In less than seven weeks, President Barack Obama will hand over the government to Donald Trump, including access to the White House, Air Force One, and Camp David. Trump will also, of course, inherit the infamous nuclear codes, as well as the latest in warfare technology, including the Central Intelligence Agency’s fleet of killer drones, the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance and data-collection apparatus, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s enormous system of undercover informants.
Before the recent election, Obama repeatedly warned that a Trump victory could spell disaster. “If somebody starts tweeting at three in the morning because SNL [Saturday Night Live] made fun of you, you can’t handle the nuclear codes,” Obama typically told a pro-Clinton rally in November. “Everything that we’ve done over the last eight years,” he added in an interview with MSNBC, “will be reversed with a Trump presidency.”
Yet, just days after Obama made those comments and Trump triumphed, The Guardian reported that his administration was deeply involved in planning to give Trump access not just to those nuclear codes, but also to the massive new spying and killing system that Obama personally helped shape and lead. “Obama’s failure to rein in George Bush’s national security policies hands Donald Trump a fully loaded weapon,” Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, observed recently. “The president’s failure to understand that these powers could not be entrusted in the hands of any president, not even his, have now put us in a position where they are in the hands of Donald Trump.”
In many areas, it hardly matters what Barack Obama now does. In his last moments, for example, were he to make good on his first Oval Office promise and shut down the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Trump could reverse that decision with the stroke of a pen on January 20, 2017.
So, at this late date, what might a president frightened by his successor actually do, if not to hamper Trump’s ability to create global mayhem, then at least to set the record straight before he leaves the White House?
Unfortunately, the answer is: far less than we might like; but as it happens, there are still some powers a president has that are irreversible by their very nature. For example, declassifying secret documents. Once such documents have been released, no power on earth can take them back. The president also has a virtually unlimited power of pardon. And finally, the president can punish high-level executive-branch or military officials who abused the system, just as President Obama recalled General Stanley McChrystal from his post in Afghanistan in 2010, and he can do so until January 19. Of course, Trump could rehire such individuals, but fast action by Obama could at least put them on trial in the media, if nowhere else.