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Trump’s Bizarre Moments With Dr. Phil and Hannity Should Alarm Us All

Earth to media: The criminal prosecutions of Trump are legitimate. The “revenge” he’s promising would be wholly illegitimate. Time to make that a whole lot clearer.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump in Phoenix, on June 6

During just this week, two of Donald Trump’s friendliest interviewers handed him big prime-time opportunities to unequivocally renounce any intention to retaliate against Democrats for his criminal conviction by a jury of his peers in Manhattan. Both times, Trump demurred.

“Sometimes revenge can be justified,” Trump told Dr. Phil McGraw, after he suggested that seeking retribution for Trump’s criminal charges would harm the country. Though Trump graciously said he was “open” to showing forbearance toward Democrats, he suggested revenge would be tempting, given “what I’ve been through.”

Trump voiced similar sentiments to Sean Hannity after the Fox News host practically begged him to deny he’d pursue his opponents. “I would have every right to go after them,” Trump said. Though Trump nodded along with Hannity’s suggestion that “weaponizing” law enforcement is bad, Trump added, “I don’t want to look naïve,” seemingly meaning that if he doesn’t seek revenge, he’ll have been victimized without acting to set things right.

These moments have been widely mocked as a sign that even Trump’s media pals can’t help him disguise his true second-term intentions. That’s true, but there’s another point to be made here: The exchanges should awaken us to what a monstrous scam it is when Trump and his allies talk about unleashing prosecutions of foes as “revenge” and “retribution.”

We have to stop letting Trump get away with this. It’s actually spin, and we should all say so.

The idea that Trump should pursue “revenge” and “retribution” for prosecutions is everywhere on the right. After a federal judge ordered Steve Bannon to surrender to prison, numerous MAGA influencers, including the MAGA God King himself, angrily vowed such payback. Republicans have said Trump should “fight fire with fire” (Senator Marco Rubio) and that GOP district attorneys should declare open season on Democrats (Stephen Miller). Trump, of course, has offered many versions of this, including to Dr. Phil and Hannity.

In the media, this story tends to be framed as follows: Will Trump seek “revenge” for his legal travails, or won’t he? But that framing unwittingly lets Trump set the terms of this debate. It implies that he is vowing to do to Democrats what was done to him.

But that’s not what Trump is actually threatening. Whereas Trump is being prosecuted on the basis of evidence that law enforcement gathered before asking grand juries to indict him, he is expressly declaring that he will prosecute President Biden and Democrats solely because this is what he endured, meaning explicitly that evidence will not be the initiating impulse.

You might think this distinction is obvious—one most voters will grasp instinctually. But why would they grasp this? It’s not uncommon to encounter news stories about Trump’s threats—see here, here, or here—that don’t explain those basic contours of the situation. Such stories often don’t take the elementary step of explaining the fundamental difference between bringing prosecutions in keeping with what evidence and the rule of law dictate and bringing them as purported “retaliation.” Why would casual readers simply infer that prosecutions against Trump are legally predicated while those he is threatening are not?

To appreciate the challenge this poses to the discourse, imagine an ordinary voter watching Trump’s exchanges with Dr. Phil and Hannity. Both interviewers treated it as self-evident that the prosecutions of Trump are illegitimate. Amusingly, they cast Trump’s dilemma as a profoundly weighty cross to for him to bear, suggesting that if his foes are granted forbearance, it might be deeply unfair to Trump—given what they put him through—but would showcase his boundless magnanimity in sparing the country from tit-for-tat escalation.

Trump, of course, played along with this framing effortlessly. Speaking to Dr. Phil, Trump sagely agreed that displaying magnanimous forbearance would be better for the country but noted that he really has been treated unfairly, so who could begrudge his musing about retaliatory prosecutions? Similarly, Trump somberly told Hannity—again displaying his profound concern for our country—that the cycle of prosecutions “has to stop.” But he left the door open to seeking out his due: “What I’ve gone through, nobody’s ever gone through.”

“Will you pledge,” Hannity implored Trump, to “end this practice of weaponization?” Trump again assured Hannity that he sees the wisdom of this. But he added, “I don’t want to look naïve” about how badly he’s been treated, as if to say: How can such an injustice stand unanswered?

Watch these interviews, and Trump’s real mission becomes clear: to obliterate the distinction between legitimate prosecutions and purely baseless, politically malicious ones. Trump is threatening something wholly unlike what he has experienced. He and his allies are laying the groundwork to undertake the persecution of Democrats that they have wanted to unleash for a long time: Note that Trump has already sought to wield law enforcement against enemies during his presidency by trying to initiate investigations of Hillary Clinton but was thwarted by internal resistance—long before getting indicted himself.

The whole idea that Trump is seeking “revenge” is itself spin. There is nothing for Trump to legitimately seek revenge in this manner for, as Biden and Democrats did not unjustly victimize him with these prosecutions; he brought them upon himself. So what’s the proper response to such elaborate levels of deception and propaganda?

One is to ask media figures to lay down a marker for themselves. If casual readers will come away from their coverage without being informed as to what a given news organization itself knows to be true—that the prosecutions of Trump are thoroughly in keeping with the rule of law, while what Trump is threatening would be deeply destructive to it—then something is wrong, and more clarity is called for.

Another response is to urge Democrats to follow in the spirit of Brian Beutler’s excellent advice that they explain to voters why Trump’s criminal travails render him unfit to be president. This would entail stating more clearly that Trump’s threats to prosecute his enemies without cause are themselves wholly disqualifying.

Here, some theorizing on Trump’s form of lawless politics might offer guidance. John Ganz, in a piece adapted from his new book, suggests that Trump is functioning as a “mob boss,” which isn’t meant just polemically: He is offering his followers the spoils of his corruption and the thrill of feeling viscerally bonded to the MAGA clan—both as deliberate alternatives lying outside the liberal democratic order. And Jamelle Bouie explains that for Trump, the charismatic bond between him and his supporters trumps democracy and the law as the true wellspring of political legitimacy: Any outcome produced by our institutions is inherently illegitimate if it fails to maintain MAGA’s supremacy over non-MAGA America.

Democrats, then, can argue: You can’t be president if you treat the law as presumptively invalid when it is applied to you and your supporters (as Trump’s pledge to pardon January 6 rioters makes explicit). You can’t be president if you openly vow to extend the fruits of our political order only to your supporters while arbitrarily designating countless other Americans a traitorous class within, one that deserves to live in fear of lawless persecution and organized political thuggery. You can’t be president if you treat the rule of law as secondary to, in the words of David French, “the destruction of your enemies.”

Trump’s exchanges with Dr. Phil and Hannity are alarming in no small part because they show how thoroughly committed he is to proving all those assertions wrong.