Don’t look back. Every old man (or woman) looks back and sees what seems unlikely and odd – what should have never happened. More than twenty years in project management and the systems management should have never happened. Complex software systems that solve maddingly complex real-world problems are infinitely tedious, as are the brilliant nerds who find such things fascinating. But someone has to coordinate all that work, and each project plan had to have what those brilliant nerds hated – a risk mitigation plan. What could go wrong? Why be so glum?
Someone had to be glum. Something or other might fail. Some component might be delivered late. A key nerd or two might get the flu at just the wrong moment. And there were those single-point failure issues that had to be addressed. Look carefully. If this one thing fails there’s no workaround. Isolate those. They get the most attention. And build those if-then tables. Do the damned contingency planning. Let those brilliant nerds whine about how that offends them. They’ll get over it.
This was difficult. Retirement fixed that. Let someone else be paid quite well to be perpetually paranoid and worried sick over everything. But nothing is that easy. Donald Trump is president. Everyone is doing risk management these days. Everyone is doing contingency planning:
Walmart on Friday reversed its decision to take guns and ammunition from store displays in response to concerns about “isolated civil unrest.”
The country’s largest retailer had asked all of its stores to move firearms and ammunition to a secure backroom area of the store out of “an abundance of caution” on Thursday, Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg told NBC News in an email.
But, “as the current incidents have remained geographically isolated, we have made the decision to begin returning these products to the sales floor today,” he said Friday.
The move comes four days before the presidential election, which Presidential Donald Trump has suggested he will contest in the event of a win by former Vice President Joe Biden.
Will people want to buy guns and ammunition to deal with those with guns already, out to shoot up some Democratic voters? Is that even likely? Is that likely in only a few places? Walmart had to decide. They make a ton of money selling guns and ammunition to the Second Amendment crowd. Why offend them needlessly by stopping those sales? But why risk being accused of arming both sides in the coming civil war, making things worse. Somewhere at Walmart headquarters there was a whiteboard covered with if-then tables. But they’re not alone:
After a summer of heated protests related to police violence, and anti-lockdown protesters armed with assault rifles demonstrating in Michigan and Minnesota in the spring, storefront businesses are worried about what may come next week. Across the country, stores have begun boarding up windows and hiring additional security to prepare for any potential property damage.
What may come next week? The election is coming. If-then tables will be useful. The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips offers a primer on voter intimidation and notes what is legal in most states. People can do this:
Hold rallies outside a polling location: Even one that may make some voters feel uncomfortable, as long as you’re outside the legal buffer zone, which is usually 100 to 150 feet. But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it won’t get a tsk-tsk from election officials. More than 300 supporters of President Trump gathering at a poll site on early voting day in California caused election officials there to publicly warn that voter intimidation wouldn’t be allowed.
Bring a gun to the polls: Only six states and D.C. ban guns at all polling locations, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Another four say you can bring a gun, but you can’t conceal your weapon; it has to be out in the open. In most states, traditional polling locations like schools are government property, and there are laws about bringing guns onto school property.
Recently, Michigan’s secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson (D), said she was banning guns from being openly carried in and around polling places, which spurred gun rights groups to sue her. A federal judge in Michigan sided with the gun rights groups.
Be loud and annoying while in line to vote, or drive by and be loud and annoying: Free speech rights win out in these situations because it’s often unclear whether the instigators want to actually stop people from voting or are just trying to express their political views.
So, be as loud and as annoying as possible, and in Michigan bring a big gun and point it people while you’re being as loud and as annoying as possible, but don’t shoot people just for the fun of it. That’s still forbidden. There are things that one cannot do:
Just show up to watch the polls. Poll watchers have to be trained and certified with their local jurisdiction to be present. Also, a number of communities don’t allow people who live outside the county to be poll workers. Similarly, armed groups can’t show up to the polls to monitor them. So, consider when Trump said this at the first debate: “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it.” If people were to take him seriously and just show up, they’d almost certainly be asked to leave. This is standard across the United States.
Secretly film people dropping off their ballots. As the Trump campaign did in Pennsylvania to try to show people dropping off more than one ballot. That prompted the state’s secretary of state to say they are in touch with law enforcement about it. “Voter intimidation is illegal under state and federal law, and videotaping you, taking pictures of you without your consent, is part of that,” Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar (D) said.
