election is more than a year away, his possible impeachment over the widening Ukraine scandal is far from resolved, and, yes, numerous polls show the president trailing nearly all of his likely Democratic opponents. But impatient politicos are already gaming out a scenario that is hardening into conventional wisdom: Trump is impeached by the House, acquitted by the Senate and re-elected on November 3.
The prospect of four more years has already captured the fevered imaginations of Democrats and never-Trump Republicans. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi predicted, “The reelection of Donald Trump would do irreparable damage to the United States.” Even the president’s own supporters envision an emboldened incumbent who pulverizes political norms with a vigor, to borrow the president’s go-to line, the likes of which the world has never seen.
Trump himself isn’t saying much about what a second term would really look like. Scripted legislative agendas are not how he rolls. Still, if his first term has taught us anything, Trump as a lame duck would be anything but unifying. Indeed, the civil war that the president has predicted could well be visible in the hostile crowds hectoring each other on the Mall in January. After that? What does a bruised but unbowed Trump do with his political capital? What does an enraged Democratic opposition bring to bear that it hasn’t already?
There’s only one way to answer these questions: the POLITICO Time Machine.
For the uninitiated, we used it once before in April 2016, when Trump wasn’t even the Republican nominee yet and when most people insisted he still had no chance of winning the White House. But our band of armchair time travelers already foresaw the looming possibility that the unorthodox novice could well be impeached if he ever took office. Our prognosticators weren’t so far off, given how fast Democrats started investigating Trump once they took the House majority halfway through his first term.
OK, sure, we were a little wide of the mark in predicting Trump would reopen Alcatraz and the World War II-era internment camps to house suspected Islamic extremists. And back in early 2016, no one saw Russia, much less Ukraine, emerging as the centerpiece of the impeachment inquiry. But, boy, did our brain trust nail it on predictions about Trump skirting Congress to pay for his border wall; a full-blown civil war brewing inside the intelligence community; and presidential approval numbers collapsing faster than a Greenland glacier.
To further fine-tune the conventional wisdom, we reconvened the Time Machine travelers and added a bunch more to the roster—25 people who know Trump world and GOP and Democratic politics—and asked them: What’s in store for Washington and the nation if Trump defies the odds to hold onto the White House?
“We will have entered an era of authoritarianism,” warned John Dean, the former Richard Nixon White House lawyer whose public testimony about Watergate helped lead to the president’s resignation.
That’s just left-wing hysteria, said Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and outspoken Trump ally. “No. I don’t think Trump will be emboldened. I think Trump will be Trump. I think Trump is emboldened every morning. He goes, ‘I’m a billionaire. I’ve got the White House, Air Force One and Marine One. And I’m commander in chief. What’s part two?’ All these guys who spent three years shooting at me and I’m still in the building and they’re not.’”
But even some Trump supporters foresee the chance that Trump might test the boundaries of presidential power with bad results.
Former George W. Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, a card-carrying establishment Republican who once criticized the president but now largely supports him, said a reelected Trump has the potential to take things too far. “I think it’d be very much like the first term with the risky exception that having survived impeachment and having been elected by the people he might feel like the guard rails are even farther away from the road he travels. I’d hope he’d realizes the guardrails are there for a good purpose and if he drives too fast [he’ll] crash through them.”
At a Rose Garden press conference in early 1999 after the Senate acquitted him, President Bill Clinton responded to a question about whether he could “forgive and forget” by saying, “I believe any person who asks forgiveness has to be prepared to give it.” According to Bob Woodward’s account in his book, Shadow, a reporter then shouted to the president as he was walking away asking whether he’d be vindictive toward the Republicans who’d just impeached him. Clinton didn’t turn around.
Trump “won’t keep walking,” Fleischer predicted. “He’ll run back to the mic.”
So what would Trump say? We’ll let the Time Machine do the talking.
The time is January 2021. The election has left the nation a psychological mess and a sulfurous cloud of election meddling by foreign hackers hangs over the still-contested results. Trump’s Ukraine scandal ultimately spared him but it wounded Joe Biden enough to give Elizabeth Warren the nomination. Once again, though, the result came down to the Electoral College, but even closer than in 2016. Warren, like Hillary Clinton four years earlier, took the popular vote by a resounding margin. But this mixed verdict has done nothing but further entrench the battle lines of a civil war that has become more than just a metaphor.
The weeks after Election Day were ugly. Protests in New York, Washington, San Francisco and a dozen other cities turned violent, the byproduct of a tangled mass of disgruntled pink-hatted Democrats, MAGA supporters, left-wing antifa and far-right Proud Boys. People have been killed. The president chalked up the discord to urban blight. And then he imposed curfews and directed the National Guard to patrol the streets over the protests of governors and mayors.
