"It's Time for America To Unite" Joe Biden Sets Out to Make America Great Again

Joe Biden has won the election, but he is facing an immense task. America is deeply divided and Trump's followers are just as passionate as ever. What are the president-elect's prospects for success?
Foto: Edel Rodriguez / DER SPIEGEL

Joe Biden's reaction to his victory sounded almost old-fashioned. "With the campaign over, it's time to put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us and come together as a nation," the Democratic victor said on Saturday.

It was a sentence that betrayed a yearning for America's political past, when hate and discord hadn't yet completely overtaken the country's politics. But will that wish be fulfilled?

This election, in which a record number of voters cast their ballots, came at a moment of almost unprecedented division in the United States, with each side intent on keeping the other out of power. Nevertheless, Biden has spoken of his victory not as a personal one, but as a win for the entire country. "It's time for America to unite. And to heal." Biden, in short, is appealing to the nation's soul.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden: "It's time to put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us."

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden: "It's time to put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us."


Donald Trump, by contrast, released a statement on Saturday morning in which he claimed that his opponent is falsely posing as the winner, with the support of the media - essentially an open attack on democracy by a man who is refusing to accept defeat.

After days of vote counting, though, it became clear on Saturday that Joe Biden, 77, has been elected the new president of the U.S. And that is true despite Trump's intention to challenge the results – both in court and via recounts – and his attempts to sow doubts about the legitimacy of Biden's victory. His lawyers and his army of Twitter propagandists are disseminating lies of "magical sacks of ballots" that allegedly keep appearing in an effort to push Biden over the top. They also continue to portray the protracted process of counting every single vote as some kind of conspiracy.

Donald Trump has thus far refused to concede.

Donald Trump has thus far refused to concede.


Really, though, it is just simple mathematics. The longer the mail-in votes were counted in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Georgia, the closer Biden came to the 270 electoral votes he needed for victory. Beyond that, Biden received at least 4 million more votes than the incumbent nationwide.

Despite the triumph, though, many Democrats have not been overtaken by euphoria. They had been hoping for a landslide victory, for an unequivocal American reckoning with the Trump presidency. In the final days before the vote, it had seemed possible that the Democrats could poach a number of traditionally conservative states from the Republicans, including Florida, North Carolina and perhaps even Texas. And the Senate. That, at least, seemed to be what the surveys were indicating.

Biden, though, apparently only managed the minimum necessary: He reconquered the erstwhile Democratic strongholds of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, seemingly winning back some of the white, working-class voters that Trump had poached back in 2016.

The upshot, though, is still the end of the Trump presidency, which is not a small achievement for Biden. The last president to be voted out of office after just a single term was George H. W. Bush, who lost to Bill Clinton in 1992.

Biden has driven a man out of the Oval Office who has spent the last four years trampling on the norms of democracy, a president who labeled America's European allies as "foes," who tried to get his attorney general to investigate Joe Biden and who prematurely claimed victory on Tuesday night with no evidence that he had won.

The DER SPIEGEL cover before the race was called and after. Here is the story published on Friday.

The DER SPIEGEL cover before the race was called and after. Here is the story published on Friday.

Foto: SAMSON; Edel Rodriguez / DER SPIEGEL

Most Republicans didn't back Trump's overhasty claims to re-election, with even Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke immediately after Trump, insisting that the counting of votes would take time. Not even the conservative TV broadcaster Fox News was willing to parrot Trump's line. On the contrary, the president's favorite station attracted his ire by declaring Biden the victor in Arizona before all other networks, thus making it look even less likely that Trump might return for four more years.

Now, Trump and his disciples are claiming without evidence that the counting of the mail-in ballots amounts to election fraud.

That is merely a precursor of what is to come: Despite winning the election, Biden wasn't able to rid America of the demon of Trumpism. The president's populist ideology isn't going away any time soon and it now dominates the Republican Party, even if the ideology's most prominent mouthpiece must now leave the White House.

Despite everything, Trump can claim a number of triumphs: He managed to expand his voter base by 5 million votes relative to the 2016 election and he defended the Republican bastions of Florida and Texas. And he did so despite his disastrous handling of the coronavirus crisis  and the resulting recession, which has cost over 11 million jobs. He has a foundation of supporters who believe only him, and in some parts of the country, he generated a surprising amount of support from Latino and Black voters.

