What next for Donald Trump? World leaders don’t, as a rule, go hungry upon leaving office. There are positions on corporate boards to take up, lucrative speaking engagements to be booked, handsome advances for books – even if they don’t sell quite as well as expected (I see you, David Cameron). The consulting opportunities are endless, as Tony Blair has proved. They’re not always terribly savoury (see Blair’s work with Kazakhstan) but that usually merits only passing attention.
Trump, however, is in the difficult position of needing the money more than any of his predecessors did, despite holding huge assets. He also faces barriers of his own making – the insurrection he fomented the most obstructive of all – to at least some of the perks former presidents typically enjoy. Many of the people who welcomed George W Bush and cut him a cheque when he wasn’t painting won’t want to associate with Trump.
His legal problems, meanwhile, are just beginning and legal experts consider the idea of Trump preemptively pardoning himself a non-starter. Besides, this would only cover federal, and not state, offences.
Lawyers are expensive and, in Trump’s case, may require payment in advance. They certainly should request this, given his history. He may also face a premium to get the good ones he’ll need given the marked reluctance big firms have displayed towards working with him.
Relying on the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, who have fronted some of the failed lawsuits filed with a view to overturning the election results in swing states, wouldn’t seem to be a terribly clever strategy when you’ve got aggressive prosecutors coming after you. And Trump certainly has that in New York (over tax), potentially Georgia (over his phone calls demanding the state “find” him the votes to overturn the results), perhaps Washington DC and federally. The list is a long one.
My colleague Sean O’Grady argued before the election that Joe Biden should confer on him a full presidential pardon to allow America to heal, like the one Gerald Ford granted Richard Nixon in 1974. Ford argued that his former boss’s acceptance of it was an admission of guilt and that it was time to look forward, or move on as we might say today.
This, however, was before Trump’s attempts to overturn the election culminated in the deadly riots, from which America is still reeling. It’s no longer politically feasible for Biden to take that step, even if he wanted to (and Nixon’s pardon didn’t exactly help Ford’s re-election bid).
Trump’s businesses are also facing challenges. The real estate and hospitality sectors have been hit hard by the pandemic. Trump’s operations have substantial debts, some of which he has personally guaranteed. Re-financing them may prove difficult. Trump’s behaviour has sent lenders running for cover. Even the previously loyal Deutsche Bank has cut ties. Does another bankruptcy loom? It’s a tactic he’s used in the past.
What’s troubling is that Trump has a potential ace. The very things that have made him a pariah to some have made him a mix of hero and martyr to his devoted fans. Polling suggests millions of them have bought into his baseless claims of a stolen election and continue to back him.
While the most recent poll showed his job approval falling to an all time low of 29 per cent, that’s still 29 per cent of Americans who were prepared to say he was doing a good job despite what went on in Washington DC, not to mention the spiralling coronavirus death toll and everything else besides. Nearly one in every three Americans adds up to a very big market.
The Trump brand used to stand for luxury, albeit of a tacky kind, the sort that the genuinely wealthy would shun but which seemed to have an appeal to those with sufficient disposable income to want to flaunt it by showing off their membership of his golf clubs or their stays at his hotels.
Now? Now it stands for MAGA. Trump’s next move, then, is obvious: the monetising of MAGA. This will be complicated by his de-platforming from his favourite social media sites. But it’s notable that he still raised more than $200m on the back of those false claims from his supporters (even if some have since suffered buyer’s remorse).
It’s a competitive field he’s entering, filled with the people that helped facilitate his rise. The creation of a MAGA media empire would appear a stretch given how entrenched Fox News is, even after the hit to its ratings from Trump’s promoting of rivals like Newsmax that have outflanked it from the right (unless he partners with one of them and watch this space).
There’s also his apparent inability to recognise how to pull back from the cliff edge. But that brand; aggressive, entitled, conspiratorial and shameless, has enough adherents to make a fortune off. Trump has a formidable database of those adherents, too, at a time when data is gold.
America’s nightmare president is unlikely to fade into a lucrative background as others have. The nightmare isn’t over, but those legal issues might well bring the curtain down on it.