(Image: Sipa USA/Chris Kleponis)

The Trump presidency is at last in its final days. Yet the brokenness of US politics doesn’t seem to be going away.

Congress returns with a weakened Democratic majority and a Republican Party divided over what to do about Donald Trump. Several GOP politicians continue to entertain his baseless belief that the 2020 election results were fraudulent and are trying to obstruct the transition of power.

Amid all that, Trump has been caught on tape trying to convince Georgia’s (Republican) secretary of state to “find” him more votes. And while we’re not looking, he’s off pardoning his golf buddies.

A session like no other

The 117th Congress opened with a whimper on Sunday — the COVID-19 pandemic meant much of the traditional ceremony was pared back. Unsurprisingly, Democrat Nancy Pelosi was elected speaker for a fourth term.

But the true drama lies ahead. On Wednesday US time, Congress will meet to confirm each state’s electoral college results from November’s general election. What is normally a quick formality will likely be a partisan shitshow after GOP politicians, led by Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama and Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, announced plans to raise objections to the results — 13 senators, including former presidential candidate Ted Cruz, and about 140 House Republicans have promised to object.

Those objections will see both House and Senate return to their chambers for a rather pointless two-hour debate. Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has told senators not to object, and several other Republican figures such as Mitt Romney have criticised the ploy.

None of the histrionics will stop Joe Biden becoming president. But it’s a sign of the choices Republicans will have to keep making over the next four years: maintain loyalty to Trump or remain committed to traditional institutions, which conservatives once theoretically cared about.

That’s why Hawley has led the charge to object. The ambitious, dead-eyed grifter clearly harbours presidential ambitions and has figured that Trump’s sinking ship is the best way to endear himself to an increasingly conspiracy-brained Republican base.

What will Pence do?

Vice-President Mike Pence’s final act in office will be to effectively finish off the Trump presidency by officially announcing the electoral college results. But Pence is also trying to walk the Trump tightrope, with the president mad his veep hasn’t fought hard enough to overturn the election results.

While Pence has never explicitly backed Trump’s false claims about electoral fraud, he recently welcomed efforts by GOP senators to object.

That’s not enough for Trump. He’s reportedly mad that Pence isn’t fighting hard enough for him, and in a rogue tweet last night, claimed Pence could use the joint Congress session to overturn the election result. Pence does not have the power to do this.

Last week a federal judge tossed out a lawsuit brought by congressional Republicans which aimed to pressure Pence into rejecting the electoral college results.

The power to pardon

The US constitution gives the president power to grant clemency for federal crimes, and it’s not unusual for a rash of pardons to be issued at the end of a term. What is unusual is the way Trump has used the power as essentially a get-out-of-jail-free card for his mates.

Recently he pardoned former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, long-term associate and GOP hack Roger Stone, and Charles Kushner, father of his son-in-law and adviser, Jared. For comparison, Barack Obama used many of his final pardons to free people serving excessive prison sentences for non-violent drug offences.

But perhaps one of Trump’s most egregious pardons wasn’t given to one of his cronies, but to four contractors from the private military company Blackwater who were convicted of murdering Iraqi civilians in 2007. That mass shooting, which left 14 civilians dead, was comparable to the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, according to the FBI agent investigating it.

Of course there’s always a crony angle with Trump. Blackwater was founded by Erik Prince, a big fan. Prince’s sister is Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos.