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Essential Politics: What lies ahead in the last days of Trump

Trump supporters rally Wednesday near the White House, where the president exhorted them to march to the Capitol.
Trump supporters rally Wednesday near the White House, where the president exhorted them to march to the Capitol.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

Twelve days.

In the scripted video he released on Thursday afternoon, President Trump promised this final week and a half of his administration would now be the occasion for a “smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power.”

In the hours after that much-overdue pledge, some long-delayed moves toward a transition occurred: Administration officials, for example, sent a notice to all political appointees telling them they must resign as of Jan. 20, a routine step that Trump had blocked since November’s election.

Whether Trump will stick to his words remains a question. In the past, he has several times succumbed to pressure from aides to say or do the right thing only to rebel within days and snap back to his more typical, fight-at-all-costs approach.

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But that pugnacious style has cost him dearly. In the aftermath of his incitement of Wednesday’s deadly riot at the Capitol, the House is poised to begin a new round of impeachment proceedings next week. That won’t lead to Trump’s removal from office — the Senate has gone home and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) won’t be summoning members back before the eve of the Inauguration — but it would stand as a historic censure.

As his administration begins to melt away with a series of high-level resignations, Trump’s power over American public life has tangibly started to wane. Any renewed move to disrupt the transition will accelerate that decline.

The GOP starts its divorce

Already, Trump’s standing within his party has fallen measurably.

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In the days after the November election, many Republicans talked seriously about Trump as the front-runner for the party’s nomination in 2024. Trump even considered staging an announcement of his candidacy on Inauguration Day as a way of stealing attention from Joe Biden’s swearing-in.

Republicans were riding fairly high: Yes, Biden had won the presidency, but Democrats had lost ground in the House, and the GOP had held control of the Senate, needing only to win one of two seemingly routine runoff elections in Georgia to give Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) another two years as majority leader.

Then, as he has so often in his career, Trump overplayed his hand.

His ever-more outlandish efforts to subvert the election, grounded on falsehoods and rejected repeatedly by state election officials and judges, including many Republican appointees, drove a wedge into the party. His demands for loyalty forced Republican elected officials into increasingly obsequious positions, which they resentfully adopted in the hope of keeping the loyalty of Trump voters in the Georgia races, which suddenly no longer seemed quite so routine.

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By mid-December, polls, which turned out to be exquisitely accurate this time, indicated that Trump’s challenges to the election had galvanized Democrats in Georgia, especially Black voters. In response, Republican donors poured hundreds of millions of dollars into an effort to save their Senate majority.

This week, the reckoning arrived: On Tuesday, the Republican candidates in Georgia, Sen. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, both lost, giving the state two Democratic senators for the first time since Sen. Max Cleland lost his reelection in 2002 and, with Rev. Raphael Warnock’s election, the first Black senator in its history. Rather than McConnell, Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York will be the majority leader when the Senate reconvenes after the inauguration.

Republican leaders, already angry at the humiliations Trump had heaped on them, blamed him for the loss.

Then came Wednesday and the pro-Trump protest that the president had promoted online for weeks, timed to coincide with Congress’ usually routine counting of the states’ electoral votes.

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In the morning, Trump addressed the crowd at the Ellipse, near the White House, and urged them to march to the Capitol. His lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, called for “combat.” By midafternoon, a mob had broken into the historic building, members of Congress were hiding behind locked doors, and at least some Republicans who had believed that playing along with Trump was a harmless way to placate their voters belatedly realized their error.

Before the riot, nearly half the Republicans in the Senate had been considered possible votes against accepting the electoral count. Loeffler had promised to challenge her own state’s results. But when Congress reconvened Wednesday night, in a Capitol building disfigured by broken windows and ransacked offices, Loeffler publicly reversed herself, and only five other senators joined with Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri in either of their two challenges to the returns.

In the House, where most members represent heavily partisan districts, rather than entire states, a larger share of Republicans stuck with Trump on the electoral challenges. That underscores the reality that Trump still has strong support among the party’s base. But in this case, the Senate, with its broader constituencies, probably provides a better gauge of the overall mood: The breakup with Trump has clearly begun, and both the president’s toxic legacy and the ambition of younger Republican presidential hopefuls likely will keep the divorce proceedings moving forward.

