I read a tweet earlier asking the hypothetical question of "what could Trump do between November and January if he lost the election?"

In the UK, the election is lost and the winners enter 10 Downing Street. What power does the US President have after he has lost the election?

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    I didn't cast a close vote (yet), but I might, because this questions seems to be asking for pure speculation. Legally and institutionally a president's power does not change when he loses the election. But that doesn't seem to be what you're asking; you seem to be asking what Trump personally might do with that power, given his temperamental, capricious, and narcissistic nature. That's far too speculative to be worthwhile. Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 13:57
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    I'm not asking what he might or might not do, I'm simply curious if during that 3 months he has all the same power/responsibility as he did before losing the election.
    – Richard
    Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 13:59
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    That's simplifying the UK position a little. It's perfectly possible (and has happened) for a party to lose but for the incumbent prime minister to remain in office while the other party(s) sort themselves out e.g. in a hung parliament.
    – JBentley
    Commented Jun 20, 2020 at 0:08
  • Summary of the excellent answers below: CDJB: His legal powers do not change. Machavity: His influence is less, because his successor can undo much of what he's done, and his opponents can just wait for the new president. Bobson: He can do some things that cannot be undone and for which he needs no support, like granting controversial pardons. Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 4:23

3 Answers 3


The 20th Amendment to the US Constitution states:

The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

The incumbent President, therefore, legally retains all powers he had during most of his term in the 72-78 day period between Election Day (2nd-8th November) and the inauguration of the new President. According to the Congressional Research Service's publication, Presidential Transitions: Issues Involving Outgoing and Incoming Administrations:

The President’s authority to exercise power begins immediately upon being sworn into office and continues until he is no longer the officeholder. By the same token, while congressional oversight of the executive branch is continuous, some activities may take on special significance at the end or beginning of an Administration. The disposition of government records (including presidential records and vice presidential records), protections against “burrowing in” (which involves the conversion of political appointees to career status in the civil service), the granting of pardons, and the issuance of “midnight rules” are four activities associated largely with the outgoing President’s Administration. The incumbent President may also submit a budget to Congress, or he may defer to his successor on this matter.

  • Would an impeachment help keep the outgoing president in check should he start to behave (more) erratically?
    – PatrickT
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 6:09
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    Impeachment has no effect until the Senate confirms it, which is called "removal". Removal has immediate and total effect and all powers devolve to the Vice President
    – JoelFan
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 7:20
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    What is specifically meant by "the disposition of government records"? Is it implying that past administrations have destroyed or hidden records?
    – DrSheldon
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 13:03
  • @DrSheldon yes - see the Presidential Records Act. "Allows the incumbent President to dispose of records that no longer have administrative, historical, informational, or evidentiary value, once the views of the Archivist of the United States on the proposed disposal have been obtained in writing."
    – CDJB
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 13:06

The other two answers are correct that legally, nothing changes but practically, there's not much you can do. However, there's one effective "power" that a lame duck president has which they do not normally have: The ability to pardon without political consequences.

A president can pardon for any federal crime at any time, and no one (even their successor) can undo that. However, if they pardon someone highly controversial, it may have an effect on their chances of being reelected or their party's performance in the next Congressional election. But if they're not going to run again in the future, and there will be almost two years of other news events before the next Congressional election, they can pardon whomever they want without suffering for it, and their successor can't undo that.

For example, a third of the people Obama pardoned during his eight years in office were in those months after the 2016 elections, half them on his very last day.

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    Seems kinda weird to single out Obama (and only Obama) here, since every president in my lifetime has done the same (and I'm past half a century now). However, I'll allow that he was the last POTUS to be in this situation.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 2:16
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    Just went and checked, and Bush II only pardoned 2 of his 18 (11%) after his party lost the 2008 election. However his last election was in 2004, and he issued 73% of his pardons after that day.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 2:28
  • It's important to note that no one can overturn a presidential pardon, not even the new president. So unlike his Executive Orders, when he does this, it stays done. Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 4:26
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    @T.E.D. The most recent and the one who used it the most. But it’s definitely a common practice.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 6:16
  • @ShawnV.Wilson Good call. I’d said that in a comment on another answer, but forgot to explicitly say it in mind, too. Added.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 6:17

The "lame duck" period (the three months between election and inauguration) doesn't see any differences in Presidential powers. The catch is you're unlikely to do anything in office that your successor cannot undo later. Congress is in the same boat but, historically, an incoming President will have their party in enough control of Congress to prevent any major legislation from being passed. Executive orders can typically be undone by the same powers that created them.

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    Pardons and anything that would take effect before January would be the two things that couldn't be undone (although the latter could be halted/reversed, the past can't be rewritten)
    – Bobson
    Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 16:32
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    There is plenty a president can do that cant be undone by the next president. This includes: Signing bills into law, appointing judges, and issuing pardons. So I contest the claim that "you are unlikely to do anything in office that your successor cannot undo later" especially given that issuing a bunch of pardons is one of the last things most presidents do before they leave office. I think most presidents are quite likely to do something that cant be undone.
    – Matt
    Commented Jun 20, 2020 at 12:27
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    Is that true though? A current congress has no particular allegiance to a future president.
    – Matt
    Commented Jun 20, 2020 at 13:18
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    The president never has any amount of control of congress.
    – Matt
    Commented Jun 20, 2020 at 14:01
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    @Matt I don't think he meant legal control, just effective control when the majority party is the same as the President's.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 20:48

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