Making political predictions can be about as foolhardy as walking into a Las Vegas casino and predicting success at the blackjack table – better to pipe down, be humble, and watch how the action develops. But if there is one thing we can bet our money on, it’s that a defeated Donald Trump (assuming, of course, he will be defeated tonight) will still have quite a lot of time to enact policies and make history before vacating the Oval Office. There is a popular assumption that U.S. presidents who will return to normal life in late January are lame-ducks twiddling their thumbs for the remainder of their terms. History, however, demonstrates how wrong that assumption is.
Free from electoral considerations and only two months away from retirement, presidents on their way out the door will very often use the remainder of their tenures to notch legacy-defining wins, protect their friends and associates, and push through reforms that on a normal day would produce howls from Congress and the public.
On Christmas Eve, a month-and-a-half after he got trounced by the upstart Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election, outgoing president George H.W. Bush did what only a commander-in-chief has the power to do: throw away criminal convictions.
In what turned out to be his last major act as president, Bush issued pardons to several Americans who had been convicted or pleaded guilty to involvement in the Iran-Contra affair – a scandal that nearly brought down Ronald Reagan’s presidency (Bush was Reagan’s vice president for eight years). One of those individuals given a second chance courtesy of Bush’s stroke of a pen was Caspar W. Weinberger, the defense secretary under Reagan, who had been accused of lying to Congress about his knowledge of arms sales to Iran. Clinton, who was preparing to be sworn in as Bush’s successor, called the decision a highly troubling precedent for future government employees who may come to believe they are above the law.
The moves of outgoing presidents haven’t always been sinister. Clinton, for instance, spent the November-December period at the tail-end of his presidency trying to establish a name for himself as one of the world’s biggest peacemakers. While the newly-elected George W. Bush was measuring the drapes in the Oval Office, Clinton was publishing the so-called Clinton Peace Plan in a last-gasp attempt to hammer out an accord between Israel and the Palestinians. At about the same time, his negotiators were talking to the North Koreans and cajoling them to sign a missile limitation agreement. Both initiatives eventually floundered – each of these problems persisted well into the next U.S. administration and remain unresolved today. Bill Clinton, however, continued working until the moment he transitioned power to his successor.
George W. Bush spent his closing days in the White House pushing through regulations that made it easier for industry to scotch over environmental laws, a move that caused anger amongst climate change activists at the time. He also released over $17 billion (£13bn) in taxpayer funding to bail out GM and Chrysler, two auto companies that were on the verge of bankruptcy due to the 2008 recession. Bush, like Clinton and his father before him, realised that his presidential wand was as powerful in the last month of his tenure as it was on his first day on the job eight years earlier.
The last two months were busy for Barack Obama as well. Obama, for instance, could have left it up to Donald Trump to punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Instead, Obama took action himself by sanctioning several Russian officials and organisations for the infringement, in addition to kicking nearly three dozen Russian officials out the country. The Obama administration also took corrective measures on its policy in Yemen, blocking the delivery of precision-guided munitions to the Saudi-led coalition to register its disapproval with the way Riyadh prosecuted the war.
So in the event Trump does in fact lose to Joe Biden, the Trump presidency as we know it wouldn’t be over immediately. The 45th president of the United States still has two months to go before jetting out of town and returning to Trump Tower. And if Trump has revealed anything about himself over the last five years as a politician, it's that just about anything can happen on his watch.