Category Archives: authoritarian threats in US

Washington Post: Federalist Society Lawyers Are Conflicted About Working for a Second Trump Administration Amidst Demands for Greater Personal Loyalty

WaPo:

Now the dominant front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination, Trump has broken with many of the leaders and allies of the Federalist Society, a powerful conservative legal organization that boosted his campaign eight years ago and helped him stock the federal bench with their preferred picks. It is unclear how he would seek to fill judicial vacancies and make other related decisions should he win a second term, and he has not offered such a potential list of potential judicial nominees as he did eight years ago.

Trump has complained publicly and privately that his first-term Justice Department leaders were too weak, that his Supreme Court picks have tried to come across as too “independent” and that the court system has broadly been biased against him, as he faces 91 felony charges. Trump told donors in meetings in late 2023 that one of his only mistakes as president was that he did not pick the right people to lead the Justice Department, according to people who attended, and he regularly discusses plans for the department in a second term. In some ways, the handshake agreement he once held with the traditional conservative legal movement has evaporated…

Trump has more broadly gravitated away from the GOP establishment he has long derided but learned to work with in his term as president. The implications of his shift could be significant — from potentially imperiling a long-observed firewall between the White House and the Justice Department, to appointing lawyers in his administration willing to approve novel approaches to the law and dare courts to stop them, to shifting the nation’s courts further to the right.

The former president will be looking forappointees“who are talented and strong and — here’s the key ingredient — truly committed to helping him accomplish his agenda,” said Mark Paoletta, former general counsel of the Office of Management and Budget under Trump….

Trump now rails against the Federalist Society privately, according to advisers. He no longer speaks to many lawyers who were once instrumental, including former Federalist Society leader Leonard Leo, former White House counsel and Federalist Society board member Donald McGahn, or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — the triumvirate who propelled much of his judicial record in the first term….

Leo said he felt Trump would continue to nominate conservative judges who interpret the meaning of the Constitution as it was written because he does not have much of a choice. He has told others he no longer talks to Trump’s advisers and is largely focused on spending billions to reshape the country in a more conservative direction with a focus on non-election issues.

“I can’t see a situation where Donald Trump doesn’t pick originalist judges if he gets a second term, because the Federalist Society has won the philosophical debate, and the current court is now upholding the rule of law and the Constitution more than at any other time in modern history. This remains a clear and necessary path for victory for any Republican,” Leo said….

Most members of the Federalist Society board of directors declined to comment on the record or did not respond to a request for comment. Interviews with a dozen other prominent lawyers suggested most had serious misgivings about Trump returning to power but were resigned to the high likelihood he will be the nominee, and many expressed openness to working for another Trump administration.

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“Talk of a Trump Dictatorship Charges the American Political Debate”

Peter Baker for the NYT:

When a historian wrote an essay the other day warning that the election of former President Donald J. Trump next year could lead to dictatorship, one of Mr. Trump’s allies quickly responded by calling for the historian to be sent to prison.

It almost sounds like a parody: The response to concerns about dictatorship is to prosecute the author. But Mr. Trump and his allies are not going out of their way to reassure those worried about what a new term would bring by firmly rejecting the dictatorship charge. If anything, they seem to be leaning into it.

If Mr. Trump is returned to office, people close to him have vowed to “come after” the news media, open criminal investigations into onetime aides who broke with the former president and purge the government of civil servants deemed disloyal. When critics said Mr. Trump’s language about ridding Washington of “vermin” echoed that of Adolf Hitler, the former president’s spokesman said the critics’ “sad, miserable existence will be crushed” under a new Trump administration.

Mr. Trump himself did little to assuage Americans when his friend Sean Hannity tried to help him out on Fox News this past week. During a town hall-style meeting, Mr. Hannity tossed a seeming softball by asking Mr. Trump to reaffirm that of course he did not intend to abuse his power and use the government to punish enemies. Instead of simply agreeing, Mr. Trump said he would only be a dictator on “Day 1” of a new term.

“Trump has made it crystal clear through all his actions and rhetoric that he admires leaders who have forms of authoritarian power, from Putin to Orban to Xi, and that he wants to exercise that kind of power at home,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” referring to Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Xi Jinping of China. “History shows that autocrats always tell you who they are and what they are going to do,” she added. “We just don’t listen until it is too late.”….

