Trump’s talk of seeking to ‘weaponize’ the DoJ and ‘retribution’ for opponents poses a direct threat to the rule of law and democracy in the US should he win a second term, experts say
Donald Trump’s talk of punishing his critics and seeking to “weaponize” the US justice department against his political opponents has experts and former DoJ officials warning he poses a direct threat to the rule of law and democracy in the US.
Trump’s talk of seeking “retribution” against foes, including some he’s branded “vermin”, has coincided with plans that Maga loyalists at rightwing thinktanks are assembling to expand the president’s power and curb the DoJ, the FBI and other federal agencies. All of it has fueled critics’ fears that in a second term Trump would govern as an unprecedentedly authoritarian American leader.
Trump is currently the overwhelming favorite to win the Republican nomination for 2024 and has long maintained hefty polling leads over his party rivals. At the same time a slew of recent polls has also shown him ahead of president Joe Biden, including in key battleground states.
But scholars and ex-justice officials see increasing evidence that if they achieved power again Trump and his Maga allies plan to tighten his control at key agencies and install trusted loyalists in top posts at the DoJ and the FBI, permitting Trump more leeway to exact revenge on foes, and shrinking agencies Trump sees as harboring “deep state” critics.
Ominously, Trump has threatened to tap a special prosecutor to “go after” Biden and his family.
Trump’s angry mindset was revealed on Veterans Day when he denigrated foes as “vermin” who needed to be “rooted out”, echoing Fascist rhetoric from Italy and Germany in the 1930s.
“I’m hard pressed to find any candidates anywhere who are so open that they would use the power of the state to go after critics and enemies,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard government professor and co-author of How Democracies Die.
“This is one of the most openly authoritarian campaigns I’ve ever seen. You have to go back to the far-right authoritarians in the 1930s in Europe or in 1970s Latin America to find the kind of dehumanizing and violent language that Trump is starting to consistently use.”
Donald Ayer, the former deputy attorney general who served in the George HW Bush administration, said: “It is appalling that a presidential candidate could suggest using the Department of Justice to go after his political adversaries, to go after Biden and his family, and to effectively make the Department of Justice an arm of the White House to be used for its political purposes.”
Facing 91 criminal charges in four cases including 17 for his efforts to overturn his loss in 2020, Trump has kept up a barrage of incendiary attacks on prosecutors, judges and critics, claiming he’s innocent of all charges and the victim of politically driven “witch-hunts”.
Trump’s revenge game plan has been palpable for months. At a kickoff campaign rally in Texas in March, Trump warned: “Either the deep state destroys America or we destroy the deep state,” and vowed that “for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
Similarly, Trump pledged to a CPAC gathering in March that: “I am your warrior. I am your justice,” and called 2024 “the final battle”.
On Veterans Day, Trump also warned: “The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous and grave than the threat from within.”
Trump has also told some associates he wants to launch probes into a few top former allies turned critics, including the ex-attorney general William Barr, the former chief of staff John Kelly and the ex-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Mark Milley, according to the Washington Post.
“US, democratic institutions are hard to kill,” noted Levitsky. “But Trump and people around him are better prepared this time. Trump learned he needs to purge and pack an administration with his loyalists.”
“Autocrats have to take state institutions and pack them. Trump has learned from experience which makes him more dangerous.”
Other scholars voice mounting concerns about a second Trump presidency.
“Trump is doubling down on the most brutish aspects of his messaging, including by calling his foes and critics ‘vermin’. It’s a dark message of vengeance and retribution,” Timothy Naftali, a senior research scholar at Columbia’s school of international and public affairs, said. “They’re telegraphing a future authoritarian presidential regime.
“Trump is using Proud Boys rhetoric and glorifying the January 6 insurrectionists. And he’s promising them pardons for the insurrection. This is about giving power to an autocrat and letting his id take over.”
Naftali added: “Trump’s loyalists are looking for gray areas and weaknesses in the U.S. constitutional system to accumulate power for Trump and for themselves in another term.”
“Trump is counting on having a more robust and experienced inner circle of loyalists, which will lead to more illegal actions and abuses in areas such as his loose talk of “weaponizing” the justice and the FBI to go after his enemies on the left and the right.”
To craft a more powerful presidency, Maga loyalists at a number of well financed conservative thinktanks led by the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Renewing America have produced an almost 1000 page handbook, dubbed “Project 2025”, to help guide a second Trump term – or potentially another GOP administration should Trump not get the nomination.
Key components of Project 2025 include slashing funding for DoJ, dismantling the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, and killing the Education and Commerce Departments, moves that MAGA allies champion to shrink the “administrative state” and the “deep state” they see as bloated and politicized.
One ominous plan Project 2025 has been weighing would allow Trump to invoke the 1871 Insurrection Act on his first day in office, green-lighting using military forces against political foes and demonstrators protesting a new term for Trump, according to the Washington Post.
Jeffrey Clark, the former DoJ official who schemed with Trump about ways to overturn his loss in Georgia and other states and who the Fulton county district attorney has indicted along with Trump and 17 others, has been “leading the work on the Insurrection Act under Project 2025”, the Post has reported.
A Heritage spokesperson told the Post that there are “no plans within Project 2025 related to the Insurrection Act of targeting political enemies”.
Still, ex-Trump adviser and media pugilist Steve Bannon, who was convicted of obstructing Congress for flouting a subpoena from the House panel that probed the January 6 insurrection which he is appealing, has been a Project 2025 cheerleader on his War Room podcast and hosted Clark who works at the Center for Renewing America a few times, and others working on Project 2025.
Project 2025 also envisions schemes for changing federal service rules that would allow Trump to cut tens of thousands of civil service workers and replace them with ones deemed loyal to Trump’s agenda.
Former DoJ officials are appalled at some of the proposals issued by Project 2025.
“Project 2025 seems to be full of a whole array of ideas that are designed to let Donald Trump function as a dictator, by completely eviscerating many of the restraints built into our system. He really wants to destroy any notion of a rule of law in this country,” said Ayer.
“The reports about Donald Trump’s Project 2025 suggest that he is now preparing to do a bunch of things totally contrary to the basic values we have always lived by. If Trump were to be elected and implement some of the ideas he is apparently considering, no one in this country would be safe.”
Other DoJ veterans say Trump and his loyalists pose unprecedented dangers.
“The plans being developed by members of Trump’s cult to turn the DoJ and FBI into instruments of his revenge should send shivers down the spine of anyone who cares about the rule of law,” said Michael Bromwich, a former inspector general at DoJ.
“Trump and rightwing media have planted in fertile soil the seed that the current Department of Justice has been politicized, and the myth has flourished. Their attempts to undermine DoJ and the FBI are among the most destructive campaigns they have conducted.”
Bromwich’s point was underscored when days after Special Counsel Jack Smith unveiled a four count criminal indictment of Trump involving his multi pronged efforts to subvert Biden’s 2020 election victory, Trump posted: “If you go after me, I’m coming after you.”
Former federal prosecutor and Columbia Law professor Dan Richman also sees big trouble ahead for the rule of law if Trump is elected again. “Trump’s past efforts and future plans to use federal criminal prosecutions as a tool of personal retribution are flatly inconsistent with any notion of the rule of law and of prosecutorial independence,” he said.
Source: The Guardian