The Fight for America's Soul

The fight for the soul of America, in other words, is far from over. It will continue.

Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris now have four years to try to heal America. Four years to release the country from the bitterness of the Trump years, from his narcissism, from the incompetence of his government and the attacks launched by Trump and his lackeys against the country's democratic institutions.

But Biden isn't likely to be a particularly strong president. There are a number of indications that the oldest candidate ever to win the presidency will merely be a transitional figure - with he himself hinting that he will likely be just a single-term president. Biden will also have the task of leading a party that is deeply divided on the question of what it wants to be: a progressive party leaning to the left or the moderate, centrist party it always has been?

The Democrats also may have fallen short of a key aim of theirs: They have thus far been unable to win back control of the Senate. A final determination, though, will have to wait for January, when both Senate seats in Georgia will go to a run-off election. If the Republican candidates emerge victorious, the Senate will continue to be led by Mitch McConnell, a loyal Trump factotum who even during the Barack Obama years demonstrated his ability to torpedo legal reforms launched by a Democratic-led White House.

The man who will be sworn in on Jan. 20 was hardly one that the Democrats were excited about. When the race for the Democratic nomination began in summer 2019, there were a number of challengers who seemed better positioned. There was Bernie Sanders, the gnarled senator from Vermont whose progressive platform had transformed him into a hero for a young and angry generation of Americans. And Pete Buttigieg, whose brilliant rhetoric was reminiscent of a young John F. Kennedy.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris

Foto: Michael Perez / AP

But Joe Biden? The former senator from Delaware never possessed the charisma of Sanders, who is still calling for a revolution at an age when most are content to sit back in their easy chairs. Biden has likewise never been even close to as eloquent as Obama.

Just a few days before the election, the contrast between Biden and Obama was once again on full display. In an appearance in Detroit, the ex-president ably mocked Trump's obsession with crowd sizes, saying: "Does he have nothing better to worry about? Did no one come to his birthday party as a kid? Was he traumatized?" He then added: "Is Fox News not giving him enough attention?"

When Biden then took over, he said: "It kind of reminds you how good it can be listening to him, doesn't it?" It was a well-meaning sentence, but it was also a kind of admission that he could never hold a candle to Obama.

Biden has never exuded the kind of magnetism that Obama does, and his career in politics has been characterized by an unwillingness to stick his neck out. That has built a reputation as a moderate and reliable politician, but has also meant that as a consensus seeker, he has backed a number of Washington missteps over the years. He lent his approval to Bill Clinton's deregulation of the financial markets just as he did to George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. As Obama's sidekick, he proved to be a charming and loyal vice president.

Ultimately, Biden ended up with the nomination due to a mixture of fear and caution. In the battle against Trump, the Democrats decided on a candidate who seemed to present the smallest possible risk. Biden doesn't embody a new era. Instead, he represents the good old days, back when politics was practiced by men who may hold competing viewpoints, but who didn't demonize the other. Not a few Americans yearn for the return of such times.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama: "Did no one come to his birthday party as a kid?"

Former U.S. President Barack Obama: "Did no one come to his birthday party as a kid?"

Foto: Jessica McGowan / Getty Images

And his success provides all the justification he needs, in addition to opening the door to doubts as to whether any of the other, younger, perhaps more exciting Democratic candidates could have been more successful against Trump. Biden, after all, has managed to once again unite Democrats from the left wing to the center.

A factor that may have helped Biden was that Americans, in these difficult pandemic-plagued times, could see themselves in the former vice president. His political existence was never a particularly charmed one, as was Obama's, and it often seemed as though the deck was stacked against him.

Biden's Pain

As he mentioned over and over again during the campaign, he was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1942 as the son of a used-car salesman, and in contrast to most U.S. presidents, he didn't go to an expensive Ivy League school. Biden's first significant triumph was his election to the Senate on Nov. 7, 1972, at the tender age of 29. Just six weeks later, a truck slammed into the car driven by his wife, Neilia Biden. Both she and their 13-month-old daughter Naomi died.

Friends later reported that Biden thought about taking his own life, but he was able to gather his courage and took his oath of office at the bedside of his two sons, Beau and Hunter, both of whom had been injured in the accident. For years, he commuted between Washington and his second hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, where his sister Valerie took care of the boys during the day.