Mr. Trump once expressed no regret that a quote he shared on social media came from Mussolini and adopted the language of Stalin in calling journalists the “enemies of the people.” He told his chief of staff that “Hitler did a lot of good things” and later said he wished American generals were like Hitler’s generals.

Last December, shortly after opening his comeback campaign, Mr. Trump called for “termination” of the Constitution to remove Mr. Biden immediately and reinstall himself in the White House without waiting for another election.

The former president’s defenders dismiss the fears about Mr. Trump’s autocratic instincts as whining by liberals who do not like him or his policies and are disingenuously trying to scare voters. They argue that President Biden is the real dictator because his Justice Department is prosecuting his likeliest challenger next year for various alleged crimes, although there is no evidence that Mr. Biden has been personally involved in those decisions and even some former Trump advisers call the indictments legitimate….

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ELB Podcast 5:4: Ian Bassin & Jess Marsden: Protecting Democracy in 2024…and 2025

New ELB Podcast:

Has the United States done enough to minimize the risk of election subversion in 2024?

How might problems in Congress affect a fair tallying of electoral college votes on January 6, 2025?

How much danger of authoritarian rule does the U.S. face going forward?

On Season 5, Episode 4 of the ELB Podcast, we speak with Ian Bassin and Jess Marsden of Protect Democracy.

You can subscribe on SoundcloudApple Podcasts, and Spotify.

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“Trump declines to rule out abusing power to seek retribution if he returns to the White House”

AP:

Former President Donald Trump declined to rule out abusing power if he returns to the White House after Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity asked him Tuesday to respond to growing Democratic criticism of his rhetoric.

The GOP presidential front-runner has talked about targeting his rivals — referring to them as “vermin” — and vowed to seek retribution if he wins a second term for what he argues are politically motivated prosecutions against him. As Trump has dominated the Republican presidential primary, President Joe Biden has stepped up his own warnings, contending Trump is “ determined to destroy American democracy.”

“Under no circumstances, you are promising America tonight, you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?” Hannity asked Trump in the interview taped in Davenport, Iowa.

“Except for day one,” Trump responded. “I want to close the border and I want to drill, drill, drill.”

Trump then repeated his assertion. “I love this guy,” he said of the Fox News host. “He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ 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.’”

Earlier in the interview, Hannity had asked Trump if he “in any way” had “any plans whatsoever, if reelected president, to abuse power, to break the law to use the government to go after people.”

“You mean like they’re using right now?” Trump replied….

The Atlantic, “Trump Says He’ll Be a Dictator on Day One:”

Predicting the apologetics that anti-anti-Trumpers will employ here isn’t too hard. They’ll insist that this is just rhetorical flourish. They’ll say it’s fine, because he’s promising to limit his self-acknowledged abuse of powers to the noble causes of energy independence and border security. They’ve been using these excuses for years now.

But the people to heed here are Trump and his close allies, who are deliberately employing inflammatory rhetoric. In the same interview, Hannity gave the former president another chance to make a simple, bland statement of respect for laws, and Trump refused. (This is not the first time Hannity has tried to toss Trump a life buoy, only for Trump to fling it away with glee.)

“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?” Hannity asked. Trump’s response: “You mean like they’re using right now?”

The turnabout onto President Biden is dubious but typical. What’s missing is the easy addendum: And of course I reject these excesses and will get the country back on track. The problem is that everyone knows the former president would abuse his power, even the anti-anti-Trump apologists. And for his diehard supporters, that’s the real sell this time around. He is promising them that he’ll throw out the rulebook and exact revenge on his opponents.

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Greg Sargent: “Enough with all the fatalism about a Trump dictatorship”

WaPo column:

“Authoritarians create a climate where they seem unstoppable,” Ben-Ghiat told me. “Creating an aura of destiny around the leader galvanizes his supporters by making his movement seem much stronger than it actually is. The manipulation of perception is everything.”

The aim is to hypnotize voters into forgetting the power and numbers that they possess, persuading them that politics is a hopelessly sordid and disappointing exercise. But that is not the story of the Trump years.