Hire private security to monitor the polls: In Minnesota, a private, out-of-state security firm said it was recruiting former U.S. military Special Operations personnel to monitor polls. Minnesota’s attorney general took legal action against this security company, prompting a settlement where the firm agreed not to come to the state. The only exception to this would be if, say, a drop-off box is located in a government building that might otherwise be closed as people drop off their ballots. Then, perhaps a security guard or other law enforcement official might make sure the box doesn’t get vandalized.’’
And one cannot do this:
Have law enforcement stand near polling places or drop off boxes: America’s not too distant history is filled with politicians being accused of sending armed law enforcement to polls in Black communities. (The Republican National Committee has been banned from the 1980s until this election from most poll watching for this reason.) Many states have since regulated where officers can be. They can sometimes be at the polls. A sheriff’s office in Florida said it would put deputies outside some polling locations after reports of armed security guards patrolling one. In Pennsylvania, some election officials decided to allow sheriff’s deputies as a way to keep the peace amid heightened tensions.
But Pennsylvania is also one of the states with the strictest rules for on-duty officers. It’s a crime there and in California for them to show up to the polls without first being called. Other states also have laws trying to limit officers unless needed.
But the injunction against the Republican National Committee on this matter has expired. They will send armed ex-military guys to stand and stare at Black folks trying to vote, until there’s another injunction. All they had to do is wait a few years.
But there’s one thing that really illegal:
The president can’t send troops or armed law enforcement to the polls: He hasn’t explicitly threatened to send troops, but he has said he might send sheriffs or law enforcement to guard against voter fraud. The president does not have the authority to do that; he doesn’t control state and local police. And it’s against federal law anyway.
In a memo about this, the Brennan Center says “the law is crystal clear: it is illegal to deploy federal troops or armed federal law enforcement officers to any polling place.”
Is that so? The New York Times’ Ron Suskind reports this:
I’ve spent the last month interviewing some two dozen officials and aides, several of whom are still serving in the Trump administration. The central sources in this story are or were senior officials, mainly in jobs that require Senate confirmation. They have had regular access to the president and to briefings at the highest level. As a rule, they asked for anonymity because they were taking a significant professional and, in some cases, personal risk in speaking out in a way that Mr. Trump will see as disloyal, an offense for which he has promised to make offenders pay.
Several of them are in current posts in intelligence, law enforcement or national security and are focused on the concurrent activities of violent, far-right and white supremacy groups that have been encouraged by the president’s words and actions. They are worried that the president could use the power of the government – the one they all serve or served within – to keep himself in office or to create favorable terms for negotiating his exit from the White House. Like many other experts inside and outside the government, they are also concerned about foreign adversaries using the internet to sow chaos, exacerbate divisions and undermine our democratic process.
Many of those adversaries, they report, are already finding success in simply amplifying and directing the president’s words and tweets. And they’re thoroughly delighted, a former top intelligence official told me, “at how profoundly divided we’ve become. Donald Trump capitalized on that – he didn’t invent it – but someday soon we’re going to have figure out how to bring our country together, because right now we’re on a dangerous path, so very dangerous, and so vulnerable to bad actors.”
Their job is risk management, the if-then work of government, and they’re worried sick:
Many of the officials I spoke to came back to one idea: You don’t know Donald Trump like we do. Even though they can’t predict exactly what will happen, their concerns range from the president welcoming, then leveraging, foreign interference in the election, to encouraging havoc that grows into conflagrations that would merit his calling upon U.S. forces. Because he is now surrounded by loyalists, they say, there is no one to try to tell an impulsive man what he should or shouldn’t do.
“That guy you saw in the debate,” a second former senior intelligence official told me, after the first debate, when the president offered one of the most astonishing performances of any leader in modern American history – bullying, ridiculing, manic, boasting, fabricating, relentlessly interrupting and talking over his opponent. “That’s really him. Not the myth that’s been created. That’s Trump.”
So, identify the single-point failure issues. There’s one issue. That’s Trump:
One of the first things senior staff members learned about Mr. Trump was that he was all but un-briefable. He couldn’t seem to take in complex information about policy choices and consequences in the ways presidents usually do in Oval Office meetings.
What they saw instead was the guy from the first debate. He’d switch subjects, go on crazy tangents, abuse and humiliate people, cut them off midsentence. Officials I interviewed described this scenario again and again.
In the middle of a briefing, Mr. Trump would turn away and grab the phone. Sometimes the call would go to Fox television hosts like Sean Hannity or Lou Dobbs; sometimes the officials wouldn’t even know who was on the other end. But whoever it was would instantly become the key voice in the debate.
