There was a point early last year in which the political world questioned whether Donald Trump would seek a second term as president. The New York Times reported in March 2019 that people close to the Republican incumbent assumed he’d run again, if for no other reason than “because of his legal exposure if he is not president.”
In other words, Trump had to seek a second term, because the alternative raised the specter of possible indictments. The president’s 2020 plans wouldn’t simply be about pride or ego; it’s effectively be part of a criminal-defense strategy.
Twenty months later, the issue’s relevance still lingers. The New York Times reported overnight:
Seldom far from Mr. Trump’s thoughts … is the possibility of defeat — and the potential consequences of being ejected from the White House. In unguarded moments, Mr. Trump has for weeks told advisers that he expects to face intensifying scrutiny from prosecutors if he loses. He is concerned not only about existing investigations in New York, but the potential for new federal probes as well, according to people who have spoken with him.
At a campaign rally last night, Trump told supporters that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation exonerated him — reality tells a fundamentally different story — and the results of the probe make him “perhaps the most innocent man anywhere in the history of the United States.”
That’s obviously ridiculous, and if the Times‘ new reporting is correct, even the president himself doesn’t believe it.
And given the publicly available information, he shouldn’t. New York‘s Jon Chait recently noted, “[Trump] faces serious legal jeopardy by prosecutors in Manhattan and New York State for what seems to be, on its face, fairly cut-and-dried criminal fraud in his private business dealings. It is also possible that, having left office, prosecutors may turn over some rocks and discover more criminal behavior as president of the United States. (The Department of Justice has a policy of not charging the president with crimes, but that expires if he leaves office.)”
Trump may win a second term, at which point all of this speculation would become moot. Though the legal principle is controversial, Justice Department policy has been interpreted to mean that a sitting president cannot be indicted while in office.
But if the Republican falls short, it’s not too surprising that “intensifying scrutiny from prosecutors” would be on his mind. Most former presidents think about memoirs and libraries; Trump would have to think about subpoenas and depositions.
For his part, Joe Biden has twice made categorical commitments not to pull a Gerald Ford: which is to say, if he wins, the Delaware Democrat will not pardon his predecessor.