Former President Trump told his supporters earlier this year he would be their “retribution” if reelected.
He told supporters last week he would direct the Justice Department (DOJ) to investigate “every Marxist prosecutor in America.”
And Trump over the weekend vowed to “root out … the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”
Trump’s own words have made increasingly clear how fixated he is on revenge and targeting his perceived enemies if he wins a second term in the White House next November. The former president has openly mused in recent days that his own indictment has “released the genie out of the box” and would allow him to weaponize the government against his opponents.
His comments have raised alarms among critics, some of whom fear a second Trump administration will lack some of the guardrails that existed during his first four years in office.
“His policies are not centered around improving the lives of his supporters or Americans in general, it’s centered around consolidating power for Trump, and that way he can wield it to enact that revenge on anyone he deems as an enemy,” said Sarah Matthews, a former Trump White House and campaign press aide who resigned over the Jan. 6 riots.
“And that is what is scary, and I wish that was penetrating through more in the minds of voters,” Matthews added.
Trump’s own words paint a clear picture of an individual appearing increasingly fixated on targeting those he believes have wronged him if he is able to return to the White House, and he is using exceedingly incendiary rhetoric to make his point.
“I am your warrior, I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution,” Trump said in March at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
The former president earlier this year called for Republicans in Congress to defund the FBI and DOJ as he faced federal investigations that have since resulted in indictments in Florida and Washington, D.C.
In September, Trump suggested former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley had committed treason by reaching out to China following the 2020 election to offer reassurances in the final days of Trump’s first term.
“This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!” Trump wrote on Truth Social.
Trump last week delivered remarks in New Hampshire in which he likened those on the left to “vermin” that pose a threat to the country from within, drawing rebuke for using language used by dictators decades ago.
And Trump has for months spoken about plans to direct investigations into President Biden, his family and others should he retake the White House.
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Trump in June wrote on social media that he would appoint a special prosecutor to “go after” Biden, his family and “all others involved with the destruction of our elections, borders, & country itself.”
The former president last month in Iowa claimed his own indictments — on federal charges in Florida and Washington, D.C., and on state charges in New York and Georgia — allows him to target Biden.
He reiterated that belief in an interview last week with Univision in which he was asked if he would weaponize the DOJ if he’s elected.
“Yeah. If they do this and they’ve already done it, but if they want to follow through on this, yeah, it could certainly happen in reverse,” Trump said. “It could certainly happen in reverse. What they’ve done is they’ve released the genie out of the box.”
Multiple reports in recent weeks from The New York Times and Washington Post have detailed how outside conservative groups and longtime Trump allies are laying the groundwork for a second Trump term, including through the appointment of attorneys and personnel who would be willing to push through controversial aspects of Trump’s agenda.
The Post reported Trump has cited individuals he wants to investigate, and his associates have drafted plans to potentially invoke the Insurrection Act to help quell protests against him.
The Trump campaign has pushed back on reports about the former president’s plans for a second term.
“These reports about personnel and policies that are specific to a second Trump Administration are purely speculative and theoretical. Any personnel lists, policy agendas, or government plans published anywhere are merely suggestions,” senior Trump campaign advisers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita said in a statement.
“Likewise, all 2024 campaign policy announcements will be made by President Trump or members of his campaign team,” they added. “Policy recommendations from external allies are just that — recommendations.”
But Trump’s own rhetoric has in many ways set the tone.
Reinforcing the concern among experts is that Trump showed throughout his first term a willingness to use the levers of government to target those who he perceived as enemies.
He was impeached in late 2019 over a phone call in which he urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Biden family.
Multiple reports in recent years detailed how Trump wanted then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey.
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper wrote in his memoir that Trump wanted to call retired military officials back to active duty to court-martial them after they were critical of the former president.
“I think that as far as the question of is he just blowing off steam or would he be intent on doing that, I think he would be intent on doing that. He demonstrated as president he would act on his grudges, so I think these threats are real,” said Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University.
Trump is dominating the Republican primary field, leading in national polls by an average of nearly 60 percentage points. His lead in state-level polls is smaller but still more than 20 percentage points in most cases.
Recent polls have also shown Trump leading Biden in key battleground states and in some national polls, underscoring the reality that the former president could reasonably win reelection next November.
Experts and former Trump administration officials turned critics have raised alarms that the former president could be less constrained in a second term, when the government could be filled with appointees more willing to do his bidding and less inclined to push back on his impulses.
“The constraints to the extent they existed during the first term, those constraints would be less robust and maybe far less robust. And that’s a major worry,” said Matt Dallek, a professor of political management at George Washington University.
“Trump would feel even more liberated to go after people in a second term, and there were maybe times when he backed down about something in his first term, like the family separations he was doing,” Dallek added. “I think he would feel just more emboldened to go after people, and so I think it would be a mistake to downplay any of his proposals.”