Exactly four years ago today, then-outgoing President Obama and then-President-elect Donald Trump sat down in the White House for a long conversation Obama said focused on "organizational issues." The waning administration would "do everything we can to help you succeed," Obama told Trump, describing a smooth transition as his "number one priority" in the lame-duck period.
Whatever President Trump and President-elect Joe Biden get up to today, it won't be that. Trump has refused to concede the election, and his teams have matched deeds to words. The campaign is launching various lawsuits, while the administration has declined to participate in the presidential transition process required by law.
If the stonewalling continues, Biden is reportedly considering legal action. He could seek a court order to force Emily Murphy — the Trump-appointed leader of the General Services Administration (GSA), the agency responsible for the transition — to ascertain Biden's victory and accordingly give his people access to office space, funding, and classified information for the transition to move forward.
And maybe such a court order is exactly Trump's hope. Maybe he wants to be forced out, not in the "military storms the Oval Office" fantasy that has been so much discussed in recent months, but by a judicial ruling that can provide a sturdy foundation of grievance for whatever he does next.
Trump is infamously litigious, having been involved in more than 4,000 lawsuits over his lifetime, per a tally by USA Today. Outside of what the paper categorizes as "casino cases," more than 1,600 lawsuits which mostly consist of Trump suing gamblers who didn't pay their debts, he is far from a consistent winner at court. Though Trump's love of winning certainly extends to his court battles, wrote former federal prosecutor James D. Zirin in a 2019 book on Trump's personal legal record, he also "sued for sport; he sued to achieve control; and he sued to make a point. He sued as a means of destroying or silencing those who crossed him."
As president, it seems Trump has found another reason to like court fights: If he wins, fantastic — he gets to do the policy he wanted. And if he loses, well, that's really not so bad — he gets to tell his supporters how the deep state is biased against him, how these swamp creatures are dragging down his heroic efforts to Make America Great Again.
Indeed, the theme of biased judges squashing his great plans is a Trump favorite. He has tweeted again and again about "unfair" judges, especially on the 9th Circuit, who are "totally biased" against him personally and undermining his efforts to keep the country safe. "I've had ruling after ruling after ruling that's been bad rulings, okay? I've been treated very unfairly," he said on CNN in June of 2016 about the Trump University lawsuit in which he was then embroiled. "I've had lawyers come up to me and say, 'You are being treated so unfairly. It's unbelievable,'" he continued in a foretaste of many such complaints to come.
This approach to lawsuits is undoubtedly informed by Trump's attitude toward media coverage, which is grounded in a firm belief that all publicity is advantageous. When his wife plagiarized Michelle Obama at the Republican National Convention in 2016, Trump was unflustered because the plagiarism made headlines. "Good news is Melania's speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics," he tweeted, "especially if you believe that all press is good press!" Favorable coverage is preferable to negative coverage, he acknowledged in The Art of the Deal, but "from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all." (This "probably says something perverse about the culture we live in," the same paragraph mused in a line that must have originated with the book's ghostwriter.)
Likewise, for Trump, losing in court can be better than not going to court at all. A win is ideal, but a loss still furthers the narrative of Trump, champion of the people, fiercely fighting the Washington establishment. A few lost battles don't mean he's losing the war. In fact, they can help remind the base — er, the home front — to do their part for the war effort.
Pushing the Biden transition team to sue for access to the executive branch makes a lot of sense in this framework. It lets Trump tell a story in which he goes down swinging: He leaves only because a very biased, horrible, Democrat judge makes him go.
He is temporarily laid low by the dirty dealings of the other side, who have the whole apparatus of the federal government behind them. (What's that? Trump was in charge these last four years? Nonsense!) But he'll live to fight another day, be that as the face of a new media venture or even the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. A Biden transition lawsuit is the perfect way for Trump to leave without conceding, to go, as he came, insisting everyone has been very mean and unfair.