If the Cabinet or Congress don’t remove Trump, how much is reasonably at stake?
DZ: I think Steve’s point about his access to the military before is critical here. You have to make a distinction between what Trump would like to do, and what he has the capacity to do. I think there are very few limits on what Trump would be willing to do to stay in power. The constraint on him isn’t that he’s not sufficiently authoritarian; he simply doesn’t have some of the resources, meaning control of the military, which hinders his ability to do some things. When you hear former Republican senator William Cohen, who’s one of the most down-to-earth, sober people, saying America is “standing on the abyss of the destruction of our democracy,” you have to take this stuff seriously.
SL: Most authoritarian situations occur with a smaller gap between what the autocrat wants to do and what the autocrat can do. This was a case with an unusually large gap between what Trump tried to do, and what he accomplished. At this point, Trump tried to overturn the election; he tried to steal the election; we know he was interested in declaring martial law. He attempted to destroy American democracy. He wasn’t able to because, thank god, we have a relatively effective constitutional military.
Congress has now affirmed Joe Biden’s victory, and Trump has agreed to an “orderly transition” on 20 January, but also referred to his single term being “only the beginning of our fight to Make America Great Again”. The next 12 or 13 days are going to be tense – do you have any sense of what might happen in those two weeks?
SL: This is completely uncharted terrain. In a Latin American democracy, Trump would have been forced to resign by now. You can’t get caught engaging in this kind of abuse and stay in the presidency. I think there’s going to be a serious push to remove him. It probably won’t succeed, but enough people in Washington are truly afraid now of what Trump might do. Somebody pointed out, ‘Having somebody who’s not allowed on Facebook but is allowed the nuclear codes is extremely frightening.’ We may see what we saw in the final days of Nixon, where important cabinet members took extraordinary steps to tie the hands of the president, keep him out of the loop and protect the country from the president.
Apparently, on January 6 Trump did not want to mobilise the National Guard initially [against the insurgents], and the acting defense secretary and the head of the military mobilised the national guard without him; that’s basically Article 25 in practice. So people are operating around the president. If they don’t remove Trump, at the very least we may see the incredibly unusual situation in which the government operates around him.
DZ: In politics, at usual times, things are fairly predictable, but because the situation is so fluid right now, the decisions of individuals matter a lot. It’s hard to predict what those decisions are going to be, so there’s a lot of openness about the next two weeks.