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Trump gives his strongman’s ambitions free rein on a day off from court


Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — Donald Trump used his day off from a criminal trial related to a past election to cast a dark, familiar shadow over the next one.

The presumptive GOP nominee declined to say if he’d accept the result of his White House race with President Joe Biden in November, warning in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wednesday that if the election was not “honest,” then “you have to fight for the right of the country.”

“I’d be doing a disservice to the country if I said otherwise,” Trump told the paper. “But no, I expect an honest election and we expect to win maybe very big.”

As he often does, the ex-president left an impression that an election can only be fair if he is the winner. “But if everything’s honest, which we anticipate it will be — a lot of changes have been made over the last few years — but if everything’s honest, I will absolutely accept the results,” he said. Trump refused to accept that the 2020 election was fair, even though there was no evidence of widespread fraud.

The ex-president was campaigning in Wisconsin and Michigan but was due back in court Thursday in Manhattan for the resumption of his first criminal trial – over alleged falsification of business records to cover up a hush money payment to an adult film star ahead of the 2016 election.

His remarks on the 2024 contest were especially ominous given his refusal to accept his loss in 2020 based on his false claims of voter fraud. They also recalled his warning to supporters before the January 6, 2021, mob attack on the US Capitol that if they didn’t “fight like hell,” they wouldn’t have a country anymore.

Trump’s warning was just the latest example this week of extreme rhetoric that suggests his threats to American democracy are undimmed.

On a sun-soaked airfield in Michigan on Wednesday, with his improbably long red tie appearing to levitate on the breeze, he conjured a strongman’s vision of a future America that would cause the country’s founders to shudder.

Trump cut an unrecognizable figure from the grim ex-president who bleats a daily dirge of complaints about his hush money trial outside Judge Juan Merchan’s court. And as if to defy prosecutors trying to call him to account in multiple cases, Trump used his most energetic rally in months on Wednesday to show a second term would test the law even more than his first.

“When I return to the White House, we will stop the plunder, rape, slaughter, and destruction of the American suburbs, cities and towns,” Trump vowed, pledging mass deportations of undocumented migrants, crackdowns on the bureaucracy and higher education and on what he called the “communists and criminals” in the Democratic Party. Earlier in Wisconsin, he updated his sketch of an “American carnage” national hellscape, warning that the nation was under siege from “radical extremists and far-left agitators who are terrorizing college campuses.”

Seeking to capitalize on protests sweeping universities countrywide, Trump claimed, “New York was under siege last night” and praised cops for breaking up a protest at Columbia University. “It was a beautiful thing to watch, New York’s finest. You saw them go up in ladders, they’re breaking the windows and getting in and that’s dangerous,” he said.

Since the hush money trial opened last month, he’s held fundraisers and local political stops but no full-scale rallies. (One event in North Carolina was canceled because of a storm.) But Wednesday was the first time an ex-president and potential future one used a midweek break in his own criminal trial to dash through swing states that could send him back to the White House. His raucous reception before a large crowd in Michigan was a reminder that days of potentially damaging testimony have done nothing to dent his appeal to supporters.

Trump, according to recent polls, has an even chance of winning the presidency, and his dynamic return to a stage where he, and not Judge Merchan, wields authority underscored his political threat to President Joe Biden’s hopes of a second term. On specific issues, surveys show Trump leading Biden on most issues including the economy, immigration, and the Israel-Hamas war. One of Biden’s few strong points is abortion rights – which Vice President Kamala Harris drove home on a trip to Florida Wednesday that saw her hammer Trump 21 times over the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade as she highlighted the state’s new six-week ban.

CNN political analyst David Axelrod, a former senior strategist for President Barack Obama, dispensed straight talk on Wednesday after days of media coverage of a trial that in a normal political era would likely have driven Trump out of the race. “The question really is, what effect is this whole thing having on the campaign, and I think there is very little evidence right now is that it is having an effect on the campaign at all,” he said.

Axelrod acknowledged that the verdict could move the needle but told CNN’s Erin Burnett: “In many peoples’ estimation, this is a non-event. “

A chilling glimpse into Trump’s second term plans

Six months before the election, Trump’s searing campaign rhetoric is becoming less an exercise in performative demagoguery than a blueprint for a potential second term.

