He once bestrode the narrow world of Washington politics like a Colossus. Now he looks like nothing so much as a petty man.
Welcome to the incredible shrinking presidency of Donald Trump.
There is something Shakespearean about the end days of Mr. Trump, and like the Colossus of the ancient world – with one foot on each side of the harbour entrance to Rhodes – Mr. Trump has one foot in the American presidency and one foot in the postpresidency.
He once loomed so large. Now he seems so small.
Mr. Trump once muscled himself past Prime Minister Dusko Markovic of Montenegro to get to the centre of a NATO group picture. This past weekend he did a virtual drop-by during the G20 meeting and then repaired to the golf course.
He once was at the centre of the American response to the coronavirus. He hasn’t spoken about it as the health crisis in the United States has deepened. Indeed there was inadvertent truth in what he said at a campaign rally in Lumberton, N.C., on Oct. 24: “COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID.’ By the way, on Nov. 4, you won’t hear about it anymore.’'
Americans have not heard anything substantial about COVID-19 from the President since Nov. 4. He hasn’t met with the White House coronavirus task force in more than five months. As the virus has stampeded across the United States – 30 states set new infection records last month alone – the President has been almost invisible apart from vowing he would not lead the country into a lockdown and trumpeting the imminence of a vaccine.
“This is unique in the American experience,’' said Max Skidmore, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and an author of a book on presidential leadership during health crises. “This illustrates the vulnerabilities in our system. We thought we were a world-class constitutional republic, as sound and as stable as the Rock of Gibraltar. But we have a wild person who couldn’t care less about what is happening with this virus and is blind to the consequences of his inattention.”
Rather than fight the virus, Mr. Trump is fighting an apparent losing battle to avoid being tarred the loser in the 2020 presidential race.
Saturday night he weighed in again on his effort to overturn the results. “Hopefully the Courts and/or Legislatures will have the COURAGE to do what has to be done to maintain the integrity of our Elections, and the United States of America itself,” he wrote on Twitter.
However, “There is no evidence, there’s nothing to these suits, there’s no legal merit to any of it,’' Clifford B. Levine, one of the principal Democratic lawyers in the Pennsylvania lawsuits, said in an interview.
“He just wants to create havoc and delay certification of the vote. It’s a like bad comb-over. There’s no hair there.”
On Saturday night, a federal judge, citing “strained legal arguments without merit,” dismissed the last major Trump campaign lawsuit in Pennsylvania, prompting the state’s Republican Senator, Pat Toomey, to say Mr. Trump “has exhausted all plausible legal options” to challenge the Pennsylvania results. Michigan and Pennsylvania face a Monday deadline to certify their election results.
In truth, Woodrow Wilson, even more than Mr. Trump, avoided a prominent role in the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic. And though presidents in their final months in office realize their influence is waning, some of them try to put their last days to good use. Jimmy Carter, for example, negotiated the release of the American hostages in Iran, and both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush are widely credited with taking steps to ameliorate economic distress at the end of their terms in office.
Besides the drug-pricing initiative Mr. Trump announced Friday and some late appointments – there remains a chance the two Trump Federal Reserve Board nominees will win Senate approval – the President is in eclipse.
His appointees, to be sure, are moving forward with policy initiatives such as granting oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska while Mr. Trump has resisted conceding the election – a strong contrast to the past three Republican presidents who were denied re-election.
The night Herbert Hoover was defeated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, he sent FDR a telegram congratulating him “on the opportunity that has come to you to be of service to the country” and pledging to “dedicate myself to every possible helpful effort.” Gerald R. Ford’s voice was so weakened by late campaigning that he had his wife, Betty Ford, read aloud a “Dear Jimmy” telegram he sent in 1976 saying that Mr. Carter “will have my complete and wholehearted support.”
And in classic Bush-speak, George H. W. Bush opened his 1992 concession speech by saying: “Well here’s the way I see it – here’s the way we see it, and the way the country should see it – that the people have spoken and we respect the majesty of the democratic system.”
But no political figure likes to lose; Stephen Harper was disappointed when the Liberals won power in 2015 but said, “While tonight’s result is certainly not the one we had hoped for, the people are never wrong.” Former senator George McGovern of South Dakota (1972) and former vice-president Walter F. Mondale (1984) said much the same thing when they were defeated in landslides.
Shortly after Mr. Mondale’s defeat, however, he found himself at a baggage carousel in Washington with Mr. McGovern. “George,” he asked, “how long does it take for the hurt to wear off?” Mr. McGovern said: “I’ll call you when it does.”
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