2020: The year Trump's roller-coaster presidency finally went off the rails

·6-min read

2020 was the fourth and final year of Donald Trump's presidency. The outgoing US leader created diplomatic chaos internationally, widened ideological gaps domestically, and legitimised lies and direct attacks on adversaries, inspiring populists worldwide. RFI looks at the election process that finally brought an end to the roller coaster ride.

A full month after Election Day in the United States, on 3 November, there was still no official result of the presidential race, even though most media outlets had announced the victory of Joe Biden. Incumbent President Donald Trump did everything to turn the tide, with some of his fiercest critics accusing him of planning a coup d’état. But it was all in vain.

Remember this? At the end of that nail-biting election night, viewers all over the world watched as Joe Biden’s lead in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Texas diminished and shifted to Donald Trump. In the end, just a handful of states were “too close to call,” and Trump, eager to go ahead, declared victory in a rambling press conference at 7am Universal Time.

Then, in quick succession, Michigan and Illinois turned Democratic blue. In a controversial move, right-wing Fox News “called” the State of Arizona for Biden, earning the scorn of the Trump campaign, which reportedly ordered Fox owner Rupert Murdoch to change the call. In vain. Associated Press and many other news organisations followed suit.

Turning point

The Fox News "award" of Arizona to Biden marked a turning point, and things started to unravel for the incumbent president.

“News organisations have no legal authority to do anything that determines the outcome of the election,” Professor Herman Mark Schwartz, a political scientist with the University of Virginia told RFI.

Fox News calling Arizona for Biden may have been a political statement. “Fox owner Rupert Murdoch was sending a message from the big-business, boat-owning part of the Republican Party – which doesn’t like Trump’s policy craziness and erratic behaviour – to the voters with lower education, evangelical Christians,” showing the split within the Grand Old Party.

Trump, furious, tweeted that Fox “forgot what made them successful, forgot what got them there. They forgot the Golden Goose,” presidential support leading Trump followers to embrace the ultra-conservative TV station Newsmax.

Pro-Biden CNN finally called Arizona on 13 November, with most of the votes counted. Arizona was the last hope for Trump to put a dent in Biden’s projected victories.

Constitutional crisis?

Edward Foley, author of a scarily accurate prophecy “Preparing for a Disputed Presidential Election,” published in 2019, correctly predicted that the battleground states of Arizona and Pennsylvania would face a ‘blue shift’ resulting in legal attacks from the Republicans that would, eventually, reach Congress “where it potentially might metastasise into a full constitutional crisis.”

He adds that “the most frightening scenario is where the dispute remains unsolved on 20 January 2021,” when the new president is supposed to be inaugurated, “and the military is uncertain as to who is entitled to receive the nuclear codes as commander-in-chief.”

Last resort: call in the army

Critics feared that Trump might play one last card: using the possibility of civil unrest to send in troops and seize power. Indeed, on 2 December, General Mike Flynn, who has just been pardoned by Trump after being accused of lying to the FBI over his contacts with the Russians, retweeted a “Call” for the declaration of “martial law” where US troops would oversee a “new election.”

In the weeks leading up to that remark, Trump oversaw a rapid succession of changes in the military leadership, “terminating” Defense Secretary Mark Esper, firing the Pentagon’s top policy official James Anderson, and the Deputy Chief of Staff to the Defense Secretary Alexis Ross.

“Trump was removing the civilian leadership to put in people loyal to him,” says Herman Schwartz, a political scientist with the University of Virginia, in an interview with RFI “which could be a prelude to invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act.”

This is a law that empowers the president to deploy US military and National Guard troops on domestic soil to help with natural disasters, but also to quell civil disorder and rebellion.

Last June, after the killing of George Floyd triggered massive demonstrations in Illinois, Minnesota and Oregon, Trump warned that he would “deploy the US military and quickly solve the problem” by invoking the Insurrection Act.

Arrest Biden

If he did invoke the 1807 Act, Trump could “tell the civilian leadership ‘I order you to order the troops to arrest Biden' or 'arrest the legislature of a state where Democrats won',” according to Schwartz.

But, he adds, the military wouldn't necessarily agree.

During a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on 9 July, top army chiefs showed themselves non-committal on the question of the Insurrection Act.

“We don’t police American streets," Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy was quoted as saying. The military “have the legal right to disobey an illegal order, following principles first established at the post WW2 Nuremberg trials", says Schwartz.

Electoral College

On 14 December, the election fever that had kept people awake for days, briefly returned. Would all the members of the electoral colleges vote as they had been instructed to?

Following weeks of Republican legal challenges that were easily dismissed by judges, Trump and Republican allies tried to persuade the Supreme Court last week to set aside 62 electoral votes for Biden in four states, which might have thrown the outcome into doubt.

'Faithless electors'

Trump’s last hope may have been that there would be “faithless electors”, who would not vote according to their mandate. This happened during elections in 2016, as a result of which Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton lost seven of her votes, and Trump two.

But not this time. “The Supreme Court this year issued an opinion saying states have the right to stop faithless electors,” Foley, told RFI, while pointing out: “Not all states have taken advantage of this ruling...in theory there is a chance it could happen again.”

In the end, all electors voted exactly as they had been instructed, and the tally was confirmed: 306 for Biden, 232 for Trump.

The 20th Amendment of the US Constitution stipulates that, in the unlikely event that Biden is not sworn in or Trump is not re-appointed, the Speaker of the House, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, takes over as acting president until a decision is taken.

“But ultimately, it's Congress's decision on 6 January. And I think it's clear that Congress is going to say that Biden won,” says Foley.

So what if all attempts fail and Trump still refuses to leave the White House on 20 January?

Schwartz says: “the secret service as a bureaucracy has already begun behaving as if Biden is the president-elect.

“So if Trump is in the White House on 21 January, sitting in the Oval Office holding on to the desk, they're probably going to pick him up and handcuff him and take him out,” Foley says.