Trump’s Bitter Denouement


As this essay is written, it is certain that President Donald J. Trump will be out of office by noon on January 20. What is not certain is the manner of his departure. He may leave earlier by resignation, under the complex provisions of the 25th Amendment, or by impeachment followed by trial. Much depends on the interpretation given to the tumultuous events of January 6. The proposed articles of impeachment are likely to stress that Trump incited riots, insurrections, or worse.

It is here that we need to inject a note of caution. Proof of those powerful charges is a complex issue because of the causal question of the relationship between what Trump said to his supporters and the indisputable acts of violence that took place at the Capitol. The physical movements, motivations, and timing of many individuals must be examined closely, which means that it is impossible to allow for adequate preparation of defense during the next nine days. There are still further questions of exactly who did what inside the Capitol, in light of the manifest shortcomings of the Capitol police. Their lack of preparedness and, at times, seeming acquiescence to the crowds outside likely amplified the negative consequences of Trump’s actions.

One can be deeply critical of Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the Electoral College and still acknowledge that the fundamental protections of procedural due process apply with special urgency to disfavored and despised individuals. Contrary to a growing narrative, there are also reasons to question whether his conduct amounts to either an insurrection or a coup. There is simply no time for adequate consideration of articles of impeachment, let alone for conviction after trial.

In light of these serious procedural and substantive suggestions, my vote is for his immediate resignation as the least offensive escape from this ugly impasse. That is not a new position for me. As early as January 2017, at the time of Trump’s initial executive order on immigration and border security, I stated publicly that Trump should resign. My conclusion was that he lacked the temperament, stability, and character to hold the highest office in the land.

Yet so long as he remained in office, two further principles applied. The first is “Trump a la carte.” By this phrase, I mean that it is impossible to back or oppose him across the board on substantive policy issues. Trump is intellectually undisciplined and erratic, often reaching the right result for the wrong reasons. Take, for instance, his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017. In his withdrawal statement, he stressed nationalist economic objections while ignoring the agreement’s shaky scientific assumptions. Second, it is imperative to distinguish between Trump the man and the Trump administration. As a rule of thumb, the greater the independence from Trump, the higher the performance of his appointees. Chief aides such as Jim Mattis and Bill Barr exhibited a by-now-familiar rise and fall, starting in his good graces before being subjected to huge personal abuse, leading to their inevitable resignations. These two maxims best explain Trump’s successes and failures in both domestic and foreign affairs.

Character and Actions

So how does one reflect on the Trump presidency? Start with his character. The indictment is clear. Trump is far too easy to anger, and too easily baited by his opponents. He rapidly oscillates between obnoxious bullying, juvenile insults, and servile self-pity. His better moments cannot offset the mood swings, Twitter outbursts, racist comments, and personal assaults on his own friends and colleagues. His abusive performance in the first presidential debate of 2020 was probably the largest single cause of his defeat at the ballot box. In addition, the Democratic opposition, well aware of his character flaws, baited and harassed him every step of the way. He was never in their eyes a legitimate president, which made him fair game for the hapless Mueller investigation, the highly questionable impeachment proceedings, and more. None of these endless provocations excuses or justifies his outbursts, but they do help explain his ever-more-erratic behavior and heightened rhetoric since November. And, sadly, there is reason to fear that a similar cycle of recrimination and abuse will take hold of the new Biden administration long after Trump has left office. Civility is always a two-way street.

To my mind, the key tension in this election is the distinction between Trump the person and the Trump administration. The latter includes Vice President Mike Pence, who deserves high praise for acting correctly and courageously by resisting Trump’s wrath and refusing to do anything more last week than “open” the ballots so that they could be counted, as the Twelfth Amendment specifies. And Pence would be right to resist Democratic calls to invoke the 25th Amendment to strip Trump of his powers, or have Trump face the prospect of an immediate impeachment vote—a vote that could easily take place without any discussion of the relevant questions of law and fact. Starting in 2017, Pence could have offered some policy continuity without Trump’s endless Sturm und Drang.