Biden's strongest moments during the campaign were consistently those when he spoke about his painful past, such as when he talked about his immense sorrow that overcame him after his son Beau died from a brain tumor in 2015 at the age of just 45. In August last year, he gave CNN journalist Anderson Cooper a long interview about the pain caused by the loss of a loved one and about the waves of mourning that still crash over him. "It never goes away," Biden said.

When Biden spoke about his pride in his deceased son at the first televised debate back in early August, Trump jumped in to say: "I don't know Beau, I know Hunter," before then reviling Hunter Biden, the candidate's youngest son, for his addiction to cocaine. Instead of launching a counterattack, Biden said: "My son, like a lot of people at home, had a drug problem. He's overtaking it. He's fixed it. He's worked on it. And I'm proud of him. I'm proud of my son."

Biden is the opposite of an egomaniacal president who apparently lacks any capacity for compassion. And many Americans were touched by Biden's vulnerability during the campaign. He spoke of his childhood when a teacher mocked him for stuttering. He spoke about his father, who lost his job as a young man and was only able to provide his family with a middle-class existence later in life.

When Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20 as the 46th president of the United States, there is widespread hope that it will mark the beginning of the end of the Trump-era hysteria and a return to some semblance of normalcy. Biden said over and over again during the campaign that Trump was an historical "aberration." And there is no doubt that Biden will put an end to the nepotism that has characterized Trump's administration.

Biden has been in politics for more than 40 years, but in all that time, nobody has seriously accused him of abusing his political office to enrich himself. For decades, he has lived off a senator's salary, which currently stands at $170,000 per year, and he has reliably released his tax returns every year since 1998. He only began amassing more wealth after his tenure as vice president came to an end, at which time he wrote his memoirs and began giving paid speeches. Compared to Trump, Biden's finances are as clear as a glacial lake, which is likely one of the reasons that the GOP's unfounded claims - that Biden was involved in dubious business deals in China - never gained much traction.

In contrast to the leftist Senator Bernie Sanders, Biden's campaign for the White House was not rooted in a vast reform project. From the very beginning, his message was that of ridding the country of Donald Trump. Biden offers the wounded country a kind of group therapy session to cleanse itself of the hate and discord. As president, he wants to be the anti-Trump.

This more therapeutic approach will make it easier for Biden from the get-go to find common ground with the party's left wing. Still, Biden has consistently had an open ear for the American finance industry. His home state of Delaware is a tax haven and has been able to attract a fair number of insurance firms and credit card companies.

In June of last year, Biden joined a dinner with wealthy donors in New York. Over a meal of lobster tail, the candidate promised his listeners that they didn't have to be concerned about their assets. "We may not want to demonize anybody who has made money," he said. Just over a year later, he promised Sanders and the party's left wing: "I will be the most progressive president since FDR," a reference to the author of the New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The desire to defeat Trump held the Democrats together during the campaign. But how long will that peace last now that Trump has been voted out of the White House?

The Democrats have an identity problem and the party is home to a wide variety of positions. There are those who would like to defund the police and ban internal combustion engines. But it is also a party that targets suburban families who drive their children to baseball practice in SUVs and whose biggest concern is that their homes could be broken into.

It has only been about nine months since the left-wing Democratic star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez openly expressed just how little she has in common with Joe Biden. "In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party," she said.

But which part of the party will end up gaining the upper hand?

What About the Senate?

During the campaign, Biden was happy to follow the party to the left, argues Michael Werz, from the Center for American Progress in Washington. "Back in the 1990s, the Democrats, at least from the European perspective, were right of center. Today, they are a social-liberal party," he says. Biden, Werz notes, insisted that the party's left wing, which has rallied behind Sanders in recent years, be included in the drafting of the party platforms. "Now, he stands 100 percent behind it," Werz says.

Biden has promised to introduce a minimum wage of $15 per hour, he wants to offer public health insurance to low-wage earners who can’t afford a private policy. His plan also calls for the children of parents who earn less than $125,000 per year to be able to attend college tuition-free.

But all of these plans will remain just that if the Senate remains majority Republican. Biden would have a hard time getting any laws through Congress, says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. He'll have no other choice than to govern by executive order.

Trump has shown how that might look. In the first 100 days of his term, he issued more executive orders than any other post-World War II president. Some of them were enormously significant.

