Mike Pence might want to watch his back. Donald Trump’s trip to Japan and the Korean peninsula was predictably weird, with his impromptu play date with Kim Jong-un at the DMZ serving as the irresponsible and dangerous climax to an already botched excursion in which First Daughter Ivanka Trump was crowbarred into the proceedings for some reason.
Cutting right to the chase, I believe Trump might be grooming Ivanka, rather than Donald Trump Jr., to succeed him — a move that would solve a couple of Trump’s most harrowing problems. In fact, there’s a rumor currently circulating among Republican circles in Washington in which Trump suddenly declines the nomination sometime next summer, presumably for health reasons, then lobbies the convention delegates to toss their votes to Ivanka as his rightful heir and the 2020 nominee.
Don’t shoot the messenger. It’s an actual thing. Here’s the possible calculus behind such a radical move.
There are only two possible ways for Trump to avoid federal charges when he leaves office (presuming he actually leaves office): One is that the next president decides not to investigate the previous president and orders his attorney general and U.S. attorneys to back off. The other is a presidential pardon.
The first option, with a Democratic president refusing to prosecute Trump, is a possibility. Newly inaugurated presidents have never really allowed their attorneys general to investigate the previous gang. It’s a long-standing tradition that, if interrupted, could trigger an endless cycle of vengeance in which each new president pursues criminal charges against the former president of the other party.
Trump's ascension launched a new paradigm for presidential politics, however, with social media users and especially Trumpers driving the rejection of old presidential traditions. So it might be possible for, say, former prosecutor Kamala Harris to deviate from tradition and go for the indictment of her predecessor. As long as she’s willing to risk being investigated should a Republican succeed her, she could easily do it. Same goes for the other leading candidates. I don’t think anyone would lose sleep over this, other than some historians and anyone with the last name “Trump.”
The second option requires a move that Trump has explicitly stated he’ll never make: Resigning the presidency. Trump said recently, “I don’t leave,” which was an utterly chilling remark for those of us who still believe in a peaceful transfer of power. There’s always a possibility that Trump will refuse to accept the results of the 2020 election if he loses. Of course, the inauguration of the next president on Jan. 20, 2021, would proceed without him, maybe with Trump hunkered down inside the White House. (Under the Constitution, the new president takes office at noon on Inauguration Day, no matter what the old one does.) No one knows exactly how that would work, given it’s never happened before, but chances are the screeching on Trump’s Twitter feed wouldn't prevent the next president from being recognized as the rightful chief executive.
It’s more appropriate to take “I don’t leave” to mean Trump doesn’t plan on resigning. For now. That being said, resignation is his only realistic lifeline. At some point, perhaps as more Democratic presidential candidates announce their intentions to prosecute Trump and other conspirators — as Beto O’Rourke pledged in the debates last week — Trump will realize there’s only one solid, reliable way to keep himself from being indicted after leaving office.
He needs to resign from office, allowing his vice president to be sworn in. That new president is the only human being who can realistically, legally and legitimately pardon Trump. It’s the Nixon/Ford scenario of 1974. Nothing else will do the trick.
Now, there’s obviously the nightmare scenario in which Trump is re-elected next year, forestalling an indictment. That still doesn’t get him off the hook, though. Trump can’t legitimately pardon himself, knowing that even this Supreme Court would likely not permit such a preposterous move. Frankly, if he thought he could do it himself, he probably would’ve done it already. The next Republican president, meanwhile, has to wait until the 2024 election, but Trump could already be in prison by then. No, if Trump wants a foolproof escape hatch, it has to be a resignation followed by a pardon.
That’s where Ivanka comes in.
There’s an outlier chance the rumor is true and Trump will try to install Ivanka as the nominee, replacing himself at the top of the 2020 ticket, with a pardon waiting in the on-deck circle. But I’m not sure Fifth Avenue Palin would have a stronger shot at winning than her dad. (Again, Trump’s rise to power means anything’s possible.) But assuming he doesn't pursue this radical notion of persuading the convention to nominate Ivanka in his stead, I see a chance Trump will replace Mike Pence with Ivanka as his running mate. Before you pooh-pooh the idea, bear in mind four things: 1) Trump is now the nominal head of the party; 2) the Republican National Committee has basically merged with the Trump re-election campaign; 3) Mike Pence’s name was conspicuously absent from the campaign signs and other materials during Trump’s kickoff event in Orlando; and 4) Ivanka was conspicuously schmoozing with world leaders at the G20 in Osaka over the weekend.
Despite Pence’s appearance of groveling loyalty, Trump might want to bring the vice presidency into the family. That would ensure that if Trump needs a pardon, it’s waiting for him no matter what — remember, the Trump crime family is all about Mafia-style omertà and unquestioning loyalty. Who knows whether a hypothetical President Pence would want to spend political capital on a pardon? That might not be in his self-interest. With a Trump-Trump ticket, dad is free to resign at any time after he’s sworn in for a second term, followed by an immediate pardon from his daughter, the new president. And as a bonus, the Trump presidential dynasty is established!
Trump's only other option is to try to invalidate the 2020 election if he loses, and he’s already starting to lay the groundwork for such a plot. But he’d need a hell of a lot more than a kooky conspiracy theory about nonexistent California voter fraud to convince the Supreme Court to overturn a legitimate vote in the Electoral College.
We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that Trump will stop at nothing to keep himself out of prison. Even a traditional, by-the-book Trump re-election would only be a temporary measure. Some are predicting New York will step in to slap him with state charges. But New York's attorney general is pursuing civil charges rather than criminal charges at the moment, so relying on the Empire State to pick up the slack is more iffy than you might think.
The only way Trump ever gets prosecuted for obstruction of justice and other charges arising from the Mueller Report, or anything else in his galactic-scale series of potential crimes, is via a Democratic administration’s attorney general. The only way he avoids those charges is through a pardon or the next president’s refusal to prosecute. I don’t believe Trump plans to leave his fortunes to the tender mercies of a President Biden or President Warren. And I don’t believe he trusts anyone outside his own inner circle to pardon him.
Ultimately, the best-case scenario for the nation is a Trump loss in 2020 and a Democratic presidential inauguration in 2021, with Trump's prosecution proceeding thereafter. He has to see this possibility growing larger through the front windshield every day. So, he’ll have to do some shuffling to maximize his successor’s loyalty while doing whatever is necessary to win re-election. Ivanka could be his version of the Chernobyl reactor's AZ-5 button — his failsafe mechanism to abort any possible prison time.