What Damage Will Trump Do on His Way Out?

Donald Trump at a microphone in front of American flags.
President Donald Trump at the White House on Friday. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

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The past few days have found President Donald Trump engaged in a linguistic battle against the truth. It’s as if his mind knows the jig is up, but the rest of him just can’t recognize it. Not yet. He is still firmly claiming that he’s won a second term, still deploying Rudy Giuliani to go on TV and defend the lawsuits he’s filed against election administrators around the country. But then, the president will have these little moments, where reality creeps in, almost at the subliminal level. It started on Friday, with a coronavirus press conference, where Trump nearly acknowledged the incoming administration. Then, on Sunday, Trump tweeted that Joe Biden won the election, which seemed like breaking news, until he went on to claim the election was “rigged.”

On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Rosa Brooks, a professor at Georgetown Law who has spent the past few months thinking about the ways the president could play out his final weeks in office. Brooks founded something called the Transition Integrity Project. She might not have predicted what’s happening now, but she did game it out. She literally conducted a war game this summer, plotting out what the aftermath of the 2020 election could look like. And I thought she’d know better than anyone how this back-and-forth might resolve itself. Read a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, below.

Mary Harris: You worked at the Department of Defense. How would you use these types of war games there?

Rosa Brooks: This kind of gaming exercise is a way to explore what-ifs, and it’s a way to push people to test their own biases and assumptions. Let’s hypothetically imagine that the U.S. military says we can fight three wars simultaneously. So we’re already involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s say it’s 2006 or something. Let’s imagine China invades Taiwan and Russia invades Ukraine at the same time. What are you going to do? What the gaming shows you is the risks, gaps, places where you’ve made some rosy assumption that you go, oops, maybe that rosy assumption is not merited. 

With the Transition Integrity Project, you were testing rosy assumptions about American democracy, right? You put to the test this idea that there are “guardrails” protecting America’s political process, as if the country could be saved from careening of course by a feat of structural engineering, something built-in. 

When you think of guardrails, you’re on a roller coaster at the amusement park and you’re zipping along on the unchallenging bits, and then you get to the crazy parts and these metal guardrails literally pop up next to your little coaster, and you don’t have to do anything. It’s just happens automatically. They’re mechanical things that pop up at the right moment to keep you from going literally off the rails. And people assume that institutions and laws and norms are like that too. That they just sort of automatically pop up and save you. And the reason the metaphor is so misleading is that the guardrails are us. There’s nothing automatic about it.

I wonder if part of what you wanted to do by gaming out what happens now is show people the possibilities, like, Hey, you over there in the DOJ, you’re actually a guardrail. This is how you pop up.

That’s exactly right. The purpose of the exercise is not to predict the future but to identify risks. Our hope was that it would motivate people to take some of the actions that we thought would mitigate those risks so that the worst-case scenarios we mapped out in some of our exercises would never, ever, ever come to pass.

We should be concrete about exactly what you did in these games, because my understanding is you got, like, 100 people into a Zoom roomall kinds of people like Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican Party, and Bill Kristol, the journalist, and Jennifer Granholm, the former Democratic governor of Michigan—and you put these scenarios in front of them. I even heard that you had a 10-sided die that you were rolling to introduce some randomness. So can you explain quickly what you did?

We used a type of game that’s referred to as a matrix game. The way it works is you divide your participants into teams. We had a team playing the Trump campaign, a team playing the Biden campaign, teams playing both Republican and Democratic elected officials. We had a media team. We had a career officials team, etc.

The game had very strict rules. When it was your team’s turn to make moves, you could make no more than three moves or countermoves per round. And your moves had to take a very specific form. You had to articulate them by saying, We are going to do X in order to achieve Y, and we believe it will be successful because Z. Like, the Trump campaign would say, We’re going to go to court in Michigan to seek to stop the vote count because we think that if the mail-in ballots are counted, we won’t win, and we want to get them suppressed, and we think we’re going to be successful in court because the judge is a Republican appointee who we think loves us. And that would be a move. And then everybody would go out of role for a few minutes and discuss this and talk about, Well, is this likely to succeed? And they come to some consensus. Then our game master would assign, based on this discussion, a probability to the success of that move and the 10-sided die would be rolled. And then if the die roll meant that it succeeded, then other players had to assume that that legal challenge was successful. “The recount in Michigan has been stopped.” Now, what? Your move.

