TORONTO — Although Joe Biden has won the hotly contested U.S. election, his inauguration is still more than two months away and U.S. President Donald Trump will reside in the White House until then.
So, what can Trump do during this transitional period and are there any limits to his powers?
According to the Twentieth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the “terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January.”
Or, in other words: they’re still in charge.
“[They have] all the same powers that he or she had before the election. They still have the power to sign legislation. They still have power as commander-in-chief. It’s all the same,” Matthew Lebo, a political science professor at Western University in London, Ont., told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview on Nov. 5.
While presidents who are on their way out have often been given the less-than-flattering title of being a “lame duck” during the period after the election and before inauguration, that doesn’t mean they can’t achieve anything during those final weeks in office.
Graham Dodds, who grew up in the U.S. and is a Concordia University professor of political science specializing in American politics, said there are several routes the outgoing president can take during the remainder of their term.
“They sort of have less political power because their time is limited and there’s only so much they can do. So they do tend to govern differently,” he explained during a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca on Nov. 5. “And there are a couple of ways it can go.”
In their final months in office, Dodds said most U.S. presidents focus on cementing their legacy by doing something that will “help them go down in the history books.”
For example, Dodds said presidents will sometimes use their power to unilaterally declare a public monument to set aside land from development in perpetuity.
“So that generations from now people can say, ‘Oh, George Bush preserved this island in Hawaii and Barack Obama preserve this mountain range out west,” he said.
Often, Dodds said presidents will use their last days as president to pardon a large group of felons for certain crimes, such as minor drug offences.
“[Former President Barack] Obama did a little of that, most people thought he would do more. Trump has talked about that. It is something he could do,” he said.
Lebo said Trump may even look into processes that would allow him to be pardoned, himself.
“He might resign and have President [Mike] Pence pardon him,” he said. “I’m just going to put that out there as a theoretical possibility. I’m not predicting that, but it’s possible.”
On the other hand, Dodds said presidents may choose to use their power to push through as much of their agenda as they can before a rival party takes over in the White House.
“You can try to issue all sorts of last- minute executive orders or get various administrative regulations approved and in place. You can try to make as many appointments as you can to kind of stack the deck against the incoming opposition,” he explained.
In Trump’s case, Lebo said he won’t be able to push through last-minute legislation because the Democrats control the House and there wouldn’t be enough time before the inauguration.
“If it was, perhaps, Republicans controlling the House, the Senate, and the presidency, then they might rush to do all sorts of things in the next six to eight weeks before new president comes in,” he said.
“But with Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats controlling the House majority, then there won’t be any legislation passed, [unless it was] something that was bipartisan like a relief bill for COVID-19.”
Even if Trump does decide to issue a bunch of executive orders, both Lebo and Dodds said many of those can be reversed by the new president once they take office in January.
“Obama did a fair number of executive orders. Trump has reversed a lot of those. If Biden was president, he could reverse a lot of Trumps reversals,” Dodds said. “There’s a long history of some executive orders switching entirely when a president of the new party comes in.”
As for what he thinks Trump will do in his final months, Lebo said he predicts the transition of power to be rockier than those before it.
“If the party of the president is about to change power, then sometimes there’s some respect for what’s about to happen, that the voters chose a different party and perhaps a new direction and I don’t expect that this time,” he said. “I expect President Trump to squeeze in what can be squeezed in before somebody else takes over.”
Dodds said he suspects the outgoing president will try to secure his legacy as well as push through some final items on his party’s agenda through executive orders, but it’s difficult to know for sure.
“We can talk about what’s happened in the past, what would normally happen, but Donald Trump is such an unusual president that who knows what will happen?” he said.
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