On January 20, Trump takes the oath of office, vowing in the shadow of the Capitol for the second time that he would “to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The scene is unlike anything before in the country’s history. What’s always been a high-security event takes on a militaristic tone, with Trump ordering U.S. troops onto the streets of Washington as a show of force to deter more riots. His family surrounds him, along with a loyal base of congressional Republicans who but for a few defectors hung on during his first four years and most notably voted to keep him in office and defeat impeachment. Democrats, still seething at Trump’s flagrant constitutional violations, boycott the event en masse, the first time in modern history this has happened. Their seats are given away in a lottery open to Trump supporters.
Something else is notable, too. The four living ex-presidents, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter join George W. Bush in a protocol-busting protest. They skip Trump’s inaugural ceremony and accept Carter’s invitation to hand out meals at a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter.
After the inaugural parade, which includes tanks for the first time in a half-century, the president goes into the White House, takes out a hand-written enemies list of people who work for him and makes Jared Kushner fire everyone on it. The casualty list includes Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper resigned before the election, having been blamed by Trump for the Ukraine mess. Steve Mnuchin is the only original Cabinet secretary still in Trump’s good graces.
A new crop of loyalists gets hired, including now-former Reps. Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan and Doug Collins, as well as Lindsey Graham, who steps down from the Senate to become the new Defense secretary. Brad Parscale moves from campaign manager to serve as White House chief of staff—but only after Trump leaves Mick Mulvaney’s former job open for six months. Trump promises his longtime adviser Stephen Miller an appointment to run the Homeland Security Department in an acting capacity during the close of the second term, when Senate confirmation won’t matter for a lame duck administration. And the president also raids his reelection campaign for new staff, believing they will be more loyal than the Frankenstein crew from the Republican National Committee that he hastily assembled in 2017.
“You don’t work to reelect a man you hate to get into the White House,” observes Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump adviser who agreed to join us on our time traveling experiment and says the 2020 campaign represents a real bounty for faithful, Trump-believing worker bees.
Next comes the score settling. “Trump totally unburdened and 100 percent politics all the time. Payback is hell,” predicted one of the Republicans close to the White House who insisted on anonymity because of their current job.
As Washington freezes through the end of winter, Trump moves his administration temporarily to Mar-a-Lago. He’s golfing six days a week with the likes of celebrity admirers Rush Limbaugh, Kid Rock and Tiger Woods but finds time between rounds to lob Twitter grenades at anyone who crossed him during his first four years in office. Republicans are not spared as Trump draws a bull’s-eye on the half-dozen senators who voted to convict him at the impeachment trial. He hounds Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to remove Ben Sasse from the Banking, Judiciary and Intelligence committees. He scouts out 2022 GOP primary challengers for Richard Burr and Lisa Murkowski. And he seethes that he doesn’t have more ways to deliver payback to Susan Collins or a certain Mormon senator from Utah.
“Romney is lucky he’s running for reelection in 2024,” said Sam Nunberg, another former Trump campaign aide from 2016 who is riding shotgun in our time machine and sees an election cycle four years into the future as far enough away to spare the 2012 GOP presidential nominee from Trump’s ultimate payback.
Trump keeps trying to goose his government into action as the summer of 2021 arrives. He’s starting to sweat the U.S. economy in the months after the long-anticipated recession became official that April with the second consecutive quarter of negative growth. He tweets 10 times a day about how Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell is responsible. He gives one of his remaining first-term holdovers, national economic adviser Larry Kudlow, one more chance to pitch a middle-class tax cut in the hope that can turn things around.
Trump also leans in harder on his Justice Department. First, he orders Robert F. Kennedy’s name removed from the building headquarters in Washington and replaces it with Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and personal lawyer to the president whom Trump has installed as the director of his revamped and celebratory Voice of America. Then Trump threatens to fire Attorney General William Barr and every U.S. attorney in the country if criminal charges are not filed by Thanksgiving against any holdovers from the Obama administration who had a role in the original 2016 Russia investigation.
Trump cancels the annual turkey pardoning event and replaces it with a ceremony to give the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. All three former 2016 campaign aides had been sentenced to jail for crimes tied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, but Trump thinks he’s got room to maneuver now that he’s safely in a second term and decides to wipe their records clean.
Confounded and depressed by the 2020 election results, Democrats can’t figure out how to respond to every new example of Trump defying Congress. “The infighting. The blaming. The everything. Whoo!” Democratic operative James Carville says of his party’s struggle to find itself after losing in 2020. Jim Manley, a longtime aide to Harry Reid who was with us back in 2016 the last time we zoomed off into the future, foresees a “circular firing squad” taking place in his party “with no national Democratic leader able to tamp down on the internecine warfare.”
