If there is one piece of information that helps to explain why Trump really might resist a peaceful transition of power, it is this: The stakes for Trump this fall are far greater than for past presidents seeking reelection. For him, a loss would mean not only the end of a political career, but also — potentially — personal and financial ruin. Trump’s alleged tax shenanigans may or may not saddle him with a $100 million debt to the IRS, and they may or may not send him to prison, if they’re illegal. But he lives in the shadow of both possibilities. His behavior over the past several weeks becomes more understandable — though no more justifiable — once one realizes that he knows the walls are caving in.
(Trump on Monday did not dispute the fact that he has paid very little in federal income taxes over the years, but he criticized what he called the “bad intent” of the reporting.)
To be sure, the fact that a self-described billionaire pays less in federal income taxes — just $750 in 2016 and 2017, according to the Times — than an unmarried full-time worker earning $9 an hour is significant in its own right, apart from its electoral consequences. It tells us something profoundly disturbing about the state of our tax system. But even more disturbing is what it tells us about the possible fate of our electoral system — and the lengths to which Trump might go to undermine November’s vote.
What does this mean for November? It means Trump has every incentive to fight with no holds barred. He is not in the position of previous U.S. presidents. He is more like a president of Peru or Egypt, where leaving office often means entering a cellblock. If the electoral college count on Nov. 3 looks to be in Biden’s favor, do not expect Trump to go gentle into that good night.
Compare 2020 to some of the hotly contested American elections that have come before it. The 2000 race was bitterly fought, especially after a nail-biting election night shifted the field of battle from the polls to the courts. But for the two contenders, the stakes were never existential.
For George W. Bush, a loss would have meant a return to the Texas governor’s mansion — supplemented by holidays at his family’s sprawling compound in Kennebunkport, Maine — and perhaps a lucrative post-gubernatorial career in the energy or finance sectors. For Al Gore, his loss left him to focus on high-tech investments and climate activism, resulting in an Apple board seat, a partnership in the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, and a Nobel Peace Prize. That, to be sure, is a far cry from a desk in the Oval Office — still the most powerful position in the world. It is also a far cry from a prison cell.
The same is true for the election of 1876, which was likewise mired in vote-counting disputes. Neither Republican Rutherford B. Hayes nor Democrat Samuel J. Tilden was fighting for his freedom or his home. No one worried that Hayes might lock Tilden up, or vice versa. When Tilden ultimately conceded, he largely gave up a place in history. He kept his fortune, though, and retired peacefully to an estate in Yonkers, N.Y.
Trump’s circumstances are quite different. According to the Times report, the ongoing IRS audit of the president’s tax returns could end in a bill of more than $100 million, including interest and penalties. If he can’t pay up — and his most recent financial disclosure suggests he may not have the cash — the result could be a tax lien on his assets, including his Trump Tower penthouse and his much-loved Mar-a-Lago. On top of that are $421 million in debts for which he is personally responsible, most of which — according to the Times — will come due within the next four years.
Fortunately, in the United States, we do not — for the most part — send debtors to prison. Trump could declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy, relinquish his properties and start anew. He might be able to rely on family trusts — or his children and his son-in-law Jared Kushner — for some support. But for a man who has lived all his life in opulence, personal bankruptcy at age 74 would come as quite a shock.
Moreover, while we (usually) don’t send people to jail for unpaid debts, we do lock them up for tax fraud. The prospect of a federal prosecution remains remote, but tax fraud is a state crime, too. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance continues to pursue a criminal probe into possible tax fraud, as well as insurance fraud and falsification of business records, by the president and the Trump Organization. I don’t know if this will result in an indictment and conviction. If I were Trump, though, I wouldn’t feel too sanguine about my prospects before a Manhattan jury.
The closest analogue in American history is to President Richard Nixon’s less-than-voluntary departure in August 1974. Nixon, too, left office with tax debts and overdue loans. By January 1975, according to biographer Jonathan Aitken, the former president had exactly $500 remaining in his bank account. Nixon, though, was able to crawl out of his financial hole through lucrative appearance fees from British TV journalist David Frost, as well as a contract for his memoirs. Trump’s debts appear to be of a scale too vast to resolve through speaking engagements and book deals.
Nixon’s prosecution fears were federal — and a sympathetic successor, President Gerald Ford, ended the “long national nightmare” of Watergate by putting Nixon’s criminal concerns to rest with a pardon. A President Biden is less likely to do that, and in any event, Biden can’t pardon Trump for New York state crimes. And the likelihood that Trump would receive a reprieve from New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D)? Forget about it. A post-presidential Trump is likely to live in fear of state criminal liability, at least until the five-year statute of limitations is up.
Holding onto office will not make Trump’s problems go away forever. The IRS may be reluctant to commence a collection action against its boss, and New York courts would likely stay a criminal prosecution until after Trump has left office. Private lenders may be somewhat less likely to collect against a sitting president than a former one, but they are unlikely to write off the $421 million entirely. It is not clear that Trump has a long-term game plan, but his “third term” talk might not be tongue in cheek.
Hopefully, a sufficiently lopsided vote count in November will leave little room for Trump to contest results. Hopefully, Republican leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who have largely aided and abetted Trump to this point — will follow through on their promises to facilitate a peaceful transition of power. A unanimous ruling from the Supreme Court could finally convince Trump to leave. The conservatives on the court may not want Roe v. Wade to stand, but I don’t think they will stand for a tinpot dictator either.
But don’t expect Trump to fight fair. As the Times revelations show, he is fighting for much more than an election. We can take a certain amount of schadenfreude in the president’s tax problems and their financial as well as possible criminal consequences. But we should remember that his tax problems might soon become our problem, too.