But there was a workaround:
“We used to joke that it was like a phone-a-friend thing, a lifeline thing” from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” one person said. Soon, senior officials – frustrated that they couldn’t seem to get a word in during briefings – adopted their own version of this technique. They’d ask an array of people – some Trump friends, some members of Congress, assorted notables – to call Mr. Trump and talk to him about key issues. The callers just couldn’t let on that a senior official had put them up to it. Two of these senior officials compared the technique to the manipulations of “The Truman Show,” in which the main character, played by Jim Carrey, does not know that his entire life is being orchestrated by a TV producer.
That worked, but they’re really worried about the election:
Key officials in several parts of the government told me how they thought the progression from the 3rd to the 4th might go down.
They are loath to give up too many precise details, but it’s not hard to speculate from what we already know. Disruption would most likely begin on Election Day morning somewhere on the East Coast, where polls open first. Miami and Philadelphia (already convulsed this week after another police shooting), in big swing states, would be likely locations. It could be anything, maybe violent, maybe not, started by anyone, or something planned and executed by any number of organizations, almost all of them on the right fringe, many adoring of Mr. Trump. The options are vast and test the imagination. Activists could stage protests at a few of the more crowded polling places and draw those in long lines into conflict.
Or, to get specific:
A group could just directly attack a polling place, injuring poll workers of both parties, and creating a powerful visual – an American polling place in flames, like the ballot box in Massachusetts that was burned earlier this week – that would immediately circle the globe. Some enthusiasts may simply enter the area around a polling location to root out voter fraud – as the president has directed his supporters to do – taking advantage of a 2018 court ruling that allows the Republican National Committee to pursue “ballot security” operations without court approval.
Would that mean that Mr. Trump caused any such planned activities or improvisations? No, not directly. He’s in an ongoing conversation – one to many, in a twisted e pluribus unum – with a vast population, which is in turn in conversations – many to many – among themselves. People are receiving messages, interpreting them and deciding to act, or not.
If, say, the Proud Boys attack a polling location, is it because they were spurred on by Mr. Trump’s “stand back and stand by” instructions? Is Mr. Trump telling his most fervent supporters specifically what to do? No. But security officials are terrified by the dynamics of this volatile conversation. It can move in so many directions and very quickly become dangerous…
That’s the worry:
The local police are already on-guard in those cities and others around the country for all sorts of possible incidents at polling places, including the possibility of gunfire. If something goes wrong, the media will pick this up in early morning reports and it will spread quickly, increasing tension at polling places across the country, where the setup is ripe for conflict.
Conservative media could then say the election was being stolen, summoning others to activate, maybe violently. This is the place where cybersecurity experts are on the lookout for foreign actors to amplify polling location incidents many times over, with bots and algorithms and stories written overseas that slip into the U.S. digital diet. News of even a few incidents could summon a violent segment of Mr. Trump’s supporters into action, giving foreign actors even more to amplify and distribute, spreading what is, after all, news of mayhem to the wider concentric circles of Mr. Trump’s loyalists. Groups from the left may engage as well, most likely as a counterpoint to those on the right…
Violence and conflict throughout that day at the polls would surely affect turnout, allowing Mr. Trump to claim that the in-person vote had been corrupted, if that suits his purposes.
Expect that anyway:
No matter how the votes split, there’s an expectation among officials that Mr. Trump will claim some kind of victory on Nov. 4, even if it’s a victory he claims was hijacked by fraud – just as he falsely claimed that Hillary Clinton’s three million-vote lead in the popular vote was the result of millions of votes from unauthorized immigrants. This could come in conjunction with statements, supported by carefully chosen “facts,” that the election was indeed “rigged,” as he’s long been warning.
If the streets then fill with outraged people, he can easily summon, or prompt, or encourage troublemakers among his loyalists to turn a peaceful crowd into a sea of mayhem. They might improvise on their own in sparking violence, presuming it pleases their leader.
That could happen:
In the final few weeks of the campaign, and during Mr. Trump’s illness, he’s done two things that seem contradictory: seeking votes from anyone who might still be swayed and consolidating and activating his army of most ardent followers. They are loyal to him as a person, several officials pointed out, not as president. That army Trump can direct in the difficult days ahead and take with him, wherever he goes. He may activate it. He may bargain with it, depending on how the electoral chips fall. It’s his insurance policy.
The senior government official who discussed Mr. Trump’s amplifying of messages spoke with great clarity about these codes of loyalty. The official was raised in, and regularly visits, what is now a Trump stronghold.
