Donald Trump and Mike Pence
Credit: White House/Flickr

These are dark days for the White House. Worse, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

The President is reported to be isolated and in a foul mood amid utter chaos, lashing out at all and sundry. The Mueller inquiry is taking an increasingly wide scope and threatening to ensnare his immediate family. His son-in-law has been stripped of his security clearance, his surrogate daughter and emotional support is leaving the White House, he mistrusts his Chief of Staff and is at war with his own Attorney General. Republicans in Congress are doing all they can to block inquiries and investigations, but they’ve also let Trump know that they might let the dam break if he fires Sessions or Rosenstein, so he feels locked in a box from which there is no escape. His policy agenda is in tatters. He is beset by multiple infidelity and payoff scandals, leaving his marriage so tattered that he jokes about his wife leaving him. His approval ratings are in the toilet, and Republicans downballot are taking a beating in almost every election leading up to what may be a disastrous midterm for the president’s party.

Trump has been in these dire straits before in his life, make no mistake–and his reaction at every step was to run from the damage, welsh on his obligations, let fixers handle the mess and never look back. Donald Trump has declared bankruptcy no less than six times, leaving creditors holding the bag each and every time. His building deals frequently go up in smoke. His fraudulent “university” went belly up and ended in settlements. He routinely stiffs his subcontractors. Most banks refuse to deal with him, and because he refuses to release his or his organization’s tax returns, we have no idea if he has the sort of money he claims to have, or is instead deeply in hock to foreign mafia cartels. Without his father’s money he would be just another two-bit white collar criminal from Queens, either in jail on tax evasion or running a ponzi scheme.

Trump is a classic grifter. And the modus operandi of the grifter is to play the con as long as he can, then pack up and run when the water gets hot and the bill comes due.

It is remarkable that we as a nation allowed such a person to become president. But nations do make mistakes. The question is what the Grifter-in-Chief will do now.

The standard play would be to simply step away. Even the most narcissistic con artist is rarely fool enough to choose dire consequences over an easy escape route just out of ego alone. As the walls begin to close in on him, his friends and family, it is difficult to see how he lasts another year in the job, much less three. If he were a man of greater intelligence and discipline, he could theoretically negotiate subordinates to take the fall for him and right his ship of state. But Trump lacks the wherewithal and the command of loyalty to accomplish either one.

He could try to start a war to escape his predicament, but it’s not at all clear that Americans would rush to his side as they once did to George W. Bush. An incompetent rush to war might actually deepen his troubles. He could wait for the 2018 midterms, but leaving office after a Democrat wave election would be a far less pleasant prospect. He could try to ride out the next three years hobbled and miserable, surfing from scandal to scandal and hoping to somehow survive both the consequences of the midterms and the Mueller investigation.

But by far the easiest play would simply be to step away. The Mueller investigation hasn’t yet seriously touched Vice President Pence (so far as we know.) Pence could pardon Trump as Ford did Nixon. Trump would still face state charges, but those would be easier to deal with when not under the intense glare of the White House lights and multiple federal investigations. Moreover, Trump would still be the darling of the right-wing base, and he could then move on to the grift he reportedly planned from the beginning of his campaign; losing the presidency only to make money off of impressionable right-wing rubes as their deplorable standardbearer.

The problem, of course, is Trump’s monumental ego. Could his pugilistic self-image bear to accept defeat and take that fateful helicopter ride away from the White House lawn? There’s the rub. But while his narcissism might be his undoing, the likeliest scenario is that the grifter in him will win out: he will become increasingly chaotic and dangerous in the days before the end, only to sign some bizarre executive actions, declare victory on twitter under the premise that he had fulfilled his promise to make America great again, and fly off to Mar-A-Lago to go golfing and negotiate a new TV channel or Fox News contract.

Having dealt with my share of sociopaths and con artists in the past, my sense is that Trump will stick it out through the 2018 midterm, hoping against hope for a miracle comeback. But if Democrats swarm Congress and statehouses as it currently seems that they may, I doubt Trump plays out the string past the January 2019 congressional inauguration to watch the investigations and potential impeachment trials.

If I’m wrong and Trump wins re-election in 2020 I’ll ruefully eat crow. But I strongly believe that once a grifter always a grifter, and a con artist never changes his stripes. Far easier to cut and run than face the music.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.