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US President Donald Trump at a press conference at the White House
Image: Chris Kleponis/Captital Pictures/picture alliance

What will happen to Donald Trump?

Kristie Pladson
November 10, 2020

The current US president has yet to concede his election defeat, but that doesn't mean he can stay in the White House forever. From legal battles to television aspirations, DW looks at his post-presidency prospects.


It's been one week since Americans went to the polls and elected Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States

With more than two months until his planned inauguration, Biden is already falling into the role, meeting this week with experts to discuss a coronavirus action plan

Meanwhile, many are wondering what will become of a sitting president who has thus far declined to publicly accept his electoral defeat. 

Barring a big twist — and with this leader you never know — current US President Donald Trump will be out one way or another on January 20, 2021. Here's what he might have in store, or what might be in store for him, once he leaves the White House:

A wave of lawsuits

A US Department of Justice policy — established in 1973 during the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon — prevents courts from indicting a sitting president. Leaving the White House will strip Trump of that presidential immunity, exposing him to an avalanche of lawsuits that have piled up over the four years he's been in office.

In the state of New York, both criminal and civil investigations into Trump's business practices are currently ongoing. The president also faces lawsuits from women who have accused him of sexual misconduct. Trump could also find himself implicated in a hush money payment scandal that sent his former lawyer Michael Cohen to prison in 2019. Cohen was found guilty of violating US campaign law by paying two women to stay silent about extramarital affairs they had with Trump, at the time a Republican presidential candidate. Cohen said Trump ordered him to make the payments. 

It's possible that Trump might try to use his constitutional power to issue criminal pardons to clear himself before he leaves office. But no president has ever tried to pardon himself and it's unclear whether the move would hold up legally. 

Biden, as president, could also choose to pardon Trump, as President Gerald Ford did to Nixon following his resignation in 1974.

Either way, the president of the United States only has the authority to pardon federal crimes, meaning Trump will be vulnerable to prosecution on a state level once he's out of office. Only time will tell what that means concretely. 

"He's been a legal Houdini his whole life," Trump biographer and journalist Michael D’Antonio told DW. "He’s been able to wiggle out of lawsuits and pay as little as possible to settle when the government has caught him."

A mountain of debt

Some have speculated that the intensity of Trump's second-term presidential bid — marked by attempts to discourage voter turnout and vote counting — was motivated by a need to retain the legal and financial protections of his post. 

“It’s the office of the presidency that’s keeping him from prison and the poorhouse," Yale history professor Timothy Snyder told magazine The New Yorker in the days leading up to the election. 

In September, an investigation into Trump's taxes by The New York Times revealed that the president owes over $400 million (€340 million), much of it to German lender Deutsche Bank, with the loans falling due within the next four years.

Days before the election, Deutsche Bank senior executives told news agency Reuters that a Trump loss would make it less awkward for the lender to demand repayment of the loans, which Trump has personally guaranteed, or to foreclose on his assets. Under increasing public scrutiny for questionable banking practices, the officials at Trump's long-term lender said a defeat would present an opportunity to settle Trump's accounts and end a relationship that had brought the institute continued bad press and unwanted attention from lawmakers. Deutsche Bank declined to comment on the nature of its relationship with Trump now that Biden is president-elect.

Trump also faces the prospect of having to pay back a $72 million tax refund he claimed in 2010, as an ongoing audit looks into Trump's claim of $1.4 billion in losses in 2008 and 2009. 

The family business

The president still owns over 500 businesses, including hotels, resorts and golf clubs, a fact he has brought up regularly during his presidency. While Trump's adult sons took over the day-to-day management of The Trump Organization once he took office, the president has retained access to his business assets. Democrats have called this a conflict of interest, accusing Trump of allowing potential business deals to guide foreign policy and of using the office of the presidency for personal financial gain. 

Indeed, interest groups seeking to win Trump's favor have been known to stay in Trump hotels, and one Chinese state-owned company was awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to develop a Trump golf course in the United Arab Emirates even as the US-China trade war waged. 

Post-presidency, Trump could return to a more active role in his eponymous company. However, much of his holdings are in real estate and hotels, and business magazine Forbes estimates that The Trump Organization has taken a significant hit during the coronavirus pandemic. Its valuation fell by around $1 billion to $2.1 billion between March 1 and March 18, 2020, the magazine said.

And while the presidency may have functioned as a marketing opportunity for Trump, in other ways it also hurt his brand. According to calculations from real estate portal City Realty, prices for condominiums in Trump buildings in New York City, where Trump is deeply unpopular, have fallen by 25% in the past four years. Some apartment buildings have removed his name from the buildings. 

"Real estate and hotels may recede for the Trump family," D'Antonio said. "Those are very difficult businesses and the brand has been damaged on the luxury end."

Trump TV

Some, like former acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, have predicted Trump will remain on the political scene, with his eyes set on a rematch against Biden in 2024. But many think he has something else in mind. 

"When you see him on the campaign trail and how animated he becomes and how energized he is from public performance, it's pretty obvious what he wants to do," said D'Antonio, who spent significant time at the White House and interviewing Trump for his books. "I’d expect him to be on television constantly." 

The biographer and others have speculated that Trump will capitalize on his media affinity and partner with a conservative media company, or possibly start one of his own, an option he had lined up in 2016 were he to have lost the election. According to media outlet Business Insider, his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner was "talking up" such a possibility in October. 

A Trump-led outlet could be even more right-wing than current conservative favorite Fox News. Once a major mouthpiece for the president, tensions between Trump and the network have grown in recent months. Trump is reportedly furious that the cable news network has done so little to challenge the legitimacy of Biden's victory. 

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