“They’re the reason he took off the damned mask when he got to the White House” from Walter Reed, the official said. “Those people eat that up, where any reasonable, rational person would be horrified. You are still actively shedding a deadly virus. You are lucky enough to have the best and brightest doctors, trial drugs, whatever. You get flown back to the White House, and you do a photo-op with a military salute to no one. You ask it to be re-filmed, and you take off your mask, which, in my mind, has become a signal to his core base of supporters that are willing to put themselves at risk and danger to show loyalty to him.”
And then all the rules drop away:
If the crowds are sufficiently large and volatile, he can claim to be justified in responding with federal powers to bring order. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, have both said they are opposed to deploying armed forces on American soil.
A senior Pentagon official, though, laid out a back-door plan that he was worried about. It won’t start, he thinks, with a sweeping move to federalize the National Guard, which is within the President’s Article 2 powers; it’d be more of a state by state process. The head of the National Guard of some state “starts feeling uncomfortable with something and then calls up the Pentagon.”
And then it’s over, and perhaps this is likely, but it may not be inevitable:
Another official – a senior intelligence official in a different department – argues that citizens may yet manage to rise to the challenge of this difficult election, in a time of division.
“The last line of defense in elections is the American voter,” he told me. “This is the most vulnerable phase,” now and the days immediately after Election Day, “where we’re so eager to have an outcome, that actors both foreign and domestic are going to exploit that interest, that thirst, that need for resolution to the drama.”
I asked him what he would say to American voters. “Look,” he said, softly, “just understand that you’re being manipulated. That’s politics, that’s foreign influence, they’re trying to manipulate you and drive you to a certain outcome.”
“Americans are, I think, hopefully, made of sterner stuff.”
Hope, however, is not contingency planning.
But there’s another contingency. Biden walks away with this and it isn’t even close. Then what? Garrett Graff sees this:
A restless figure with few interests outside his own business and political career, no hobbies besides playing golf at his own properties and few traditional friends, Trump thrives on public attention and disruption; this, after all, is a man who couldn’t even spend an entire weekend cooped up inside a hospital while ill with Covid-19 earlier this month and had to take a joyride around Walter Reed Medical Center to wave to supporters…
In interviews, historians, government legal experts, national security leaders and people close to the administration have a prediction that will disquiet his critics: The Trump Era is unlikely to end when the Trump presidency ends. They envision a post-presidency as disruptive and norm-busting as his presidency has been – one that could make his successor’s job much harder. They outline a picture of a man who might formally leave office only to establish himself as the president-for-life amid his own bubble of admirers – controlling Republican politics and sowing chaos in the U.S. and around the world long after he’s officially left office.
Perhaps it will be this:
Imagine that on January 21 Kayleigh McEnany begins broadcasting regular news briefings from the Trump Hotel a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House; picture the 45th president hosting congressional leaders in a replica Oval Office reconstructed inside his hotel to plot GOP strategy and rail against the injustices done his supporters, using Twitter to stoke ongoing protests and MAGA-nation resistance across the country and touring to show up at boat parades and host his signature rallies. What if Trump wakes up each day attempting to explicitly – not just passively – undermine a Biden domestic policy at home and foreign policy overseas? He could go as far as even appointing his own “shadow cabinet,” fundraising off his aggrieved fan base as they underwrite his most loyal aides like Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence, who would also be out of office alongside Trump and casting about for how to chart their own political futures. They could hold their own political meetings, press conferences and appear every night on Fox News to stir the national political pot.
And then Joe is in trouble:
Rather than being able to focus on combating the pandemic and restarting the economy, Biden could find himself consumed on a daily basis by responding and batting away Trump’s latest conspiracies and complaints, and the nation consumed by an unprecedented roiling, low-grade political insurgency unlike anything the country has ever experienced.
Or perhaps it will be this:
Look for Trump to be wooed not by the nation’s top adversaries or allies, but instead by the secondary and tertiary global powers who want the imprimatur of U.S. recognition and respect and are willing to roll out the red carpet for state-visit-like celebrations, perhaps all under the guises of fancy ribbon-cuttings of new Trump-branded projects.
Intelligence professionals can envision, for instance, Trump standing on the world stage alongside his favorite global strongmen – say Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán or Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro – bragging about his new joint development deals and the world leaders willing to host him even as they reject entreaties from President Biden. Think “Trump Tower Damascus will be a new start for my peace-loving friend Bashar al-Assad.” Or even imagine Trump, Dennis Rodman-style, turning up courtside at North Korean basketball games with his buddy Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, just as Joe Biden turns up the pressure on the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear program.
It’s all possible. So, there’s no choice here. This is Donald Trump. Do the damned contingency planning. Someone has to do it.