U.S. presidents have been accused by their political rivals of wanting to be kings or dictators ever since the very beginning of the Republic. It’s even a charge that’s had some merit from time to time.
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson charged John Adams with acting like a king when he expanded federal power and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which effectively made it a crime to criticize the government. But Adams lost his re-election and gracefully conceded, establishing the tradition of the peaceful transfer of power that until very recently was observed by every president. Then there was Andrew Jackson, who critics assailed as a would-be king for wielding his veto pen for political purposes and challenging the primacy of the Supreme Court to decide constitutional matters, among other things. But he too left peacefully after eight years. Abraham Lincoln was repeatedly accused of being a dictator during the Civil War for implementing numerous extreme measures including the suspension of habeas corpus and the jailing of journalists. And in the 20th century, both wartime presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt were called dictators for expanding the powers of the presidency. Roosevelt even ran for four terms, precipitating the 21st Amendment which limits future presidents to only two.
A few years back, President George W. Bush jokingly said, “If this were a dictatorship it would be a heck of a lot easier… as long as I’m the dictator.” But except for that quip, I don’t think there’s any example of a president or someone running for president actually saying that he planned to be a dictator … until Donald Trump. Not that anyone should be surprised by that. He is, after all, the president who plotted a coup to stay in office and fomented an insurrection to obstruct the peaceful transfer of power.
Last week, Fox News’ Sean Hannity asked Trump a simple question: “Do you in any way have any plans whatsoever have any plans if you are re-elected president to abuse power, to break the law, to use the government to go after people” and Trump said, “like they are doing now” and went on to talk about how he’s been indicted more than one of the greatest criminals of all time, “if you happen to like criminals” —- Al Capone.
I want to go back to this one issue, though, because the media has been focused on this and attacking you. Under no circumstances, you are promising America tonight, you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody.
Trump’s answer was, “except for day one.” Hannity was taken aback. Trump explained, “He says you’re not going to be a dictator, are you? I said, no, no, no. Other than day one. We’re closing the border and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator. Okay?”
Actually, it’s not ok.
If Hannity were anything but a Trump flunky he would have at least followed up and asked him exactly what plans he had to accomplish those two things on “day one.” But he didn’t because he knew that Trump was trying to be clever and have it both ways. He admires dictators and it’s clear from his stated agenda that he plans to implement it through the use of dictatorial powers. But he smugly said he just wants to use them for rather mainstream Republican policy goals rather than revenge which Hannity quickly acknowledged and then moved on. After all, the crowd loved it.
It was clear from Hannity’s question that he was worried about the fact that the media has finally focused on the threat of a second Trump term. He did everything he could to give Trump the opportunity to say, “Of course I’m not going to abuse my power or become a dictator, that’s ridiculous” but Trump couldn’t do it.
It’s starting to concern other people around him as well.
Many of the stories last week featured background quotes from people dropping names of potential Cabinet picks and other personnel choices for a second Trump term which clearly spooked the campaign. Axios had reported that people like Tucker Carlson were on a short list for VP while cronies Steve Bannon and Kash Patel were named for other important posts in the administration. Patel immediately appeared on Bannon’s podcast to declare that they certainly did have big plans, one of which was to go after the media, “whether it’s criminally or civilly, we’ll figure that out.” He told Bannon that they had a “bench” of “all-American patriots” who would get the ball rolling immediately.
This is likely what led senior campaign advisers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita to issue a statement on Friday, saying that “no aspect of future presidential staffing or policy announcements should be deemed official” unless it came from them. This was on the heels of a similar statement from a couple of weeks ago after the first flurry of reports about the planned dictatorship started appearing in the mainstream media, in which they proclaimed that “any personnel lists, policy agendas, or government plans published anywhere are merely suggestions.”
But that’s not true at all. Agenda 47, right there on his campaign web site, is hair raising. Here’s just one of the more recent videos in which he promises “take the billions and billions of dollars that we will collect by taxing, fining, and suing excessively large private university endowments, and we will then use that money to endow a new institution called the American Academy” where there will be no wokeness or jihadism allowed.
Wiles and LaCivita can try all they want to distance the campaign from the likes of Bannon and Patel but they aren’t the problem. The candidate is.
You might have thought that Trump would press pause on all the dictator talk considering that his campaign is obviously getting very nervous about it. But no. He appeared before the New York Young Republicans over the weekend and repeated his “dictator on day one” line, making even less sense than before:
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Wiles and LaCivita wrote in their statement that “he is not interested in, nor does he condone, selfish efforts by ‘desk hunters” — but that doesn’t seem to be the case:
The few professionals in the Trump campaign understand that it’s lethal for Trump’s chances in the general election if the public is actually informed of what he plans to do. Now that the press is no longer under the illusion that ignoring what he says is the best way to cover him, those pros are starting to realize that they can’t control Trump or the people around him. They aren’t the first to have that rude awakening. It would be a big relief if they were the last.