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….
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….