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5 ways a second Trump administration would be different from the first

By Phil Mattingly, CNN

(CNN) — A little more than a month before the Iowa caucuses, a Republican political operative was sitting in a Washington bar ticking through the dynamics of his party’s presidential primary.

A veteran of campaigns across more than two decades of election cycles, he weighed the strengths of the winnowing list of Republican contenders and the potential risks of nominating a former president staring down four indictments and dozens of criminal charges.

He didn’t hedge in his conclusion.

“One thing that hasn’t changed: This is Trump’s party,” the operative said. But he wanted to make clear that didn’t mean a second term for Donald Trump would replicate the first.

“Everything around him has changed,” he said of the former president. “To his benefit.”

Six months later, Trump is indeed the presumptive Republican nominee.

He’s also now a convicted felon.

But several other factors have served to validate the operative’s overarching point.

Republicans have universally closed ranks in support of their nominee.

Trump’s campaign said it raked in $53 million in the 24 hours after his conviction in his New York hush money trial for falsifying business records – an astounding amount for a single day as donors big and small shelled out in response to a wave of fundraising appeals citing the verdict.

The former president’s pledges to pursue political revenge in a second term have escalated and have been met by supporters with tacit acceptance or outright encouragement.

Trump loyalists in the latter camp aren’t just amplifying the idea of targeting political opponents.

For more than a year, they’ve actively explored legal theories and drafted policy proposals to deliver on Trump’s wishes.

Taken together, the aftermath of Trump’s conviction has provided the clearest window into just how much the environment around him has shifted.

Trump’s first term was defined in large part by the political guardrails he crashed into, the institutional norms he breached and the veteran lawmakers and advisers he lashed out against.

Each now stands diminished, reshaped to his advantage – or eliminated entirely.

Trump and his allies have every intention of taking advantage of this new reality should he win a second term.

His policy goals, which in the past have appeared aspirational at best and amorphous real-time thought bubbles at worst, are neither insignificant nor theoretical.

The chaos of Trump’s first term paired with the familiar, if escalating, inflammatory and dark rhetoric of his rallies, can have the effect of obscuring an agenda that is in many cases quite clear.

It underscores just how much his rematch with Joe Biden isn’t analogous to the 2020 campaign.

Nor is it a repeat of the 2016 race, when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.

This time is different.

The lawmakers

Trump, should he secure a second term, would enter the White House with a level of support from congressional Republicans that didn’t exist in his first term.

It’s a reality that was on vivid display in Washington earlier this month, when the former president met behind closed doors with House and Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill. His remarks before the House lawmakers were met with several standing ovations.

Senate Republicans presented Trump with a birthday cake to mark his 78th birthday.

It was Trump’s first visit to the Hill since the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. Any opposition Republicans raised in the wake of the riot – and there was plenty – has evaporated thanks to intensive efforts by Trump and his team to build out a political operation that doles out coveted endorsements while actively working to eviscerate opposing voices in the party.

Many of his harshest GOP critics are out of politics.

Ten House Republicans voted to impeach Trump after January 6.

Two years later, four had been defeated in GOP primaries. Four had chosen to retire. Trump celebrated the retirements and actively assisted in the political demise of those who ran for reelection.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, one of Trump’s last remaining Republican critics in Congress, is not seeking reelection this year.

The Senate Republicans who were part of the conference’s institutional and intellectual core and often chafed at Trump’s policy and personal proclivities are also long gone.

Senators such as Jeff Flake, Pat Toomey, Bob Corker, Lamar Alexander, Roy Blunt and Rob Portman have all retired. Arizona Sen. John McCain died of cancer in 2018.

Their successors, if the seat stayed in GOP hands, are all vocal Trump supporters who have carved out policy lanes that in many ways bolster the former president’s divergences from decades of Republican orthodoxy.

If House Speaker Paul Ryan and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to quietly placate and pacify Trump in his first two years in office, congressional Republicans today seek to elevate and advance his wishes.

