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Believe Him

Trump Will Be a Dictator on Day One and Every Day Thereafter

His interview with Hannity told us everything we need to know about his second-term plans.

Mary Altafeer/Pool/Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump appeared on a town hall hosted by Sean Hannity, his phone buddy at Fox News, on Tuesday night. It would be hard to imagine a friendlier environment for Trump. So it was remarkable when the likely 2024 GOP presidential nominee took a softball question and went the other direction.

“They want to call you a dictator,” Hannity told Trump. “Do you in any way have any plans whatsoever, if reelected president, to abuse power? To break the law? To use the government to go after people?” The host referred to a wave of recent reporting that highlighted Trump’s authoritarian goals if he retakes the White House next year, which would build on the authoritarian steps and impulses he took during his first term.

The easy, normal answer would have been to say, “Of course not, Sean” or “I love American democracy.” Trump tried to evade the question at first by complaining about President Biden, but Hannity was unusually determined to get a straight answer out of him. He circled back to the subject minutes later: “You are promising America tonight, you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?”

Hannity was practically begging Trump to deny he would ever do such a thing. Alas, Trump refused to take his cue.

“Except on day one,” he replied, to half-hearted cheers and laughs from the friendly audience. The former president seemed to find the whole thing amusing. “This guy, he says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’” Trump joked to the crowd, motioning at Hannity. “I said, ‘No, no, no, other than day one.’ We’re closing the border. And we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.”

You should not find that last line to be very reassuring. Trump, for all his lies, is being remarkably candid about what will happen if he wins in 2024. He will govern this country without any regard for the rule of law, and he will jail anyone who tries to stop him. His campaign platform is dictatorship.

This is not hyperbole. In fact, Trump and his allies have boasted about their extremist plans for a potential second term. To recap: Trumpworld is scheming to install ideological loyalists throughout the federal government, purge the civil service of any dissenters, centralize all power in the executive branch, and unleash the Justice Department on Trump’s perceived political enemies with sham prosecutions.

Kash Patel, a Trump aide during his first administration, hopes to be one of the foot soldiers in that campaign. Patel held minor roles in the Justice and Defense Departments and served on the White House’s National Security Council. He is also among the Trump aides who has spent the Biden administration in the far-right think-tank ecosphere plotting their return to power.

“We will go out and find the conspirators, not just in government but in the media,” he said Tuesday on a podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, another close Trump adviser. “Yes, we’re going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens, who helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections—we’re going to come after you. Whether it’s criminally or civilly, we’ll figure that out. But yeah, we’re putting you all on notice.”

The Trump campaign tried to distance itself from Patel’s comments on Wednesday, but there is little reason to believe it. Much of what Patel said is also what Trump has said. The former president promised last month to wipe out all the “vermin” who opposed him, apparently referring to his political opponents. Many of his posts on his Truth Social website are harangues against the various people who’ve wronged him.

Last month, The Washington Post reported that Trump has privately told associates that he would use the Justice Department to go after various high-profile critics, including former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, former Attorney General Bill Barr, and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Milley. But the main focus of his ire is President Joe Biden. “I will appoint a real special prosecutor to go after the most corrupt president in the history of the United States of America, Joe Biden, and the entire Biden crime family,” Trump declared earlier this summer.

Trumpworld is quick to describe this as tit-for-tat retaliation. They have argued that Trump’s opponents actually struck first by charging him with a series of crimes after he left office. It’s a neat rhetorical trick from Trump and his allies: simultaneously arguing that the cases against them are illegitimate and that any targeting of his opponents would be legitimate.

But that reasoning is detached from reality. First, the reason that Trump has been indicted multiple times is that he appears to have committed a wide variety of genuine crimes. He manipulated property values in New York to secure favorable loans from banks and lower taxes rates before taking office. He pressured local officials to “find” enough votes to let him win Georgia in the 2020 presidential election. He summoned a mob to attack the Capitol to stop the peaceful transfer of power. And he stole classified documents from the federal government after leaving office.

There is no evidence that Biden has committed an impeachable offense or a federal crime, despite years of GOP-led investigations. High-profile investigations by House Republicans have produced nothing but spurious “evidence” and unsubstantiated charges. The “Biden crime family” is so bad at being a crime family that it’s currently prosecuting one of its own members, with the president’s eldest son, Hunter Biden, set to be tried on gun-related charges in the near future.

As I noted last week, there would be no institutional check that could stop Trump from manufacturing charges against Biden or other opponents if he wins in 2024 and weaponizes the Justice Department to go after them. His willingness to mount a coup attempt after the 2020 election shows how far he will go to secure his grip on power if given the chance. A president who is willing to send a mob to Capitol Hill is a president who will ignore any court order that he wishes.

That is, in effect, what he is promising with his references to “closing the border” and to “drilling.” Congress has already enacted a comprehensive system for processing asylum claims. Federal law also determines when and how oil and gas companies can drill on public lands. Trump’s promise to be a “dictator” for them means that he will ignore those laws and ignore any court order to enforce them. Trump is not known for self-restraint, so it is doubtful that he would stop there.

Trump has already claimed “absolute presidential immunity” in recent years, which effectively means in practice that no one will hold him accountable. And he can reward the Kash Patels of the world by prolifically wielding the power to pardon people of federal crimes. Trump has already promised to pardon a significant portion of the January 6 rioters, effectively rewarding them for mounting a coup attempt on his behalf. His use of pardons for loyalists during his first term would only grow once he’s returned to power.

So why did Hannity ask those questions at all? It’s like asking Bernie Sanders if he supports universal health care or Mitch McConnell if he opposes Biden’s judicial nominees. Perhaps Hannity wanted Trump to deny it because he feared that a majority of Americans won’t be thrilled with the idea of a presidential candidate openly running on a platform of dictatorship. Hopefully, for once, Sean Hannity is right.