Two weeks before election day, President Donald Trump shocked official Washington with an executive order that could unravel the country’s 140-year-old civil service system. The White House insisted that this move – which, by creating a new job classification system, would make it easier to dismiss government lawyers, academics and other employees in policy-making positions – was aimed at removing incompetent individuals protected under current regulations. However, outraged observers both inside and outside the administration feared that it would give Trump more leeway to dismiss people he considers disloyal or who are working to undermine his agenda.
In Joe Biden’s circles, however, the action, which was tantamount to splitting up the country’s civil service, was seen as a direct threat: an omen for the damage Trump may cause during his term of office in the next 73 days before the presidency officially changes hands on January 20.
From executive orders like this one to presidential pardons, from administrative decrees to judicial appointments and even military actions, lame presidents throughout U.S. history have used their remaining time in office to secure their legacy, undermine the man who just defeated them, or avenge friends and enemies alike. But given the fact that Trump has shifted – one might even say blurred – the normal boundaries of how a president behaves, many insiders in Washington fear that he could add to the chaos that an outgoing commander-in-chief can cause. The October executive order looks like Appendix A, especially to some in the Biden camp, which indicates that it could potentially lead to Trump issuing hundreds of resignations by the day of inauguration, which could throw the work of a long list of government agencies – from the Centers For Disease Control to the Environmental Protection Agency to the Social Security Administration – into chaos.
“This thing is a declaration of war,” a Biden Transition adviser told Washington Newsday on condition of anonymity, referring to Trump’s executive order. “He wants to make this a transition from hell.”
Most of the long feared nightmare scenarios for the 2020 elections involved a confused or long-delayed result or a refusal by the incumbent to recognize the result. But even if Biden’s leadership withstands the government’s legal challenges and Trump is eventually forced to yield, there is no shortage of insiders, presidential academics and activists in Washington who share concerns about what the current president might do to leave his mark after being rejected by the American people.
Since 1801, when Thomas Jefferson took the reins of power from political enemy John Adams, the smooth transfer of power between the parties has been considered one of the most important political rituals of Americans, an exciting moment based on honor, patriotism and respect for the precedent of the presidents involved, says Rebecca Lissner, a national security expert and professor of operational strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. This process, she says, is one of the crucial differences between western-style democracies and autocratic rule.
What could confuse this process this time? “There are a number of possibilities, ranging from incompetence to complete sabotage,” says Lissner, author of An Open World: How America Can Win The Contest for Twenty-First Century Order. “One could envisage a whole range of measures that a lame trump card could take to undermine his successor by determining certain political decisions whose reversal would be extremely difficult or costly. He could resign from NATO or take assertive action against Iran or China. There is nothing to prevent President Trump from even starting a war.
Not everyone shares the concerns. “[The transition] will be completely uneventful,” says British media baron Conrad Black, a longtime Trump friend who has written two flattering biographies. “It will be like the defeat of Carter against [Ronald] Reagan or the defeat of George Bush Senior against [Bill] Clinton. The idea that Trump will do something irrational or behave in an absurd or undignified way is nonsense, just more Trump hatred”.
Yet this was an unconventional