At this moment, it is still uncertain whether Biden will move to the center or appease his progressive wing, just as it was uncertain in 2016 whether a President Hillary Clinton would move to the center or to the left. In 2016, the negatives on Trump were far stronger than during the run-up to the 2020 campaign, so that then I could not vote for either. But for all his defects going into the 2020 campaign, Trump had outperformed expectations and was worth the gamble. Indeed, I think that he would have won if COVID-19 had not struck in March 2020. For all his faults, Trump was unfairly blamed for much of the pandemic-related disarray even though the key public health and economic decisions about COVID were made at the local level by such state governors as Andrew Cuomo in New York, Gavin Newsom in California, and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan.

The issue, then, turns to performance. Over the years, Trump has hurt himself with his hostility toward free trade and his harsh positions on immigration. In addition to his January 2017 executive order, no one can forget the decision his administration made to keep immigrant children in cages after separating them from their parents.

But other decisions and actions paint a more mixed picture. On the domestic front, progressives regard his 2017 tax cuts as a destructive giveaway to the rich and his labor policies as undercutting labor unions and minimum wage laws, laws that Biden and his new secretary of labor, Marty Walsh, strongly support. In foreign affairs, there is much to criticize about Trump’s tough stance on NATO and his supposedly close relationship with Vladimir Putin. But even here, I think that the great achievement of the Trump administration lies in the Middle East, where he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem and revitalized regional relationships. The latter effort was accomplished by his much-maligned son-in-law Jared Kushner, who managed, after the debacles of the Obama years, to propel the normalization of Israeli relations with key Arab neighbors such that the success of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is no longer a precondition to regional peace. The administration often did well, even when the president did not.

What Endures

This brings us to the bottom line on Trump. Bret Stephens’s December 14 column in the New York Times, “Donald Trump and the Damage Done,” gives away the game. He starts by noting that in January 2017, every anti-Trumper was worried about thermonuclear war, bitter military conflicts with North Korea and Iran, a muzzled free press, blackmail by Putin, and Trump judges undermining the rule of law. Though Stephens is ultimately critical of Trump, he admits that none of that came to pass. What he does not note is the surprising stability of NATO, the improved situation in the Middle East, the relatively tougher positions on Russia and China, the stock market and (pre-COVID) domestic employment booms, and the appointment of a first-class set of Trump justices and judges who uniformly stood their ground during Trump’s post-electoral efforts. Trump did more than escape disaster. He made lasting improvements to the nation.

Stephens then offers a giant “so what,” claiming that what Trump did was to corrode social trust—a charge that is true against both him and his many strident critics, starting with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. The past two months should not define either the strengths or weaknesses of Trump’s substantive proposals. I hope that it will become possible to decouple the Trump administration’s sound positions on judges, taxation, and regulation from the man himself, and defend those positions on their merits. There is no room to claim that any position Trump supported should be rejected on that basis alone—and indeed in the coming years, it will be a welcome relief to substantively argue for classical liberal positions without needing to disentangle them from Trump’s persona.

Looking forward, the key issue for the incoming Biden administration will be to present the intellectual and moral case for resisting persistent progressive efforts on two fronts. Domestically, it will be critical to resist their push for massive regulation and taxation, as well as mandated orthodoxy in the political and intellectual spheres. In foreign affairs, it will be crucial to resist efforts to reset the balance in the Middle East in favor of Iran, and to support efforts to help democratic Hong Kong resist its Chinese overlords. Ironically, we will not be able to assess the Trump administration until we see how the Biden administration handles its uncertain legacy.

© 2021 by the Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior University.

Published in Politics
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  1. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty

    Richard Epstein: Looking forward, the key issue for the incoming Biden administration will be to present the intellectual and moral case for resisting persistent progressive efforts on two fronts.

    Well, so much for that key issue.

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  2. Sisyphus Member

    Once again, our resident expert on Roman law offers Trump the sword. And to the same effect. And the impeachment vote has taken place with no investigation or serious consideration, as you suggested it could, and it even drew ten Republican votes. 

    Richard Epstein: In addition to his January 2017 executive order, no one can forget the decision his administration made to keep immigrant children in cages after separating them from their parents.

    Should be amended to read, to continue keeping. The policy long predates Trump’s inauguration.

    And, frankly, I am gobsmacked Dr. Epstein that you could write in January 2021 of our political tumult and not address the excesses of Big Tech in their efforts to censor political speech. Your exhaustive knowledge of the way these relationships develop and are resolved could shed a lot of light in this area, and living in academe with some strong political views, I cannot imagine you to be indifferent to the issue.