Biden, too, would be able to push through some of his plans via executive order, such as reversing Trump's extremely restrictive immigration policies. The more far-reaching reforms that the country so badly needs, however, are not possible without Senate approval - things such as expanding health insurance coverage, educational reform and an aggressive climate change strategy. Without the Senate, Biden would be a less effective president.

It would, of course, be nothing new in U.S. history for a president to face a hostile Senate or House of Representatives. Still, until deep into the 1990s, it was still possible to build bipartisan majorities. Biden himself has negotiated countless deals with the Republicans. But that was a different era. Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell was resoundingly re-elected in Kentucky – and before the election, McConnell committed his troops to vote against a coronavirus aid package because passing such a bill could help Biden if he in fact wins the election.

"The fact that Congress has become increasingly dysfunctional is primarily the fault of the Republicans," Zelizer says. He argues that the GOP is prepared to go much further than the Democrats in destroying political norms, which, he says, is very dangerous for American democracy. "When politics is conducted solely with a view to what benefits the party, governing becomes extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible."

When McConnell was asked what his political goal was after Barack Obama’s election, he answered: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” In the final two years of Obama’s term, the Republicans blocked the appointment of dozens of federal judges and the president’s Supreme Court candidate, Merrick Garland, wasn’t even granted a hearing, in what was an unprecedented breach of democratic standards.

If the Republicans hold control of the Senate, Biden will also be unable to eliminate one of the most toxic legacies left behind by his predecessor: With the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court justice in the week before the election, Trump has established a conservative majority at the high court that will last for decades to come.

Indeed, Biden would be powerless when it comes to filling vacant positions for judges, even in federal courts, if the Dems don't get control of the Senate. The idea some progressives have for breaking the conservative majority on the Supreme Court by increasing the number of justices to stack the court would be illusory.

Political scientist Jacob Hacker of Yale University calls the phenomenon the Republicans have created the "tyranny of the minority.” Even though the majority in the country tends to favor the Democrats, the Republicans have largely succeeded in pushing through their agenda of tax breaks, lowering environmental standards and foiling gun control. With Barrett now on the Supreme Court, the Republicans might even manage to overturn the right to abortion. Barrett, a devout Catholic, has already stated that she doesn't consider the Supreme Court's 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade to be a super-precedent that is set in stone.

The Republican Blockade

Any attempt to erode the right to abortion in the U.S. has the potential to trigger an unprecedented culture war in the country, with the left-wing of the Democratic Party wanting to adopt radical measures to prevent that from happening. The Republicans have believed for far too long that the Democrats are incapable of playing hardball, Ocasio-Cortez wrote a few days ago. Now is the time, she wrote, to prove them wrong.

But how? John Podesta, who served as Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, says the Republicans won’t even make the slightest concessions to Biden. Indeed, Biden could end up crushed in the middle between his own party's demand for results and the Republican goal of undermining the president’s authority, which may not be all that hard given the widespread view that Biden isn't likely to remain beyond a single term, meaning the debate over his successor will begin the day he takes office.

The obvious candidate is Kamala Harris, Biden’s vice president-elect who is 22 years younger than Biden. The daughter of a doctor from India and an economics professor from Jamaica, Harris was still in elementary school when Biden was first elected to the Senate. In Trump's narrative, Harris is a radical leftist who would control the elderly Biden like a puppet on a string.

Biden and Harris: An immense task ahead

Biden and Harris: An immense task ahead


In reality, though, there is plenty of evidence that Biden and Harris will make a good team. They are on the same wavelength politically, with both representing the moderate Democratic mainstream. Furthermore, as a former public prosecutor, she doesn't exactly support an anti-police agenda.

Would she automatically become the Democratic presidential candidate if Biden chooses not to run again in four years? For Harris, everything hinges on how she uses the office. No one within the party is simply going to cede the field to her.

Pete Buttigieg, for example, the mayor from South Bend who made a rousing bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the heroine of the left wing of the party, just defended her seat in the House of Representatives with a very commanding performance. There are no doubts in the Democratic Party that Ocasio-Cortez has her eyes set on becoming the first woman in the Oval Office, and no other person in the party has quite her star power.

As president, Biden wants to focus on the big picture. His priorities are the fight against the coronavirus, foreign policy and the economic crisis. Harris, meanwhile, could deal with the issue of police violence or reforming immigration policy.