All that was before Friday morning’s announcement that a Capitol Police officer had died from wounds he suffered while confronting rioters — fellow officers said a person in the crowd had bashed Officer Brian Sicknick in the head with a fire extinguisher. Federal prosecutors have now opened a murder investigation. That, plus investigations into pipe bombs found near the Republican and Democratic party headquarters on Capitol Hill, will create further political risk for pro-Trump Republicans who sought to minimize the riot.

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White House counsel Pat Cipollone reportedly has warned Trump that he could face criminal investigation for his role in inciting the crowd, and while Trump has talked in the past about issuing himself a blanket pardon, legal experts question whether the presidential clemency authority extends that far — a difficult issue that Judge Merrick Garland, Biden’s nominee for attorney general, may inherit.

More pardons are likely on next week’s agenda as Trump wraps up his tenure. There remains the concern that, impulsive to the last, he could still stage some form of military confrontation with Iran. And the right-wing violence that shook the Capitol this week looms as a continuing concern — Biden’s inauguration will take place under heavy security with a new 7-foot fence ringing the Capitol grounds.

But although Trump has a history of comebacks after seemingly fatal defeats, this time his self-inflicted wounds may have caught up with him. On Friday morning he made official what had long been expected — he won’t attend Biden’s swearing-in. Few if any in either party wanted him there. A month ago, his absence would have seemed an act of defiance; now it will only underscore his isolation.

Georgia’s aftermath

The Democratic wins in Georgia will ease Biden’s path in multiple ways, as Janet Hook and I outlined, starting with the confirmation of nominees like California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, Biden’s pick for Health and Human Services secretary, who would have had difficulty in a Republican-majority Senate because of his strong support for abortion rights.

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Biden will also have an easier path to passage of another round of relief for the nation’s ailing economy and other priorities. But, as Jennifer Haberkorn wrote, the fragile Senate majority will require something of a tightrope act for Democrats, who will not be able to afford a single defection on key votes.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be able to break Senate ties when she takes office, but her staff hopes she won’t need to do that often. Noah Bierman explained why.

Trump’s final self-destructive days leave him weaker and more alone, Eli Stokols, Chris Megerian and Bierman reported.

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Attack on the Capitol

If you haven’t already, read Sarah Wire’s account of being locked in a room full of panicked people in the Capitol as rioters occupied the building.

And here are some other highlights of our coverage of an unprecedented day in Washington:

— Stokols wrote about how Trump’s vow to “never concede” incited a mob of supporters.

— Wire, Haberkorn and I wrote this overall account of the day the mob stormed the Capitol.

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— Here’s how it happened: A timeline of the key moments

— Late in the day, Trump released a video in which he told the mob to “go home,” but also called them “very special,” as Megerian reported.

— Hook and Stokols examined how Trump incited violence, even after being frequently warned of the dangers of doing so.

— In the aftermath of the riot, Schumer said he would fire the Senate sergeant-at-arms, Haberkorn reported. The Senate and House sergeants-at-arms and the head of the Capitol Police have all now announced their resignations as investigations begin into why security at the Capitol failed so spectacularly.

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— As of Thursday night, 82 people had been arrested in connection with the riot, some for curfew violations, others for unlawful entry or other crimes.

The political impact

Mark Barabak examined how the attack on the Capitol had renewed talk of ousting Trump through the 25th Amendment.

I laid out why the 25th Amendment probably wouldn’t work: It’s neither quick nor easy.

Evan Halper, Hook and Haberkorn looked at whether there is enough time to act to remove Trump.

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Seema Mehta and Melanie Mason reported on Sen. Mitt Romney‘s speech during Wednesday night’s debate, which was one of the most talked-about moments. The speech marked the culmination of years of warning about Trump, they wrote.

Doyle McManus looked at Cruz and Hawley, who, he said, were torching the Constitution to further their own presidential ambitions.

And Barabak wrote about how Trump made “American carnage” reality.

The latest from the transition

Hook and Del Quentin Wilber reported on Garland, who was blocked by Republicans from the Supreme Court after President Obama picked him and will now have the difficult task of repairing a damaged Department of Justice.

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Molly O’Toole looked at another department in turmoil, Homeland Security, which lacks leadership amid a domestic security threat.

Stay in touch

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Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.


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