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Trump drops out. Biden gets sick. Pence is fired. What if 2020 gets really crazy?

A high temperature and a dry cough

No need to get too macabre or dwell on this at length. It’s just a statement of the obvious that if either Trump or Biden were your aging parent in the midst of a pandemic, you would likely urge them to stay home and avoid any unnecessary human contact. You would not urge people creeping close to the average life expectancy for American men (78.5 years) to run for president, even if they were careful about wearing masks (as Biden apparently is and Trump self-evidently is not).

A rough transition

We should note that the none of the Washington veterans we spoke with is seriously contemplating a constitutional crisis in which Trump contests the election and refuses to leave power, even though this scenario is sometimes invoked on social media and elsewhere.

But multiple sources do find it plausible if Trump loses he might disparage the results as tainted by fraud or other irregularities. A former White House official who worked closely with Trump said, “That will be his rationale and for the rest of his life, we’ll never hear anything but, ‘It was stolen.’ … He can’t admit that he lost, so how he’ll comfort himself or justify it is that it was stolen.”

One scenario to watch closely if Trump decides to leave the race or loses it: his use of pardon power to insulate allies and family members from any post-presidency legal probes. One point of constitutional ambiguity: Can a president pardon himself?

George Conway, husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and who often publicly lashes Trump, predicted that if Trump loses he will skip the inaugural ceremonies: “I can’t imagine him attending Joe Biden’s inauguration because it would be to him the ultimate humiliation. He would rather blame other people, claim that the election was stolen from him but he’s [departing voluntarily] because he’s a good guy [but in protest] he will not attend the inauguration.”

Trump triples down

In some sense, this is the wild scenario that is already underway. Under pressure, Trump is relying on rhetorical themes that have worked for him before — just doing so even more loudly. His July Fourth remarks denouncing a “new far-left fascism” — and tweet Monday knocking NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag — are illustrative.

In some ways, his reelection struggles are offering us a glimpse of an unfamiliar Trump. A business associate who worked with Trump during his early 1990s bankruptcies said his signature was never letting anyone see him sweat.

“I would have been looking for the nearest building to jump off of, and he just remained upbeat all of the time,” Steve Bollenbach, a lender-mandated financial fixer who helped Trump avoid personal bankruptcy and lasting business humiliation, told Trump biographer Tim O’Brien. “I never suspected that he lost a moment’s sleep.”

That recollection is quite different than the image of Trump returning from a disappointing crowd at last month’s rally in Tulsa Okla., when he was photographed tieless, slumped and demoralized, as he departed Marine One.

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And POLITICO’s Michael Kruse has written that Trump usually returns to old patterns, in particular the fighting ethos he learned from lawyer and Joseph McCarthy protégé Roy Cohn. “Deflect and distract,” Kruse summarized, “never give in, never admit fault, lie and attack, lie and attack, publicity no matter what, win no matter what, all underpinned by a deep, prove-me-wrong belief in the power of chaos and fear.”

That could make for an interesting second half of 2020.

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