On Thursday, November 10, 2016, Trump was invited to the White House by Barack Obama. That election was called for Trump at 2:30 am on Wednesday, November 9th so his meeting with Obama occurred just a day later. This latest election was called on Saturday, November 7th and yet ten days later Trump still has not met with Joe Biden and there is no indication that he will ever do so. So what is he hoping to achieve by this refusal?
I hesitated to use the term ‘endgame’ in this post’s title because it comes from chess and reflects the strategies that are brought into play in the third phase of the game when most of the pieces have gone and the board is uncluttered. I hesitated because I simply cannot see Trump having the ability to think carefully and strategically the way that chess requires. If he played chess, one can see him knocking over the board when he is losing and claiming that he won. Which, in a way, is what he is doing in this post-election period where he is gumming up the works as much as possible while claiming that he has not lost. He is so desperate to give the impression that he is going to continue in office that he has ordered that anyone in the administration who is caught looking for jobs will be immediately fired.
So what is Trump hoping to gain since it is clear that he must leave by January 20? It is hard to figure out from his moves so far. He seems to be on a firing spree but it is hard to see where that will get him other than causing more confusion in those agencies at a time when continuity in the transition is so important. Some firings are also designed to find positions for loyalists. For example Bonnie Glick, deputy administrator of the US Agency for International Development, was told to resign that very day or be fired, a very harsh move. The reason seems to be not anything she did but that that day was the last day for Trump loyalist John Barsa, who is the acting head of the agency because temporary appointments have limited durations. By firing Glick, Trump could appoint Barsa to her post and then as acting deputy head he could continue to run the agency.
He is doing the most firing at the department of defense, starting with the defense secretary Mark Esper but extending all the way down the civilian leadership and replacing them with even more extreme loyalists. Other figures have resigned.
Esper had been a very loyal Trump supporter, so much so that he was viewed as a ‘yes man’ and referred to derisively as ‘Yesper’ and yet even such fealty was not enough. So why might Trump have fired him? Various reasons have been given, such as that Esper had done some things that were mildly at odds with Trump’s wishes, such as expressing hesitation over his use of troops to clear demonstrators for Trump’s infamous photo op in from of a church in Washington DC, and that he was open to renaming military bases named after confederate figures.
Other theories have been brought forward for the decimation of the Pentagon leadership. One is that it enables Trump to put loyalists into positions that, even if only for a few weeks, will look good on their resumes. While the people who accept these short-term appointments might be doing it to pad their resumes, that seems unlikely to be a reason for Trump to do it since it does not benefit him personally. He is not one who does random acts of kindness for others.
There are two possibilities that seem plausible to me, one good and one bad. The good one is that at this late stage Trump wants to pull troops out of Afghanistan and possibly Iraq and Syria as well so that he can claim to have fulfilled a major campaign promise to end the US’s endless wars. The Pentagon military had opposed a rapid drawdown and Esper had sided with them. By having the entire civilian leadership at the Pentagon on his side on this issue, maybe he feels that the military will have to acquiesce, however grudgingly. The drawdowns envisaged will still leave some troops in those countries (the US likes to have its soldiers on the ground in as many parts of the world as possible as symbols of their global empire) but such inconvenient fact don’t bother Trump and he will still claim that he ended the wars.
The darker possibility is that Trump still harbors fantasies that he can stay on as president but realizes that he can only do so with the military’s support. If the entire civilian leadership supports him, maybe he thinks that the people in uniform will be less likely to refuse a direct order to stand by him when he refuses to leave the White House.
This latter possibility is supported by the fact that he seems to be particularly targeting the security agencies for his purges. Senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security have been forced to resign. And there have been firings and resignations at other agencies too. Richard Pilger, who as director of the Election Crimes Branch was the top person at the department of justice who oversees investigations of election fraud, has resigned following attorney general Bill Barr’s order to prosecutors to open investigations into election fraud which he clearly saw as irregular.
Maybe Trump is creating a kind of insurance policy in the event that he decides never to concede and thinks that that if the top people at the Pentagon, the DHS, and the department of justice all back his claim that the election was fraudulent and that he actually won and should continue as president, that will carry more weight with the military and the public. I think this would be utterly delusional thinking on his part but he is capable of anything and as time runs out and check mate becomes increasingly likely, desperate measures may appear to be his only hope.
At some point, Trump will overturn the chess board. What specific form this overturning will take is what is hard to predict.