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A Second Trump Term Would Be a Scary Rerun of the First


On Thursday morning, Donald Trump did a phone interview with the radio host Hugh Hewitt, one of many conservative commentators who started out as harsh critics of Trump only to change their view of him once he came to power. Hewitt asked the former President, who was promoting a campaign rally this weekend for candidates he’s endorsed in Ohio, whether he feared being indicted by the Justice Department for bringing top-secret classified documents with him to Mar-a-Lago when he left office and refusing to return them.

Well, Trump responded, there was no reason for them to charge him, except “if they’re just sick and deranged, which is always possible.” When Hewitt helpfully reminded him that he had previously claimed to have verbally ordered all the documents at issue declassified, Trump agreed. “I have the absolute right to declassify,” the former President said. “Absolute.”

Then Hewitt asked the question that, nearly two years after Trump exited the White House, has, perhaps inevitably, come to dominate American politics since he became the first President in American history to refuse to accept his electoral defeat: “Will you run for President anyway, even if you’re indicted?”

Trump’s response left little doubt that the answer is yes, before he proceeded to issue the kind of threat that, had the violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021—and all the rest—not happened, might have been dismissed as the idle but reckless bluster for which he has long been famous. “I don’t think the people of the United States would stand for it,” he said, of an indictment. Trump added, “I think you’d have problems in this country the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen before.”

Once again, Hewitt tried to play cleanup. “You know that the legacy media will say that you’re attempting to incite violence with that statement,” the host warned the former President. Seemingly unconcerned, Trump blithely repeated the threat. “That’s not inciting,” he insisted. “I don’t think the people of this country would stand for it.”

This remarkable exchange says pretty much everything you need to know about Donald Trump in 2022: he wants to run again for President, and he has little apparent hesitation about calling forth a mob all over again if that’s what it takes. The past, in other words, is prologue. With Trump, it always is.

As Trump threatens to mount a comeback campaign to become the only President aside from Grover Cleveland to return to the Presidency after losing, it is a supercharged moment to publish a book on his four years in the White House. The book, “The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021,” began as an effort, with my husband, Peter Baker of the Times, to better understand the uniquely disruptive four years we’d just been through. A history, in other words.

But it’s hard to write history when the subject of the book refuses, unlike any other modern President, to leave the stage. He has not retired to the ranch to paint portraits, like George W. Bush. He is not writing a memoir and posing for celebrity selfies, like Barack Obama. Trump is still our present, and may be our future, too. Perhaps that’s why our publisher insisted we add the dates of Trump’s term in office to the book title. Who knows—were they anticipating a second term? A sequel?

Writing the book, though an exercise in looking back, did offer some strong hints about what another four years of Trump in office might look like. I am thinking in particular of a chilling conversation I had with a former senior national-security official who regularly observed Trump in the Oval Office. The official compared him to the velociraptors in the movie “Jurassic Park,” horror-movie monsters who proved capable of learning while hunting their prey—a terrifying fact the audience learns when one of the predators chases a child into a kitchen by turning the handle to open the door.

Through four years in the White House, Trump adapted. He failed and he tried again. In hiring and firing all those chiefs of staff and national-security advisers and Cabinet secretaries, Trump moved consistently in the direction of those he thought would let him do what he wanted, no matter how disruptive it was. Over time, he figured out how to work through staff to use levers of government that eluded him when he first came to office as a novice in all things Washington. After reporting and writing “The Divider,” it seems quite clear to me that if John Kelly, the former Marine general who often defined his role as obstructing Trump from committing harmful acts, were still White House chief of staff in 2021, he would have tried to stop Trump from going forward with January 6th—a stark contrast indeed to the chief of staff Trump actually had at the time, Mark Meadows, the far-right former congressman who served as the enabler and facilitator that Trump had long craved.

Since he’s left office, Trump’s desire for personal loyalty above all other qualities has only grown. He has made willingness to go along with his election denialism a litmus test for Republican candidates in this year’s midterms, making his endorsements and money conditional on it. And, as Jonathan Swan of Axios reported this summer, Trump’s allies have talked openly of reimposing a sweeping executive order that would allow the President to purge the federal government of tens of thousands of career civil servants and hire loyalists to replace them. Trump first issued that order late in 2020, too late to be implemented before Joe Biden took office and reversed it. But Trump wouldn’t wait four years if given a do-over.

As for what policies he would impose if he had the unquestioning personnel in place to do it, there, too, the first term offers an alarming preview of what a second could look like. From the start, Trump’s preoccupations were the same preoccupations, whether he got them implemented or not. He wanted to get out of NATO and Afghanistan and to withdraw U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula. He attacked allies like Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau and praised adversaries like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un. He pushed for protectionist trade policies and eagerly adopted the far right’s reactionary social agenda and cultural grievances as the price of their support for him.

Most starkly, from the start of his tenure, he sought to weaponize and politicize the institutions of the U.S. government to serve his personal and political interests. In the fall of 2020, he even explicitly demanded that the Justice Department jail Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden, weeks before the election. “Where are all the arrests?” he tweeted on October 7th, 2020. We are on notice. He will try this again if given the chance.

But Trump somehow keeps challenging our ability to believe he will really do the things he openly says he will do. He spent months in 2020 complaining that any result that did not have him as the winner would be “rigged.” So why were so many people, including some of his own advisers, so surprised when he refused to accept the election results, and spent the weeks that followed seeking to overturn them?

When we went to interview Trump in Mar-a-Lago for our book, a year after his defeat, the first thing he told us was a lie. We met him upstairs in his Mar-a-Lago office, the one subsequently made famous by the F.B.I. search to retrieve the classified documents. We began the interview, our second, by asking about something he told us during our first session, seven months earlier: that he was asked to tape a public-service announcement urging Americans to get the COVID vaccine. Months later, the ad had not materialized. We asked why. “Nope,” he said, flatly. “They have not asked me.” But Trump was the one who said they had asked in the first place. “No,” he insisted, shaking his head. Was he telling the truth the first time? The second? Neither? Either way, he had made something up—even if, with Trump, one could never really tell what.

And that, in a way, is the point. The man who finished his Presidency with a total of 30,573 false and misleading claims while in office, according to the Washington Post’s fact-checking project, is not going to suddenly return to power as a truthteller. He will seek vengeance and vindication. He will run the same plays again and again. He will find aides and advisers who will do his bidding, unlike the faithless traitors who surrounded him before. The velociraptor will have learned to open the door. ♦



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