WASHINGTON – The lame duck is stirring.
President Donald Trump has stayed mostly out of public view in the two weeks since his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden. On nine of the 14 days since the Nov. 3 election, his daily schedule has been summed up in a single sentence: “The president has no public events scheduled" – the longest he has been out of public view since taking office in January 2017.
Behind the scenes, however, Trump has occupied himself with the work of the presidency.
While still protesting the election results, Trump has been holding meetings to consider ordering a military strike against Iran, cutting the number of military troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, selling oil leases in the Alaskan wilderness, reducing government regulations and taking other actions designed in part to poke President-elect Biden. He has also fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and top Pentagon leaders and Homeland Security cyberchief Christopher Krebs, who called the election secure. He is considering parting ways with FBI Director Chris Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel.
Trump spends most of his days behind closed doors – he has made only two public statements since his angry Election Night speech at the White House – watching cable news and tweeting about Biden. He follows television news accounts of the election dispute, aides said, but is also tending the jobs at hand.
“It’s not really changed operationally,” said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Trump's actions in private.
In many respects, historians say, Trump's lame-duck actions are in line with what his predecessors did in the final weeks of their presidency.
Trump holds meetings in the Oval Office, aides said, and often acts as if he still expects a second term. He shuttles between the second-floor residence at the White House and the Oval Office in the West Wing, speaking with aides and friends on his ever-present phone (and tweeting).
He has spoken to staffers about COVID-19 vaccines and holds regular meetings with aides, particularly his national security staff. He met with national security aides on the Afghanistan and Iraq drawdown plans announced Tuesday – an unusual event in that Trump did not appear in person to announce the withdrawal and did not issue any kind of written statement.
Presidents' busy final days in office
Other presidents who lost their bids for reelection or were nearing the end of their second terms have discovered that the responsibilities of the presidency don’t disappear just because they’re about to leave office.
In that sense, Trump is no different from his predecessors, said Allan J. Lichtman, distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington.
Most of the initiatives Trump has pursued since the election have been behind the scenes, “and we don’t know what’s going to become of them,” Lichtman said.
So far, however, Trump hasn't taken any policy actions that are fundamentally different from what his predecessors did during their lame duck period, Lichtman said.
Previous lame-duck presidents have tried to use the period between the election and their successor’s inauguration to “go big” or pursue policies that will burnish their legacy, said Ross Baker, a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
Jimmy Carter, who lost his 1980 reelection bid to Ronald Reagan, found his transition consumed with negotiations to return American hostages in Iran.
President George H.W. Bush, who lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, had an active lame duck period. He authorized a military action in Somalia, signed an arms treaty with Russia, and pardoned aides who had been ensnared in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Even the nation’s first one-term president, John Adams, appointed a series of “midnight judges” to the federal bench during his last days in office. Adams saw the appointments as a way to preserve Federalist influence in the federal government during the tenure of his successor, Thomas Jefferson.
Refusal to transition
Trump, however, appears to be taking a different approach.
“It has been Trump’s decision to go kind of small – and go secret, almost,” Baker said.
Baker said Trump has been “incapacitated” by his loss to Biden and his refusal to accept the election results. “That’s why they are doing so many things under the radar,” he said.
Historian Joanne Freeman said Trump’s refusal to accept defeat and the roadblocks to Biden’s transition are unprecedented.
“Other presidents – and their party – sometimes did some last-minute damage to stack the deck against an incoming president and the opposing party,” she said. But “not on the scale of what seems to be shaping up now, given the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
Pardons to come?
Back at the White House, Trump has a host of other items on his to-do list for his final weeks in office.
He is considering issuing pardons for former aides convicted in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
One of his executive actions will be rolled out next week. He’s scheduled to pardon this year’s Thanksgiving turkey on Tuesday.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump is out of view but working, firing officials, including Krebs