There’s only one thing he almost certainly won’t do: Admit that he made a lot of mistakes because he was unprepared for the job, plead for forgiveness and promise to do better in a second term. That would be almost as much of a shock as if he were to unveil an actual plan to fight the novel coronavirus. It’s much easier to imagine Trump approving a coronavirus vaccine before the conclusion of Phase 3 trials, thereby exposing innocent people to potentially fatal side effects for his own political gain.
Trump could also try to pull some kind of foreign policy legerdemain. He is desperate to bring U.S. troops home from somewhere. He just announced the withdrawal of nearly 12,000 troops from Germany, but that won’t satisfy him. The most likely spot for a total pullout is Afghanistan, where we still have 8,600 personnel. A preelection exit would leave that country vulnerable to a Taliban takeover but would allow Trump to boast that he’s delivering on his “America First” agenda.
South Korea is another possible spot for a troop reduction, because Seoul won’t give in to Trump’s extortionate demand for $5 billion a year in troop subsidies. Trump could hold a fourth summit with Kim Jong Un, even though the previous three haven’t achieved anything. He might be desperate enough now to do what he didn’t do at their meeting in Hanoi: Agree to give North Korea sanctions relief, and even a drawdown of U.S. forces in South Korea, in return for partial and reversible cutbacks in its nuclear program. This would be a defeat for the United States and its allies but a win for Kim and Trump.
Iran is another country where Trump could try to pull off a grand gesture — either a nuclear deal that would reprise the one he tore up (recall how he transformed the hated North American Free Trade Agreement into his beloved U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement) or air strikes against its expanding nuclear program. He might figure that either peace or war would give him a boost, although neither possibility is all that likely.
Trump is more likely to deploy troops to fight domestic protesters than foreign foes. Portland, Ore., offered a preview. It was counterproductive from the standpoint of “law and order” (the chaos ended as soon as the federal agents left), but it gave Trump the violent images he seeks to scare White voters. Imagine larger-scale federal deployments to Democratic-controlled cities before Election Day, or even the declaration of martial law — which, not coincidentally, would make it harder for Biden supporters to vote.
Or imagine postal delivery breaking down, preventing mail-in ballots from being delivered in Democratic strongholds. The U.S. Postal Service is already experiencing delivery delays under the leadership of a Trump donor who is either incompetent or malign — maybe both.
The Justice Department is another likely source of preelection misconduct. Attorney General William P. Barr, an unscrupulous partisan, has unleashed U.S. Attorney John Durham to investigate the investigators who probed the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia — and has said that he won’t abide by Justice Department guidelines that prohibit the release of politically sensitive findings before an election.
Even without any evidence, Barr could announce on election eve that he had uncovered an immense conspiracy to frame Trump of collusion with Russia involving former president Barack Obama, former national security adviser Susan Rice (a possible vice-presidential candidate), former CIA director John Brennan, and, naturally, former vice president Biden. Some of those individuals might even be indicted, because the point wouldn’t be to win a conviction but to win the election. Ironically, this could occur while the Russians are again helping Trump’s campaign.
One potential wild card is a Supreme Court vacancy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would have no compunction about filling that seat in this election year — something he refused to do in 2016. Nothing would energize Trump partisans as much as a court fight.
This year, a November surprise might be even nastier than an October surprise. If the election is close, Trump would pull out all the stops to prevent Biden from being certified the winner. This could include disqualifying Biden ballots, urging Republican state legislatures to send competing slates of electors, or seeking a Supreme Court ruling in his favor.
We don’t know exactly what Trump will do. But we do know he won’t respect any legal or ethical limits. A president capable of falsifying a weather map, extorting a foreign country, accusing a popular TV anchor of murder, maligning his own public heath advisers or locking children in cages is capable of anything. Our democracy will be in maximal danger until January, as an unprincipled incumbent with the vast powers of the presidency at his command fights to stay in office at any cost.