WIN MCNAMEE / Getty Images via AFP
During the transition to his successor, the American president is traditionally called “Lame Duck”. More completely inside, and not yet outside, it is an in-between where he can yet still make decisions, often symbolic but sometimes serious.
On January 20, at noon, Donald Trump will officially no longer be the President of the United States. During the two and a half months between the announcement of Joe Biden's victory on November 7 (which he still has not recognized), and the end of his mandate, he is therefore still in office, with powers intact. .
This intermediate period is particularly watched, and in the case of Donald Trump, it was already feared even before the election. The president effectively takes major decisions, which commit his successor. Thus the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, a decisive choice for the role of the United States in the region.
So also drilling operations in an Alaskan nature reserve, which he is keen to finalize before leaving. We have also seen the dismissal of several members of the administration, including his defense minister ... and we are waiting for the rest.
These last minute decisions are not in themselves new. The times are ripe for unpopular or particularly cheeky decisions for a president who has nothing more to lose or gain. It is also a moment that Presidents have sometimes used to polish the historical legacy they will leave in the country.
A president facing history
Donald Trump's predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama had marked the spirits by amnestying nearly 200 people. And above all, without “forgiving” her, he had reduced Chelsea Manning's sentence, allowing de facto his release. Seen on the left as a whistleblower, this former military analyst was seen by Republicans as a traitor to the homeland.
Barack Obama had acted intensely until the very last days of his presidency, triggering the financing of a climate fund, or participating in an Asia-Pacific summit in Peru.
Finally, in line with the concern for heritage that inhabits all presidents at the end of their reign - in the United States as elsewhere - Barack Obama had declared several sites in the south of the United States as national monuments, such as the Birmingham hotel (Alabama). of which Martin Luther King had made his HQ.
Three days before the induction ceremony of his successor Donald Trump, he gave a last memorable press conference at the White House, in the form of a review of his eight years in office.
The time of "forgiveness"
Just before the arrival of Barack Obama in January 2009, George W. Bush had also signed some amnesties, but not taken any major decision. The end of his second term was in itself limping, weighed down by unprecedented unpopularity, and mired in the subprime crisis.
If presidents have shocked over their last decisions before leaving, it is often in connection with this tradition of amnesties. Bill Clinton had thus “forgiven” Marc Rich on January 20, 2001, a few hours before leaving the White House. Marc Rich had been sentenced in absentia to 325 years in prison, notably for trading with Iran in the midst of the hostage crisis. His amnesty had caused a huge scandal in the United States, which Bill Clinton had to continue to justify, long after the end of his mandate.
The other strong memory, in recent American memory, is that of Bush senior, in December 1992 amnestied federal administration officials involved in the enormous “Iran-Contras” scandal, a scheme for financing counter- revolutionaries in Panama through arms sales to Iran. The affair had been running since the end of the previous term of office, that of Ronald Reagan, of which George H.W. Bush had been vice-president.
But if the outgoing president is given the nickname of "lame duck" in his last two months in office, it is basically more because of his lack of decision than the other way around. Historically, it was even the calamitous transition between Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt that reduced this uncertain period. Hoover had in fact extended his presidency's notorious inaction by four months, at a crucial time of an unprecedented social crisis.
But it is a comparable scenario that is ultimately the most feared, for the last weeks of Donald Trump in power. As the coronavirus epidemic explodes in the United States, the president appears more concerned about alleged electoral fraud, which he tirelessly tweets about - while depriving Joe Biden of an effective transition. The country is thus deprived, at the worst moment, of a national medium-term strategy, facing a major challenge against which the status quo is not a solution.