The purpose of this isn’t to downplay the gravity of the moment; it’s to channel anxieties about it in a constructive direction. As Brian Beutler writes on Substack, excessive public worries about Trump’s supposed inevitability bury the all-important truth that popular majorities have regularly, emphatically rejected Trump and all he represents, potentially making the convictions of the anti-Trump movement look feeble in the eyes of swing voters.

No more indulging in paralyzing fatalistic nightmares. We need a spirit of guarded and vigilant confidence — one that is fully aware of what’s at stake while drawing inspiration from the cognizance that this country has thwarted Trump in the past — and will likely do so again.

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The Atlantic and the NYT Open the Week with Major Pieces Warning About a Second Trump Term

Bart Gellman in The Atlantic:

If Donald Trump regains the presidency, he will once again become the chief law-enforcement officer of the United States. There may be no American leader less suited to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” as the Constitution directs the president. But that authority comes with the office, including command of the Justice Department and the FBI.

We know what Trump would like to do with that power, because he’s said so out loud. He is driven by self-interest and revenge, in that order. He wants to squelch the criminal charges now pending against him, and he wants to redeploy federal prosecutors against his enemies, beginning with President Joe Biden. The important question is how much of that agenda he could actually carry out in a second term….

The institutional resistance Trump faced has reinforced his determination to place loyalists in key jobs should he win reelection. One example is Jeffrey Clark, who tried to help Trump overturn the 2020 election. Trump sought to appoint Clark as acting attorney general in early January 2021, but backed off after a mass-resignation threat at the DOJ. People who know him well suggest that he would not let that threat deter him a second time. Trump will also want to fire Christopher Wray, the FBI director, and replace him with someone more pliable. Only tradition, not binding law, prevents the president and his political appointees from issuing orders to the FBI about its investigations.

The top jobs at the DOJ require Senate confirmation, and even a Republican Senate might not confirm an indicted conspirator to overturn an election like Clark for attorney general. Under the Vacancies Reform Act, which regulates temporary appointments, Trump can appoint any currently serving Senate-confirmed official from anywhere in the executive branch as acting attorney general. Of course, all of the officials serving at the beginning of his new term would be holdovers from the Biden administration.

Trump’s allies are searching for loyalists among the Republicans currently serving on several dozen independent boards and commissions, such as the Federal Trade Commission, that have “party balancing” requirements for their appointees. Alternatively, Trump could choose any senior career official in the Justice Department who has served for at least 90 days in a position ranked GS-15 or higher on the federal pay scale—a cohort that includes, for example, senior trial attorneys, division counsels, and section chiefs. As Anne Joseph O’Connell, a Stanford law professor and an expert on the Vacancies Reform Act, reminded me, “This is how we got Matthew Whitaker,” the former attorney general’s chief of staff, as acting attorney general. (Whitaker was widely criticized as unqualified.)

Would some career officials, somewhere among the department’s 115,000 employees, do Trump’s bidding in exchange for an acting appointment? Trump’s team is looking.

Once trump has installed loyalists in crucial posts, his first priority—an urgent one for a man facing 91 felony charges in four jurisdictions—would be to save himself from conviction and imprisonment….

NYT, Why A Second Trump Presidency Would Be More Radical Than the First:

Mr. Trump’s violent and authoritarian rhetoric on the 2024 campaign trail has attracted growing alarm and comparisons to historical fascist dictators and contemporary populist strongmen. In recent weeks, he has dehumanized his adversaries as “vermin” who must be “rooted out,” declared that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” encouraged the shooting of shoplifters and suggested that the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, deserved to be executed for treason.

As he runs for president again facing four criminal prosecutions, Mr. Trump may seem more angry, desperate and dangerous to American-style democracy than in his first term. But the throughline that emerges is far more long-running: He has glorified political violence and spoken admiringly of autocrats for decades….

What would be different in a second Trump administration is not so much his character as his surroundings. Forces that somewhat contained his autocratic tendencies in his first term — staff members who saw their job as sometimes restraining him, a few congressional Republicans episodically willing to criticize or oppose him, a partisan balance on the Supreme Court that occasionally ruled against him — would all be weaker.

As a result, Mr. Trump’s and his advisers’ more extreme policy plans and ideas for a second term would have a greater prospect of becoming reality….

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