Who do you most wish was there who wasn’t? I wonder if you look back and think, I wish some of the folks who are now speaking out in support of Trump would have been there to help us see what happens now.

No, I don’t wish that at all. The purpose of these games was not to help the Trump side figure out how to further destroy American institutions. If you’re in the military and you’re trying to figure out what would happen if China invaded Taiwan, you don’t invite the Chinese to be part of the game.

We were very clear from the beginning that although this was a bipartisan exercise and that we all believe very firmly that the American people get to vote for whoever the hell they want, even if we disagree, we wanted people who shared the view that there were some real threats to the rule of law and norms relating to free, fair, and peaceful elections and transition. It would have defeated the whole purpose to have the actual pro-Trump people who like the idea of undermining the free, fair, and peaceful elections and transitions be part of it.

You gamed out four different scenarios—a clear Biden win, a clear Trump win, a narrow Biden win, and no clear election winner. In the clear Biden victory scenario, what happened looked a lot like what’s going on now, right?  

Trump is predictable. It’s not like we’re seeing new behavior from him. With or without our exercises, the Biden team would have been thinking this guy is not going to go gently into that good night. He’s going to kick and scream all the way. We have to be prepared for that as a possibility.

Do you see the Biden administration as acting as forcefully as they need to?

I think they’re doing what they can do. And there’s actually a lot that they can do without Trump’s cooperation. They can prepare the Day One executive orders. They can prepare nationwide COVID-19 guidance that says, Here are the indicators at which point you should close bars. Even giving a really clear message that says here is what the science says you should do that’s clear and consistent could make a big difference. There is a lot of planning that is taking place already by the transition team. They’re not sitting around weeping into their coffee mugs because the Trump agency people won’t meet with them.

It’s more dangerous on the national security side. The COVID stuff, it’s not classified information. It’s just obnoxious that the Trump folks won’t let them meet with them. On the national security side, it’s a little bit more dangerous, and Trump has done some last minute purging at the Defense Department.

The news about what’s happening with these defense officials, to me, has been a little difficult to parse. What is the motivation behind putting these people in place right now?

So there are benign theories, and there are really paranoid theories. And I’m inclined to think the relatively benign theories are correct. The benign theories are not great, by the way. They’re just not as apocalyptic as the paranoid theories.

What are the benign theories? 

It’s been clear that Mark Esper’s head was on the chopping block since June when he said publicly, I’m opposed to any invocation of the Insurrection Act or use of active duty military troops to restore order during protests. Trump had floated that, and when Esper publicly came out against it, it was clear it was just a matter of time. Everybody was surprised he wasn’t fired sooner. So the benign theory says this is partly just spite. Trump is in a rage. He’s lashing out. He’s looking for people who haven’t been obsequious enough. It’s also, incidentally, a way to “burrow”—when you get political folks appointed to career positions where they have civil service job protections, making it harder for an incoming administration to fire them.

Yeah, that’s the theory that my colleague Fred Kaplan put forward, where he talked about how in some ways this is planning for the future, putting in place Trump’s own deep state. 

That’s entirely possible. That’s still more benign than the really paranoid theories. And the really paranoid theories are you’ve got people who are unwilling to use active duty military to suppress peaceful protests in the United States. You replace them with a bunch of people who won’t stand in your way if you want to do that. Or you get out of the way people who are going to oppose some kind of really crazy military adventurism or really foolish strategic moves. And then you can perhaps, in the covert sphere, make them against Iran or whatever. And those are the darker theories. I think the burrowing, every outgoing administration does that to some extent.

I’m no longer that worried that Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration is going to be somehow prevented. I’m still a little bit worried because I’m always a little bit worried about everything. But I am quite concerned about what happens not just the day after inauguration, but in the next couple of years, because we have seen some pretty dark forces that have been unleashed and empowered by Trump and his allies. And they’re not going anywhere.

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