• Washington Post

Trump ‘Dictator’ Comment Reignites Criticism His Camp Has Tried to Curb

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Former president Donald Trump on Saturday in Ankeny, Iowa.

Donald Trump’s campaign asked allies on Capitol Hill in recent days to publicly counter criticism that the former president would govern like a dictator in a second term, according to people familiar with the matter.

Yet on Tuesday, Trump reignited that criticism. Pressed twice on the topic during a televised town hall with Fox News host Sean Hannity, including on whether he “would never abuse power as retribution against anybody,” Trump replied: “Except for Day 1,” before going on to talk about drilling for oil and closing the border.

The conflicting messages underscored what some experts and lawmakers see as Trump’s continued embrace of authoritarian rhetoric and ideas, and his refusal to fully rebuke some dire warnings about how he’d govern in a second term, even as his campaign is anticipating increasing attacks on this theme. The Washington Post reported last month that Trump’s associates are drafting plans to invoke the Insurrection Act on his first day in office, which would allow him to deploy the military against civil demonstrations. Trump has repeatedly said he views his prosecutions as a license to turn the Justice Department and the FBI against his opponents and has identified some targets by name. He also continues to falsely claim that the 2020 election was stolen.

But in recent days, the former president and his allies are pushing back more forcefully on comments from historians, policy experts and political opponents that a second Trump term would be more extreme and autocratic than his first. Two Trump advisers, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more candidly, said recent stories about his plans for a second term are not viewed as helpful for the general election.

Asked head-on to put to rest fears about his would-be authoritarianism, Trump in the Fox News town hall changed the subject, launching into a riff about his own criminal indictments – as he has for months to portray the cases as politicized. Hannity then tried again, amid reports that he wants to use federal power to investigate his political opponents, punish media organizations, deploy the military domestically and consolidate executive authority.

“I want to close the border and I want to drill, drill, drill,” Trump said in his response. “We love this guy. He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ And I said, ‘No, no, no, other than Day 1.’ Day 1, we’re closing the border and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.”

Trump’s recent comments and emerging plans have raised concerns among critics in both parties about the former president, who has built a dominant advantage in polls of the Republican presidential primary and runs ahead of President Biden in some recent polls of the general election.

“I think people who like Donald Trump like Donald Trump regardless of what he says and he entertains them with bombast, which they find humorous and compelling,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the 2012 GOP nominee who voted twice to convict Trump following his Senate impeachment trials. “His base loves the authoritarian streak. I think they love the idea that he may use the military in domestic matters and that he will seek revenge and retribution. That’s why he’s saying it and has the lock, nearly, on the Republican nomination.”

Trump’s own concerns about the coverage of his plans for a second term are more superstitious, according to people who have spoken with him who say he is focused more on jinxing a victory next November. He is maintaining his frequent posture of rhetorically winking and nodding at supporters and speaking ambiguously about polarizing issues

The Trump campaign declined to comment on the record for this story. A Trump campaign adviser said: “It’s funny to watch the lame-stream media go crazy over closing the borders and drilling for energy.”

The heightened efforts to push back against concerns about a second Trump term highlight the campaign’s increased focus on the general election and their expectation that it will be the main line of attack from Biden, said Trump’s allies and advisers.

The Biden campaign is highlighting Trump’s latest remarks at the Hannity town hall as well as his recent use of the word “vermin” to describe political enemies, a use of dehumanizing language that historians said echoed the Nazis.

“Donald Trump has been telling us exactly what he will do if he’s reelected and tonight he said he will be a dictator on day one,” Biden-Harris 2024 campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said after the Fox town hall. “Americans should believe him.”

Senate Republicans offered a mixed reaction to Trump’s Hannity town hall remarks Wednesday. Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), said that “it’s fairly typical rhetoric” for Trump, adding: “I wouldn’t say it’s surprising necessarily.”

“His focus on energy independence and a strong border are objectives that we share,” Thune said. “Obviously, you want to achieve those in a way that’s consistent with our laws and our Constitution. I’m not sure what he meant by that.”

Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who have both endorsed Trump for 2024, suggested that the former president was joking during the town hall when he said he wouldn’t be a dictator “other than Day 1.”

“He was being funny on the one hand, but also making the point that, ‘I’m going to undo executive orders that [Biden] did, which doesn’t make me any more dictator than he is,'” Cramer said. “The people who have concerns aren’t people who would ever vote for him. This is part of his appeal, is that authenticity, and the point he made in it is really good.”

During a speech in Iowa on Saturday, Trump sought to turn the tables on alarms about his plans and rhetoric and claim that Biden was the “destroyer of American democracy.” His supporters on the Hill echoed those talking points this week.

“Donald Trump was president. Did he jail his opposition? No. Did he lock Hillary up? No,” said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who has endorsed Trump and called Biden “the real dictator.”

Trump has also described both Biden and former congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who says she is weighing a third-party presidential bid, as a “threat to democracy.” In 2016-2017, Trump co-opted the term “fake news,” which was coined to describe websites that generated false news stories to capitalize on online traffic, and turned it into a ubiquitous attack on journalism he disliked.

Trump’s plans for a second term have relied in part on work being done through a coalition of right-wing groups called Project 2025, The Post and others have reported. The news reports prompted Trump campaign senior adviser Susie Wiles to complain to the project’s director, Paul Dans of the Heritage Foundation, saying that the stories were unhelpful and that the organization should stop promoting its work to reporters, according to a person familiar with the call.

Wiles and another senior adviser, Chris LaCivita, also released a public statement last month distancing the campaign from those outside groups.

“None of these groups or individuals speak for President Trump or his campaign,” the advisers said in the statement. “These stories are neither appropriate nor constructive.”

In a statement to The Post, Dans said, “Project 2025 does not speak for any presidential candidate, but we share a common bond of being frequent targets of fake news. We do stand ready to aid the next conservative president in the work that must be done to dismantle the Deep State.”

Even as Trump’s team has sought to downplay concerns about authoritarianism, some former Trump administration officials continue to echo his message of vengeance. In an interview on former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s podcast this week, former Trump White House aide Kash Patel threatened to target journalists in a second Trump term.

“We’re going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens, who helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections – we’re going to come after you,” Patel said.

The Trump campaign adviser said: “Idiotic comments like this have nothing to do with our campaign.”

Trump also recently wrote on his social media website that the “so-called ‘government’ should come down hard” on MSNBC, after criticizing its coverage.

Graham downplayed the recent criticism as a “bunch of bulls—.”

“The bottom line is this narrative that you vote for Trump you vote for a dictator is the only thing left because their policies are not working,” Graham said. “They can’t say vote for Biden. It’s impossible to sell the Biden agenda so they’re trying to sell fearmongering against Trump.”

When asked if the Trump campaign has encouraged him to respond, Graham said: “They don’t have to ask me, I’ll gladly do it.”