Ryan, who retired in 2018, has called Trump a “populist, authoritarian narcissist.” He did not vote for Trump in 2020 and has repeatedly said he won’t this year.

McConnell, who condemned Trump’s actions during the January 6 attack, will depart his position as Senate GOP leader at the end of this Congress.

He has said he will support Trump, part of an effort to reach a détente in order to protect Republican Senate candidates. He shook Trump’s hand at this month’s Capitol Hill meeting, where the two spoke for the first time since December 2020.

The front-runners to succeed the Kentucky Republican as leader are all angling for Trump’s endorsement – keenly aware that it has the power to swing the race in a conference that is now more aligned with him than ever before.

The judges

The cornerstone achievement of Trump’s first term can be seen in federal courts across the nation.

His imprint on the Supreme Court has been as well documented as it has been dramatic, with his three appointments shifting the ideological balance on the bench. All three voted with the majority in the decision that struck down Roe v. Wade.

But Trump also reshaped the the judiciary at the appellate and district court level. In total, he nominated 234 federal judges who received Senate confirmation.

The speed and scale with which Trump secured his judicial legacy was orchestrated in large part by McConnell and Don McGahn, Trump’s first White House counsel.

But the ideological makeup of Trump’s appointees, particularly those selected in his final two years, represented in some cases a shift in itself.

“(It) was not just shift from Democratic appointees to Republican appointees,” said CNN contributor Steve Vladeck, a law professor at Georgetown University. “It was a shift from a particular type of Republican appointee – a law-and-order classic conservative – to a more Trumpy-type Republican appointee.”

That doesn’t mean those judges will side with a future Trump administration in every case, legal experts note.

But federal courts blocked or forced the withdrawal of an unprecedented 78% of the Trump administration’s rules in his first term.

As Trump and his advisers explore an increasingly expansive view of executive power, it’s likely any second-term efforts could land in more hospitable territory.

The policymakers

The Trump administration’s struggle to draft rules that could pass legal muster wasn’t attributable exclusively to the courts, where the wave of legal challenges landed.

The more likely reason, particularly in the early stages of Trump’s presidency, were the rules themselves.

Dozens were halted on process grounds or for lacking explanation or justification that fell within an agency’s jurisdiction.

Over time, the policymaking process sharpened, particularly on issues such as immigration that carried deep personal importance to Trump and his closest advisers.

“We learned from mistakes,” one former official said.

Trump’s campaign is flush with expansive proposals designed to quickly reimplement, and then dramatically expand on, policies targeting immigration, taxes and trade. Trump and his closest advisors have made clear they plan to embrace a sprawling view of his executive power to implement many of their proposals without need for congressional sign-off.

Trump’s agenda isn’t a state secret. It’s posted on his campaign website under “Agenda 47” and regularly featured in the scripted portions of his remarks at rallies.

The lessons learned from the first term weren’t put on hold when Trump left office.

Instead, they influenced the rapid buildup of a kind of shadow White House policymaking apparatus spearheaded by former Trump administration officials.

A constellation of outside groups, from the Heritage Foundation’s “Project 2025” and the America First Policy Institute to the Center for Renewing America and America First Legal, boast a roster of Trump’s closest advisers from his first term and are funded to the tune of millions of dollars from his deep-pocketed supporters.

The groups aren’t officially affiliated with Trump’s campaign and have at times gotten crosswise with Trump’s political advisers.

“Unless a second term priority is articulated by President Trump himself, or is officially communicated by the campaign, it is not authorized in any way,” co-campaign managers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita said in a lengthy statement last year.

It’s a brushback Trump’s political advisers have cited repeatedly in the months since.

Regardless of the discontent, the groups have churned out policy proposals that track closely with Trump’s stated agenda, drafted by officials who in many cases are certain to have roles in a second Trump administration and tailored to minimize the need for congressional sign-off.

The advisers

Trump isn’t one to acknowledge failures, but he has come close on one piece of his first-term record: personnel.

