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Trump already did many of the things critics warn about

There was a period when Donald Trump was probably sincerely chastened. His efforts to subvert the 2020 election results collapsed in the early morning hours of Jan. 7, 2021, after thousands of his supporters had stormed the U.S. Capitol in one last putsch. He sheepishly withdrew from Washington hours before Joe Biden was inaugurated, decamping to his private quarters at his private club in Florida. It probably isn’t the case that he was so forlorn that he was skipping many meals, but it did seem as though — banished from social media and out of power — his long run of defying gravity had ended.

It hadn’t. Immediately after his departure, his allies in politics and right-wing media began defending and rationalizing his actions. Part of this was simply autopilot; they’d been doing so for five years already. Part of it was recognition that it was what their voters, readers and viewers demanded. Part of it, too, was that he was a natural foil for the new Democratic president. So by the spring of this year, Trump had regained his position as the driving force of the Republican Party and its most likely nominee for the presidency in 2024.

This reemergence has spurred new consideration of what it would mean should Trump win next year’s election. After all, this would not be comparable to his inauguration in 2017, an event that took most people by surprise and demanded that he quickly figure out what, exactly, he was going to do. Positioned between the base that devoured his hostile rhetoric and the party that facilitated his election, he split the difference, bringing with him advisers (Stephen K. Bannon and Reince Priebus, respectively) from each camp.

He learned his lesson. The latter camp encouraged him to respect the informal (and, of course, formal) boundaries that accompanied the job. The former camp let him do what he wanted. By the end of his term, nearly all that was left was those enablers, and he’d discovered that most of the boundaries he’d been encouraged to respect were transparently thin. That’s the recognition that he’d take into January 2025.

Trump’s rhetoric, as the likelihood of his being renominated increases, has been less constrained even than it was on the campaign trail in 2015. He promises in explicit terms to use government power against his opponents and in support of himself. He talks about the presidency as though it is meant to be returned to him rather than as something for which he is offering himself as a candidate.

The likelihood of his renomination and his musings about what he would do if given the power of the presidency have spurred discussion about how he might use his position should he win next year. But this discussion ignores an important point: Many of the fears people have raised about what Trump might do reflect things that he did or tried to do the first time around.

We can very obviously begin at the end. Would Trump be content with two terms in office or would he seek to retain power after his second term? Well, as you’ll recall, he and his allies worked tirelessly from Nov. 3, 2020, to Jan. 6, 2021, on retaining his position despite his having lost the presidential election. He deployed nearly every tool he or his allies could think of to subvert the electoral college votes cast by states he lost. He entertained theories about special investigations, seizing voting machines and upending federal law enforcement. He pressured state actors to overturn the results without success, though at a far more substantial cost to those state officials than he has yet paid.

This is informative particularly because it shows how little attention Trump paid to institutional boundaries in a moment where he had few dissenters on his team. Oh, the 22nd Amendment says that presidents can serve only two terms in office? Rest assured that Trump can find some pliant attorneys willing to argue that there’s wiggle room. He’ll just wait in the White House until the dispute has been resolved.

Trump also entertained the idea of deploying federal troops to aid his efforts to retain power, using the authority given to him under the Insurrection Act. (Given the tumult that would have followed, there probably would not have been much time spent considering the irony of using the act to foment an insurrection.) The Associated Press recently explained how the act might allow Trump to use federal troops should he again be elected. But it’s not as though he hadn’t explored the idea while in office.

When protests emerged in the late spring of 2020, Trump repeatedly suggested that he wanted to deploy troops against the (mostly left-wing) protesters; he has subsequently stated that he wished he had. His administration deployed unidentified law enforcement officers into the streets to tamp down the unrest. When Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper publicly objected to using the act, Trump was reportedly incensed. Concern was so widespread in the last days of Trump’s administration that senior military officials released a statement reminding those in the military of their duty to defend the Constitution.

Trump has also recently mused that the various indictments he faces — including one for trying to overturn the 2020 contest — give him leeway to deploy federal law enforcement against his political opponents. But here, too, we’ve already seen Trump cross a putative boundary.

He entered office under the cloud — using his word — of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump was frustrated that the Justice Department didn’t do more to curtail the probe. He fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the 2018 midterms and nominated former attorney general William P. Barr to take his place. Barr had been publicly critical of the Russia probe and quickly appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham to conduct an investigation into the investigation.

The Durham probe ended up lasting longer than the Russia investigation itself, extending into Biden’s presidency under the protection of Durham’s being appointed special counsel. But it failed; Durham showed no significant new evidence that the Russia investigation should not have been undertaken or was a function of anti-Trump bias. Durham obtained an indictment against a lawyer linked to Trump’s 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, but the lawyer was acquitted at trial.

That’s just one point of leverage Trump’s administration deployed. His former chief of staff also revealed that Trump sought to have the IRS target his political opponents with audits.

One way in which Trump hopes to reduce friction in a second term in office is by overhauling the federal bureaucracy, allowing him to install sympathetic actors more broadly. This, too, he tried to effect during his term in office. In October 2020, he signed an executive order making it easier to fire longtime government workers, but he ran out of time to implement it.

The Biden administration tried to institute a safeguard against Trump’s policy change, but it probably would be trivial for a second Trump administration to sidestep it. It is therefore safe to assume that Trump would move more quickly to upend the bureaucracy should he win in 2024.

On Tuesday, Trump suggested on social media that the government should “come down hard on” MSNBC “and make them pay for their illegal political activity” — casting the channel’s frequent criticisms of him and his politics as somehow violating federal regulations. He’s long been outspoken in his dislike of the media and critical coverage, including by disparaging reporters personally. But there were also reports during his presidency that he aimed to use government regulators to block a merger involving the parent company of CNN, one of his most frequent targets.

There are other things that could be collected in the category of “warnings that Trump has already manifested,” like his use of pardons to benefit himself. But the point has presumably been made: Trump already did or explored doing many of the things that observers now warn he might do during a second term in office.

And, importantly, he has to date paid little to no cost for doing so. He learned that he could do what he wanted and still retain power, still be his party’s nominee. So why not try again?

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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