In the House, Pelosi was a goner the moment the television networks back in November declared Trump the winner. The president had taunted her throughout the 2020 campaign for her leadership against him on impeachment. And while her party still clings to a narrow House majority, the San Francisco congresswoman decides to call it quits and hands the speaker’s gavel over to Hakeem Jeffries, a 50-year old lawmaker from a Brooklyn-Queens district that is a stone’s throw from the president’s childhood home.
Democrats still have subpoena power, but they’ve been neutered by repeated attempts to draw anything out of the president. In the summer before the 2020 presidential election, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority rendered Trump virtually impregnable with a 5-4 decision overturning its seminal Watergate ruling against Richard Nixon and instead embracing a broad range of presidential executive powers.
The focus for House lawmakers shifts from Trump’s alleged abuses of power and foreign meddling in U.S. elections to something that doesn’t quite pique Trump’s ire as much: neglect at the federal agencies across his administration. While the Constitution has no double jeopardy clause for impeachment, Democrats debate whether to hold their fire in even considering another attempt at removing him from office.
Sure, there’s all manner of agitation to try again—namely from the crop of freshman and sophomore Democrats who now hold the largest bloc of votes in the House conference. But Jeffries cuts that talk off by the summer of 2021, saying the party won’t consider another impeachment until after the 2022 midterms—and only if there’s a blue wave that causes dramatic shifts in the Senate. He argues there’s no point going to war again with a president who won’t stop talking about his new mandate or with Republicans who wouldn’t convict the president in the first term even after being presented with a “smoking gun” audio tape that was secretly stashed on an internal White House server of Trump offering to sell Alaska to Vladimir Putin in exchange for Russian hackers’ help to win a second term.
“He’s now free to do everything he wants, even if it’s clearly an impeachable offense because they’re not going to go after him two times in a row,” laments former Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays, one of four Republicans who voted against all four articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton in 1998.
With impeachment off the table, Trump tries to cut deals with a divided Congress. But he spends his political capital much faster than his aides want. He finally gets a win on a replacement for the North American trade agreement that he tore up in his first term. But that’s it. House Democrats balk at an infrastructure package. There’s nowhere close to the 60 Senate votes needed to overhaul the nation’s prescription drug laws. The resulting bickering and blaming among lawmakers kills the chances for even bigger lifts. Reforming entitlement programs is nixed during the debate over Trump’s first budget in his second term. A comprehensive immigration overhaul gets shelved in the aftermath of Mexican troops accidentally opening fire on their American counterparts outside El Paso, the resulting tensions stoked by Trump and conservative media warnings about a caravan of thousands of migrants that never materializes at the border.
As we travel further into Trump’s second term, we see that he doesn’t lose every battle in the Capitol. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, reelected in 2020 to a seventh term, continues to do his part to remake the federal courts. The Kentucky Republican clears the floor calendar to hold votes confirming more than 100 more new judges with lifetime appointments to the district and appellate circuits, and conservatives rejoice at the prospect of friendly decisions for decades to come on issues like abortion, religion, and environmental and labor policy.
On the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, two associate justices in their mid-70s at the time of Trump’s second inaugural, opt for retirement rather than risk being replaced by a Democratic president after 2025. Meanwhile, the two remaining Bill Clinton-appointed justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, maximize their cardiovascular workouts and adopt strict Mediterranean diets.
Trump doesn’t really alter his erratic, isolationist foreign policy instincts. He withdraws all U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, despite reservations even among Republicans. In Syria, ISIS has proclaimed a second modern-day Caliphate. He threatens repeatedly to pull the U.S. out of NATO, even ordering that the paperwork be drawn up but backs down as Republicans and Democrats unite to throw legislative hurdles in his way. He saber rattles on tariffs with China for all four additional years, but never closes a trade deal with Beijing; by the end of his second term, the U.S. and China have had near-skirmishes in the increasingly militarized South China Sea. Jared Kushner never actually releases the second half of his Middle East peace plan. The Iran nuclear deal collapses entirely, although Tehran doesn’t immediately restart its nuclear program as it tries to rebuild its economy. Luckily, for the Iranians, China and Russia increasingly are willing to ignore U.S. sanctions and give them a financial lifeline. There also is no breakthrough on nuclear weapon talks with North Korea, though Kim Jong Un makes his first visit to the United States and joins Trump and Dennis Rodman courtside at the United Center for a Chicago Bulls game.