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  3. Hammer, The Member
    Hammer, The

    Thank you for taking an intelligent and reasoned approach to this, rather than the sort of hyper-emotional faux moral indignation that we’ve been treated to virtually everywhere else. 

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  4. Steven Seward Member
    Steven Seward

    Hammer, The (View Comment):

    Thank you for taking an intelligent and reasoned approach to this, rather than the sort of hyper-emotional faux moral indignation that we’ve been treated to virtually everywhere else.

    Agreed!  I’m getting tired of reading over-the-top and nonsensical rhetoric from both Democrats and Republicans.  I am currently trying to get my money back from National Review, whose shaky conservative principles have just collapsed lately.

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  5. Hammer, The Member
    Hammer, The

    Steven Seward (View Comment):

    Hammer, The (View Comment):

    Thank you for taking an intelligent and reasoned approach to this, rather than the sort of hyper-emotional faux moral indignation that we’ve been treated to virtually everywhere else.

    Agreed! I’m getting tired of reading over-the-top and nonsensical rhetoric from both Democrats and Republicans. I am currently trying to get my money back from National Review, whose shaky conservative principles have just collapsed lately.

    I cancelled my membership months ago. Less because of Trump and more because the conservative free-market ideas that NR spend decades analyzing, proving, and defending, were deemed suddenly obsolete (or at least on hold) in favor of covid hysteria. I just posted about this, incidentally.

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  6. CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker

    Here is where Trump’s past actions, or his in-actions, as this case will refer to, come back to haunt him.

    From May 31st to mid-Oct, some thirty neighborhoods across the USA were forced to face the insurrectionists led by DNC allies AntiFa and Black Lives Matter forces.

    These violent elements proceeded to do some 10’s of billi8ons of dollars in terms of destroying physical property and costing as many as 100 Americans their lives.

    meanwhile the Medai stated that these were peaceful protests.

    Trump held off from being involved, claiming it was a states’ rights matter.

    this is incorrect, as the US Constitution guarantees Americans the ability to lead normal lives without having to face down militant war-like activities from one side of our political spectrum. Had Trump channeled his inner Eisenhower and put boots on the ground, wherever Americans were losing their businesses, homes and lives, he could now claim that this “incitement to riot” claim is being selectively employed against him.

    But since he basically ignored the militant activity that reigned over America from May 31st to mid-October, I don’t know if he can use the claim of “selectively employed claims.” Since claims against the AntiFa, Black Lives Matter and DNC were  never put forth, by the President against these abominable forces.

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  7. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty

    I’m not sure Ricochet should be providing a forum for someone trying to ban the presidential library of our second Black president from Jackson Park.

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  8. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    What a fundamentally un-serious and contemptuous post.

    As @richardepstein knows full well, President Trump has done more to secure the West against the Russian Empire than any president since Reagan. President Trump pressed NATO member governments to actually keep their false promises of a mere 2% GDP defense spending. This gave some governments the domestic cover to fulfill this promise in the face of competing domestic budgetary demands. That shift in member nations’ budgetary behavior matters both in measurable military readiness and in signalling of political will, both forms of deterrent. Mattis knew this and dissembled in his dishonest resignation letter. Mattis was little better than General of the Armies MacArthur in his insubordination, but Epstein considers this a feature.

    President Trump drove opposition to the new Russia-Germany deal to carve up everything between them. The Nord Stream 2 deal is the 21st Century Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. As I wrote this past September about Merkel and Putin:

    Merkel has presided over the gutting of the German military from its 1980s peak as a potent part of NATO to a threadbare international joke. She has steadfastly refused to push through defense budgets that even come up to the modest 2% GDP pledge by all NATO members. She has concluded a deal with Putin to get natural gas through a new North Sea pipeline, Nord Stream 2, that bypasses Ukraine and the rest of Central/Eastern Europe. The intent is to leave the nations between Germany and Russia to Putin’s mercy, while keeping the old NATO countries, especially Germany, supplied with natural gas. This became critical when Merkel agreed to shut down all nuclear power plants, and to try to shut down all coal power plants.