“I made a mistake with some people I put in,” Trump said in a Newsmax interview in March, citing his inexperience with the players in Washington.

The wars between some of the most senior Trump administration officials and the former president have filled dozens of books on the administration.

An unprecedented number of those officials – a defense secretary, national security adviser and White House chief of staff, to name a few – have publicly called Trump unfit for office and said they won’t vote for him in 2024.

Trump’s closest aides, however, see that as a reflection of a problem not with Trump, but with the process that allowed for his detractors to be hired in the first place.

“Republican administrations have more difficultly ensuring their appointees follow directions and do not leak, snipe at, or otherwise undermine the President,” Troup Hemenway, a former top official in Trump’s White House personnel office, wrote in a 54-page report designed to serve as a “best practices” guide of sorts “in the next America First, Conservative administration.”

“In President Trump’s administration, these disruptions caused lasting policy damage which could have been prevented with a stronger personnel operation doing better vetting and post-hiring quality control,” Hemenway wrote.

Several of the outside groups designed to advance Trump’s policy goals are doubling as a clearinghouse for potential second-term job candidates. Their operations are led by former Trump White House aides who were instrumental in efforts to weed out officials who disagreed with Trump toward the end of his first term.

Hemenway is a senior adviser to Project 2025. He left a similar role at the America First Policy Institute – a move that brought him back together with close Trump aide John McEntee, who ran the White House personnel office at the end of the administration.

The group he left quickly hired another former senior Trump White House personnel official to replace him.

These personnel efforts are, like the policy work, not officially connected.

But they underscore the difference from 2016.

Trump’s transition operation was viewed even by his closest allies as a half-baked process that left the administration scrambling to fill key roles without an operational and centralized clearinghouse to staff up for a president-elect who sharply diverged from his party’s predecessors in critical policy areas.

One former aide recalled that there was an online portal for job applicants to submit their resumes and express interest in specific positions – but it was never utilized and the transition team never got access to those files.

Now Trump is now surrounded by close advisers, inside and outside the campaign, who are exceedingly loyal and certain to play key roles should he win a second term.

But the outside groups share what are viewed as critical, if technocratic, goals of ensuring loyalty to Trump on the front end and placing those loyalists in their positions on Day One.

In other words, the focus is less on who will be the next treasury or defense secretary – positions that require a potentially time-consuming Senate confirmation process – and more on the deputy assistant secretaries or principal deputies across departments and agencies.

Those appointees could be at their desks pushing Trump’s executive actions forward, minutes after he takes the oath of office.

The candidate

Trump enters the final stretch of the campaign a twice impeached former president who instigated and accelerated efforts to overturn the 2020 election result.

He has been charged with conspiring to overturn the election by federal and state prosecutors.

He faces a sweeping federal indictment alleging he willfully retained documents containing the nation’s most sensitive secrets and then tried to obstruct the investigation into their whereabouts.

He is the first former president to be convicted of felony crimes and faces more than $500 million in penalties following court decisions in civil fraud, civil defamation and sexual battery cases.

He faces sentencing in his New York hush money trial just days before the Republican convention kicks off in Milwaukee on July 15.

Waiting in the wings are other cases against Trump with dramatically higher stakes that are likely to go to trial after the election.

Unless, of course, Trump is president.

He’s currently at the height of his power within the Republican Party at a moment when his once-fringe or unorthodox policy preferences are dominant.

He’s running against an unpopular 81-year-old incumbent who, despite a legislative record with little precedent in the past half-century, continues to grasp for ways to confront an apathetic electorate amid a profoundly traumatic and disruptive period that has included the pandemic, the largest European conflict since World War II and a war in Gaza.

The Republican political operative from the Washington bar always planned to support his party’s nominee and made clear earlier this month that he was all in for Trump.

His view of what that meant for the 2024 campaign and potentially beyond, though, wasn’t subtle.

“We’re playing with live ammo right now,” he said.

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