Trump also spends his time thinking about his legacy, and whom he wants to replace him in the White House. After dropping hints in private for months, he finally sends out a tweet on July 4, 2022, that he doesn’t support Mike Pence’s presidential ambitions. “Great guy, TREMENDOUS veep, but it’s time for some Beautiful NEW BLOOD,” he writes. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul back out by Labor Day, and the field is cleared for Ivanka Trump to take the party’s nomination 17 months before anyone has participated in a caucus or primary.
Meanwhile, Trump takes direct control over planning for his presidential library, which in a break with tradition will include no actual presidential papers because there are none that have been preserved. He strong arms the General Services Administration to write through the lease agreement on his D.C. hotel and tells Congress he won’t consent to end a months-long government shutdown unless it amends a century-old law restricting height limits on buildings in the Capitol. When the standoff ends, construction begins immediately on a new 75-story addition to the historic building that when finished will look down on the Washington Monument and the rest of the city.
Some of our fellow time travelers aren’t entirely certain that second-term Trump will be distinguishable from first-term Trump. “He’s a category 5 tornado now,” insisted Ty Cobb, the former Trump White House lawyer who managed the president’s response to the Robert Mueller investigation. “It’s not like he’s going to break the measuring point.”
Trump himself has acknowledged how a state of perpetual scandal has reset all the meters. “It’s almost become, like, a part of my day,” the president told reporters earlier this month when talking about all his interactions with lawyers.
The question is whether his opponents will finally resign themselves to his existence and find ways to adapt to his style of chaotic governance.
“This has been a war every single day since the day he won. My presumption here is that is not sustainable if he gets elected [again]. At that point it’s just too difficult to sustain,” says Gingrich. Indeed, he says he can envision a bloc of around 50 House Democrats who will eventually come around to working with a second-term Trump on issues like infrastructure or join him in a big health care push on sickle cell anemia research.
“Once they get past having to chant ‘We hate Trump!’ and ‘Impeach Trump!’, which I think will disappear if he wins reelection because it’s not sustainable emotionally, then there’s a real opportunity to put together a series of bipartisan majorities,” said Gingrich, who now lives in Rome with his wife, Callista, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
That was, after all, the case with Clinton, who stayed busy in his final two years after his Senate trial, signing more than a dozen big laws, including a major banking deregulation plan later blamed for sparking the subprime mortgage financial crisis.
“We went back to work,” Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader during the 1999 impeachment trial, said in an interview. “It was a different time, different people, different media, quite frankly.”
While our time machine travels did not envision more impeachments in Trump’s future beyond what’s coming today in his first term, anyone watching the current battles can’t help but acknowledge the ever-present possibility that he could get pulled through the process again. Doug Holtz-Eakin, who in 2008 worked as a top adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign, said he would see “little upside” for Democrats to keep trying to impeach a second-term Trump.
But he wouldn’t rule it out entirely, either. “The only way I could imagine a second impeachment would be if there was a clear, serious violation of national security laws,” he said.
There are those who clearly will never adjust to Trump, and who see the president serving four more years as a real threat to the country’s constitutional balance.
“As someone who has been in this business for more than 50 years in Washington, I cannot tell you how troubled I am by these prospects that the entire structure of the government system that’s operated for my lifetime and probably for a century before seems to be crumbling,” said Philip Allen Lacovara, a former Watergate prosecutor who made the winning argument in that unanimous 1974 Supreme Court case that helped lead to Nixon’s resignation.
“The very fact that people in the executive branch figure that they can simply put a thumb in the eye of Congress when they’re asked for information day after day after day after day, not on particularly controversial or sensitive single subject inquiries, that really is changing the fundamental nature of the government,” Lacovara added. “And the typical voter who is concerned about other things is simply not aware of this. And if Trump gets another four years to codify, institutionalize and embed this attitude it’s going to be very hard for Congress to reassert any effective control and oversight. I think that’s the real risk.”
Trump’s critics also worry that, given four more years in office, the president’s unconventional ways could have other long-lasting effects on society. “Young people will grow up thinking that’s the way politics is,” said Shays. “So many of the things our Founding Fathers believe in will just go out the window.”
To Trump supporters, including the ones who came along on our time machine ride, all the talk about the end of democracy sounds laughable. “We said the same thing in 2012. ‘The stakes are just so high,’” Nunberg said of the fears surrounding a second Obama term. “We were fine.”
America, Trump’s supporters argue, is much more durable than the president’s critics acknowledge—even if he wins two terms. “It drives me crazy,” Fleischer said, “when people think Donald Trump’s tweets somehow are stronger than James Madison’s handwriting.”