    Despite U.S. pressure, Merkel has continued to push for completion of this strategic attack on NATO and the nations between Germany and Russia, an old story last involving Uncle Joe and Adolf. While Merkel is publicly feigning outrage about Putin attempting to murder another opponent, her government says this will have no effect on Nord Stream 2. Russia Today, Putin’s press instrument, has fun with the story:

    Of course, Epstein and the establishment conservative commentariate know this full well, but it does not suit their interests, as opposed to the objectively real United States interests. The rest of the post is equally disingenuous, at best.

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  10. drlorentz Member

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):
    What a fundamentally un-serious and contemptuous post.

    Unfortunately, that’s par for the course around here lately.

    • #10
  11. Jules PA Member
    Jules PA

    I’m a dumb deplorable teacher. And I don’t believe for one second that anyone with the front row seat to storm the Capitol was within hearing distance of the President’s speech. 

    Anyone who thinks this recent SNAFU is Trump’s fault need only make a catalog of the left’s egregious use of the alphabet organizations to assault the citizen’s of this country, since November 2016. 

    “They are not after me, they are after you.” President Donald J. Trump, December 19, 2019

    While small group of marauders committed a heinous act, As we write these responses, the numbers of those allegedly commiting thought crimes (not actual crimes) increases, as evidenced in cancelled social media, youtube, insurance policies, bank accounts, business contracts. THE LEFT are just getting started.  

    Professor Epstein, I don’t think, in the end, anyone who refuses to “take the knee” du jour on any given day will be escape this insane and rabid purge.

    THE LEFT are the roid-raging mob, destroying the lives, homes, businesses, and fabric of this country. 

    THE LEFT are mentally disturbed, in need of a tranquilizer shot, a straight jacket, and rubber room time-out. 

    Only then can we see past the fog their war has created.  

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  12. DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) Coolidge
    DonG (2+2=5. Say it!)

    Richard Epstein: efforts to overturn the results of the Electoral College

    This statement is false.  It would be correct to say “efforts to discard the electors of states with invalid elections”.   One false statement can destroy value of an entire article.

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  13. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    J. D. Fitzpatrick

    Epstein offers a decent framework for assessing a president’s work, and his tone is impressively tempered, given his dislike of Trump’s basic personality. If the political situation of the next five years resembles that of 2010-2019, the assessment will probably been seen as fair and just. 

    If the political situation changes—if we experience a sea change on the order of leaving the post-Napoleonic peace or entering the 1930’s—we may find that Trump has been the indispensable man for our times. 

    Time will tell, of course. 

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  14. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt

    This essay covers a lot of ground. I’ll make some rather broad distinctions concerning foreign policy, and military decisions. I believe we have spent far more time in Afghanistan than we should have. If one is to commit troops there should be a clear objective.

    One could say we’ve been more successful than Russia was in Afghanistan, but there appears to be no end in sight. Multiple tours for both full time troops and reservists has been a major contributor to suicides, and upheaval in military families. It begs the question why are we trying to drag a culture that is perfectly content to remain in the 6th century AD into the 21st century.

    The “Great Reset” proposed by the Democrats as an overture to Russia has been a disaster as well. As soon as the Sochi Olympics ended the Crimea was annexed by Russian troops. Eastern Ukraine is occupied by Russian troops, and tanks are not operated, as well as missile and, artillery strikes into Ukraine from inside Russia are not being conducted by ethnic Russian coal miners, and factory workers that settled in Ukraine decades ago.

    President Trump, unlike President Obama allowed lethal aid to Ukraine. It’s extremely difficult to kill tanks and their crews with MRE’s, and blankets.

    I will say that President Trump’s choice to be the ambassador to Poland was a disaster. She was a scold and appeared to have no knowledge of Polish history. Mike Pompeo embarrassed himself in a public scolding of Poland over reparations to Jews. Poland lost three million Jews to the camps, and three million non-Jews to forced labor and the camps, most of whom were Catholic. Lost in all this is the most Gentiles honored by Yad Vesham are Polish Catholics.

    Germany is totally unprepared militarily as a NATO partner. Helicopter pilots have lost their certifications due to lack of flying time, and naval capabilities are a mess, armored units aren’t much better.


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  15. I Walton Member
    I Walton

    He’s down, let’s kick the hell out of him.  Is this defensiveness because marxists who’ve never read Marx have taken over the Democrats?   Because the centralized monopolies are taking over the economy?  Or simply because we’re too fine to have anything to do with the guy.

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