This is especially the case in the wake of an intriguing and at times chilling interview with Time published this week. The transcript, an 86-minute read on the magazine’s website, offers the most categorical personal statement from the man himself of how he’d change the country in a second term. He’s proposing a brand of quasi-autocratic leadership based on personal whim, a desire for retribution and almost no acknowledgement that the presidency is an office constrained by laws, the Constitution and the bedrock republican recoil from unbridled executive power.

Up to now, pro-Trump think tanks and advocacy groups have laid out policy manifestos for how Trump, as the 47th president, would gut the administrative state, introduce draconian immigration policies and shatter decadeslong traditions of US global leadership with a return of “America First” on steroids. Sometimes, Trump’s aides have cautioned that no one speaks for the ex-president but himself. But in the Time interview, Trump explains in his own words how a president who left office after a failed attempt to overturn democracy would behave if he ever got power back.

He said he’d mount an immediate effort to find, imprison and deport millions of undocumented migrants — a pledge he renewed on Wednesday with the words, “We will begin the largest domestic deportation operation in American history.” Trump told Time he’d be open to firing any US attorney who doesn’t carry out his order to prosecute someone. Trump also said that he’d consider pardoning hundreds of supporters who attacked the US Capitol in a bid to overturn the 2020 election, thereby validating the use of violence as a tool of political expression in a hammer blow to the sanctity of democratic elections. He warned he’d send the National Guard to quell campus protests and to participate in immigration enforcement, apparently willing to smash the narrow exceptions on the use of the military on home soil. Trump spoke of the Guard more as a personal presidential militia than a legally circumscribed reserve force.

Trump’s thirst for retribution grows

As the implications of the ex-president’s solidifying intentions sharpen, the hours he spends constrained in a Manhattan courtroom seem to be fueling his desire for retribution against his political opponents. “Never forget our enemies want to take away my freedom, because I will never let them take away your freedom,” Trump told his crowd in Freeland, Michigan, blasting four criminal indictments and several huge civil trial verdicts against him. The ex-president did not, however, appear to infringe a gag order that prevents him from taking aim at witnesses, court staff and even members of the judge’s own family. He was fined $9,000 for violations on Tuesday and faces another hearing on the issue before Merchan on Thursday.

It’s not just the fast-approaching election and Trump’s strength in the polls that makes his words carry more weight. In the Time interview, Trump comes across as confident and determined to learn the lessons of his first term in which he claims he was let down by “bad” officials. And this all comes as the Supreme Court considers his bid to establish almost absolute immunity from prosecution for presidents for acts they undertake in office.

At one point, the Time reporter, Eric Cortellessa, asked Trump if he understood why so many Americans are troubled by what he claimed were his past jokes about being a dictator for one day or terminating the Constitution. The former president replied simply, in one of the most revealing but disquieting answers of the entire interview: “I think a lot of people like it.”

He’s not wrong. Trump raced to the Republican nomination, crushing his rivals despite his disgraced exit from Washington in 2021, two impeachments and legal quagmire that would be remarkable for any defendant, let alone a potential future president. His strength shows that millions of Americans support policies that, if implemented, would buckle many of the safeguards on presidential power and that are likely to test the rule of law. So, Trump’s success in this election so far is not just a tale of an idiosyncratic political force, it’s a commentary on the sentiments of millions of people in the most important democracy on Earth at a tense political moment.

With Trump there are always caveats. His first term was a festival of chaos, led by a president who had a fleeting attention span and often appeared at war with his own administration. Sometimes, Trump is surprisingly loath to take risks that could harm his popularity. So there are no guarantees he could actually implement his hardline agenda. The interview was also a reminder of the way that Trump can come across as dangerous and vacuous at the same time. He often had a rudimentary grasp of policy or global realities. His potential approaches to challenges from abortion rights to China seem based on personal hunches and prejudices as much as considered strategy. And he’d face another showdown with the courts if he followed through as president with some of his harshest policies on immigration and firing civil servants wholesale.

Yet Trump would not come to Washington in January 2025 as a neophyte. He told Time that “the advantage I have now is I know everybody. I know people. I know the good, the bad, the stupid, the smart. I know everybody. When I first got to Washington, I knew very few people. I had to rely on people.”

This sense that things are suddenly getting serious was highlighted at the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner on Saturday. Biden recalled that Trump had made no secret of his “attack on our democracy” and highlighted his predecessor’s desire for “retribution.” He added: “Eight years ago, you could have written off it as just Trump talk. But no longer. Not after January 6.”

In the words of two presidents, only one of whom can win a second term in November, the stakes of the 2024 election are becoming increasingly clear.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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