Biden will almost certainly give his vice president the latitude she needs in setting policy. During the campaign, Biden clearly showed that although he sees himself as being No. 1, he also isn’t bent on constantly being in the limelight. Whereas Harris traveled around the country incessantly, Biden made relatively few appearances before carefully selected audiences.

Fixing the Divide

America’s deep divide, of course, hasn’t diminished any with Trump getting voted out of office. There are essentially two Americas, each of which views the other with hostile contempt. Trump doesn't bear complete responsibility for this state of affairs, and neither can Biden patch things up on his own.

It is a division that is writ large on the face of Steve Adler, who is looking pale and tired. "I'm so exhausted from the Trump years,” he says with a thin smile. "I’m so tired of it.”

For the past six years, Adler has served as mayor of Austin, a liberal enclave in the middle of Trump-friendly Texas. In a video call from his office last Monday, he said the president has torn open trenches that are difficult to bridge. "This partisanship,” he says. "The division of people to get them to fight other people as a way to retain an electoral position. I'm concerned about what happens."

Adler, with his silver mop of hair, is rocking in his leather chair in front of his computer. There’s a decorative stack of books behind him, topped by "Big Wonderful Thing,” an almost 1,000-page history book about Texas, the state where everything seems bigger, and a place where Democrats and Republicans worked together fruitfully for many years.

The college town of Austin, for example, is run by a city council made up almost exclusively by Democrats. On top of a hill in downtown Austin, meanwhile, is the State Capitol, a massive granite structure from which Republicans govern the rest of the state.

Adler says that in earlier days, there was no deep partisan divide. Republican governors had Democratic deputies at their side, and they would go duck hunting together during the weekends. The only major conflicts they had erupted every two years when it came time to debate farm subsidies. But those times of relative political peace have passed.

"There is no compromise,” laments Adler, 64. Not even when it comes to existential issues like the pandemic. The mayor of Austin imposed a mask requirement for residents of his city this summer, but Texas Governor Greg Abbott watered down the rule by prohibiting the city from imposing fines to enforce it. The governor also allowed bars to reopen earlier than planned - and the infection figures exploded immediately. America’s division, Adler is certain, has had deadly consequences.

Trump followers demanding that the vote count be stopped in Detroit.

Trump followers demanding that the vote count be stopped in Detroit.


Biden has 74 days after a victory to assemble his administration, and it seems likely that he will turn to those he has worked with for years. He has brought Nicholas Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, into his team of advisers, for example. The Harvard professor’s name is circulating as a possible candidate for Secretary of State, as is Susan Rice, who served as Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Antony Blinken, another Biden ally, is considered a potential candidate to become Biden’s National Security Adviser. The 58-year-old Harvard graduate served Biden while he was still chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Whoever he ends up appointing, though, Biden and his team will take pains to ensure that the new government regains the trust of partners that Trump has shattered.

Biden has already declared that he will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and revive the nuclear deal with Iran. It’s also likely that Biden will largely stop the withdrawal of American troops  from Germany that Trump has set in motion. "If anything, only small parts of the plan will remain, because Biden and his team take a realistic view of the Russian threat," believes Ben Hodges, who was stationed in Germany for several years as commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces.

Of all the people on Biden's team, it is Julianne Smith, his former deputy security adviser, who knows Germany the best. After her time in the White House, she spent a year in Germany, where she not only refreshed her German, but also developed a critical view of the shortcomings of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who she believes intentionally maneuvered Germany to the global political sidelines. "Merkel has the power to initiate something big," she told DER SPIEGEL in an interview last year. "But what we're experiencing is a paralyzed Germany, and that's bad for Europe and bad for the U.S."

Indeed, even a Biden presidency wouldn't be particularly comfortable for Germany, that much already appears to be clear. In contrast to Trump, the new man in the White House won’t leave any doubt about his commitment to NATO, but he will also have little patience for European allies trying to shirk responsibility. His advisers did not hold back on their anger when Rolf Mützenich, floor leader for the Social Democrats (SPD), which is Merkel’s junior government coalition partner, demanded that Germany withdraw from NATO’s nuclear sharing, a system that could, in the worst-case scenario, see U.S. nuclear weapons dropped by German warplanes. In an article she wrote for DER SPIEGEL last summer, Michèle Flournoy accused Mützenich of violating a central tenet of the trans-Atlantic ideal.

