No Trump moment, through this presidency of endless new and appalling moments, has been invoked in the popular memory more often than the first one, his escalator ride down the commercial halls of Trump Tower to announce his bid for the job. It’s lasted because of its absurd visual message—Donald Trump deigning to come down from the tiptop of his ugly fortress to engage with the people via escalator, an inherently ridiculous form of transport. The whole scene looks amateurish: There’s no natural light, and the setup makes it hard to capture any sense of a crowd (the president immediately exclaims that there are “thousands!” of people; in reality he offered to pay actors to attend). When I recently rewatched it, I realized that maybe it has stuck because the escalator is the ultimate symbol of the man himself—supposedly luxurious, but ultimately conjuring the artificial aesthetic of a shopping mall. While other presidential candidates might feel the need to energetically jog to the stage or physically express some sort of excitement when launching a campaign, Donald Trump gets on the moving stairway behind a stony, sleeveless Melania and just stands there, letting it carry him.
Donald Trump’s entire life has been an escalator ride. He has been carried by his name and his money and his father for as far back as it goes. It’s how he got into college and business school, (his niece, Mary Trump, claims that her uncle paid someone to take the SAT for him), how he got his real estate empire, how he thought that he could have his way with any woman he wanted. Back in October 2016, before he had won the presidency but after he had weathered the storm of the Access Hollywood tape, I tried to understand the man’s bizarre character, to assess if his extreme, unbelievable narcissism was, in fact, a mental disorder. The most useful assessment that I found came from this admission, from a doctor writing in Psychology Today: “Some of the DSM criteria are less relevant to Trump given his birth to money and life as a plutocrat that guarantees contact with high-status persons and being fawned over as a VIP.”
Throughout Donald Trump’s entire life, his pathologies have only ever launched him forward. He does not suffer consequences, and his lack of suffering consequences reaffirms for him, again and again and again, that he is bulletproof, leading him to increasing shamelessness and transgression. He gets away with the Central Park Five ad, so he moves on to birtherism and later to “very fine people on both sides.” He uses bankruptcies to his strategic advantage, leveraging them to pay no taxes, and then gets people to sign up for a for-profit university on the presumption that he’s good at business. He wins the top job in government while degrading the very concept of government.
It is one of the reasons his presidency has been psychologically stressful for so many people—both his supporters and his detractors. Some people see his actions and cannot help but be bothered by what it means that he can get away with that, while others see them and think, Why shouldn’t I get away with that too? There are a lot of ways the country has been severely harmed since Trump took office, but most of what has been happening boils down to the simple question of who gets the benefit of the doubt in America, and how far that extreme can be taken for the lucky few.
Except for, maybe, now. Donald Trump leaving the presidency will be the most dramatic transition in his life. His embarrassment at losing is so great that he cannot even admit that it happened. It’s a reaction both to being rejected and, I think, to what awaits him on the other side. Because when he departs the presidency, he is going to find himself in the middle of an unprecedented number of legal quagmires and financial disasters—unprecedented even for him.
Before the election, Jane Mayer made the convincing case that Trump could not actually afford to lose. Her story, in the New Yorker, is one part laundry list of pending legal cases and one part assessment by former associates of how Trump is going to handle it (universal conclusion: not well). The other tour de force of this genre—the reported list of what faces Donald Trump on the other side of the presidency—ran in the New York Times Magazine, from Jonathan Mahler. Here is a partial list of what Trump might be on the hook for: The district attorney of Manhattan, Cy Vance, is investigating the Trump Organization in a criminal probe that expanded its scope just last week. New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, is conducting a separate investigation into Trump’s business practices. The IRS is involved in a decadelong audit of Trump’s taxes, which extensive reporting from the New York Times has suggested might result in federal prosecution for tax fraud. Vance is also investigating the legality of the Trump campaign’s payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, made to keep the women quiet about their affairs with Donald Trump, and an August court filing shows Vance has sought to expand the scope of that probe as well. E. Jean Carroll is still suing Trump for defamation, after he denied her accusations of sexual assault by saying she was “not my type,” and Summer Zervos is pursuing a similar case because he called her a liar after she claimed he sexually assaulted her. Trump’s inaugural committee likely violated the law by paying above-market rates to Trump properties to host events, and the committee falsified records of who donated to the effort. Trump’s use of the White House lawn during the Republican National Convention might violate the criminal portions of the Hatch Act, from which the president is not exempt. State officials in Georgia are looking into the legality of the calls Trump made attempting to overturn the election. Last week, Trump was impeached for a second time by the House of Representatives, for inciting violence at the Capitol.
Again, this is not even a complete list of the problems Trump faces. He also has at least $300 million in debt—and maybe $900 million—coming due during the next four years. His incitement of violence at the Capitol has left his already uncertain business future looking even shakier; entities as distinct as the city of New York and the PGA of America ended contracts with him after the violence.
It feels like a bit of a fool’s errand to try to make a guess at exactly what will happen to Donald Trump once he leaves office. His collection of troubles looks spectacularly bad, but it depends on what is really there. It depends on how hard prosecutors pursue their cases, and it depends on how Trump fights back—his long history of fighting lawsuits by taking advantage of his access to money and shamelessness has served him well so far.
What is interesting about what is about to happen next is that if he suffers significant losses in any of these cases, it will be a triumph of rules that should be routinely enforced but in reality rarely are. Mahler’s piece in particular is peppered with lines that make this explicit—“wealthy businesspeople are generally able to take extraordinary liberties with their taxes without fear of prosecution,” for example, or “obstructing justice is the mechanism by which powerful people try to place themselves above the law.” America’s legal and financial systems—how they were built, how they are enforced, whom they prioritize—have always been that stupid escalator carrying Trump.
But here is the thing: Of all the awful things the Trump presidency has done—and the list is too long for me to even attempt—one silver lining might be that it has pulled the curtain back too far. We have spent years being battered over the head with who Trump really is. It is so obvious that this guy doesn’t deserve all the things that he has. And sure, everyone knew the system was rigged. But seeing that it’s this rigged is too much—enough to make you want to do something about it. Which is why I would venture that after leaving the presidency, Trump will have to answer for things that he would never have had to answer for before he became the most powerful person in the world. He can’t just wriggle out of it. Too many eyes are on him now.
And too many people want to see him pay for what he’s done. Here is a small example: Earlier this month, Macaulay Culkin joined calls to edit Donald Trump’s secondslong cameo out of Home Alone 2. This is mostly a dumb joke. But back in December, director Chris Columbus explained how Trump got the cameo in the first place: The president bullied his way into it. Columbus only decided to leave it in because at the first screening of the movie, back in 1992, viewers reacted positively to the scene. Prior to his presidency, Donald Trump was a jerk, sure, but maybe he was a charming jerk. He was a joke, certainly, but maybe he was in on it. Now, everyone knows exactly who Donald Trump is. Which means there’s no going back up the escalator.