The former undersecretary of defense in the Pentagon has considerable clout. Indeed, 59-year-old Flournoy could become the first woman Secretary of Defense in the history of the U.S. In that position, she would likely seek to pursue a more resolute course against Russia and China. She has little patience for the fact that Germany still doesn't spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. That is a goal that we have all agreed to, Flournoy told DER SPIEGEL, and it’s not going to change.

Nor is the dispute over the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline  from Russia to Germany simply going to disappear. One of the few things that Congressional Democrats and Republicans agree on is that the pipeline is a completely unnecessary gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even leftist senators like Bernie Sanders have little comprehension for why Germany should shower the Kremlin boss with billions of euros for gas, even as he continues bullying neighboring countries like Ukraine. "There are both environmental and geopolitical objections to Nord Stream 2, and they are shared by the left wing of our party," says Matt Duss, Sanders' foreign policy adviser.

But Donald Trump is still sitting in the Oval Office, and it is unlikely he will disappear from American politics even if he really does move out of the White House.

And why should he? Trump received 5 million more votes than in 2016, with around 48 percent of voters casting their ballots for him. Many are fans who idolize him. Trump has almost 90 million Twitter followers, and there are plenty of conservative media who will continue inviting him to their shows even as a former president. No other ex-president has ever enjoyed the kind of base of followers he has.

What Will Trump Do Until January 20?

The Republican Party is largely dependent on Trump and his ideas. He has the opportunity to play a role in U.S. politics that no one before him ever has: that of a president who has failed to get re-elected but is still the leader of an angry opposition. The possibility also can’t be ruled out that Trump might consider running for the presidency again in 2024 at the age of 78.

Trump has repeatedly toyed with the idea of starting his own TV station, not least because he is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Fox News. That’s also something he could do post-presidency.

Still, Trump will remain in the White House until well into January, which means there is time left for him to cause plenty of trouble. America could be looking at a handover of power unlike any it has ever seen. Still, in the past, even presidents who respected the traditions and conventions of the office they held have used the last days of their tenure to push through controversial decisions, not least when it comes to presidential pardons. George Bush senior pardoned six officials mired in the Iran-Contra scandal, Bill Clinton did the same for the financier Marc Rich, who was wanted by the FBI.

What can we expect from Donald Trump? It’s not just those loyal to him, but also Trump himself who could face several criminal proceedings as soon as he leaves office. "I think there is a good chance that he will be prosecuted," says Bennett Gershman, a legal professor at Pace University and a former New York state prosecutor.

Trump opponents in Arizona

Trump opponents in Arizona

Foto: Matt York / dpa

In recent years, numerous Trump loyalists have faced legal difficulties. His former campaign chief Paul Manafort was handed a lengthy prison sentence and Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen was also locked away. New York state prosecutors have charged former chief strategist Steve Bannon with fraud and he is now out on bail.

During the investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 election, Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team looked into 10 different incidents where Trump himself may have obstructed justice. Because Trump was a sitting president, Mueller did not pursue prosecution. But with the end of his tenure, Trump would lose such protection. Federal prosecutors and a new attorney general could revisit the work of Mueller and of various Congressional committees.

All of that raises the question as to how Trump might use his pardoning powers as his tenure approaches its end. He has already issued 44 pardons, including controversial ones such as executive clemency for Roger Stone, who was facing three years behind bars.

The central question, though, is whether a president who has lost his re-election bid can pardon himself. "That is preposterous," says Philip Bobbitt, a Constitutional lawyer at Columbia University in New York. The issue has never been decided by the courts, but Bobbitt cites the established legal principle that nobody can act as judge in their own case and also refers to the position taken by Richard Nixon's Justice Department. In the 1970s, Nixon had asked the judiciary to explore the question. The answer was a resounding no.

Nixon managed to avoid prosecution by a different path. After his resignation following the Watergate Scandal, Vice President Gerald Ford took over, and then pardoned him in September 1974 for all crimes he had been accused of committing while in office.

In Washington, that past has triggered intense speculation this week if something similar could be repeated. The idea is that Trump would resign prior to the end of his term so that Mike Pence could be president for a few days, or maybe just a few hours, so that he could pardon his former boss.

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