President Donald Trump holds a Bible in front of a church in Washington on June 1, 2020, amid protests over racial inequality in the U.S.
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump attempted a violent coup to remain in power the last time he was president, so why would he step down at the end of his term if he’s elected a second time, particularly knowing that prison may await him once he leaves office?
To a range of increasingly alarmed authoritarianism scholars and Republican officials and consultants, the answer is simple: He will never leave willingly.
“The signs are all there that he would not leave voluntarily,” said Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College. “After all, he did his best to stay in office in 2021, sparking an insurrection to do it, and he has vowed to use the power of the presidency more forcefully in a possible second term.”
David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida, which is now Trump’s home state, agreed that a second Trump term could mean the end of American democracy as it has existed for 236 years. “If Trump gets reelected, all bets are off on the Constitution surviving the tests he’ll throw at it,” he said. “His movement would support anything he tries, regardless of constitutional provisions.”
“Trump is so unpredictable that anything could happen. Literally anything,” said GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who added that Trump’s hold on his base of supporters today is “even stronger and more intense” than it was in 2016.
Trump’s campaign staff did not respond to multiple queries about whether he would honor the constitutionally prescribed end of his second and final term, but his statements through the years suggest that he does not see the Constitution as necessarily binding.
As the 2020 election approached, Trump repeatedly suggested that he was owed a third term, because so much of his first was consumed with a Justice Department investigation into his campaign’s coordination with Russia to help him win in 2016. And as Election Day grew closer and he lagged far behind Democrat Joe Biden in the polls, Trump floated a postponement of the vote because of the coronavirus pandemic — an idea quickly shot down by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
More recently, while repeating his lie that the 2020 election had been “stolen” from him, Trump last year called for the “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” so he could be immediately reinstated as president.
Despite this, many if not most Republicans ― even those who dislike Trump and think he betrayed his oath with his actions leading up to and on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob he had incited attacked the U.S. Capitol to keep him in power ― believe that those who worry about a second Trump term morphing into a dictatorship are catastrophizing.
“While he can damage the wheels of democracy, I don’t know that he can break them,” said Oscar Brock, a Republican National Committee member from Tennessee.
David Kochel, a Republican consultant in Iowa with decades of experience, said what Trump may want and what Trump can get are two entirely different things. “It wouldn’t matter what he did. The Constitution is what it is,” Kochel said. “The military swears an oath to defend it, not the president. No chance he stays longer than the constitutionally allowed term.”
Those arguments, though, echo the ones Republicans made after Trump lost the Nov. 3, 2020, election, when the GOP establishment largely humored Trump’s lies about “fraud” on the theory that there was nothing he could do to stop Biden’s inauguration.
Instead, Trump actively used the threat of violence, and then actual violence in the Jan. 6 insurrection, to try to coerce then-Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers into giving him a second term in office. About 140 police officers were injured by Trump’s mob, and five ended up dying.
Gail Helt, who watched for signs of democratic decay abroad as a CIA analyst and now runs the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University in Tennessee, said too many Americans continue to assume that rules, “norms” and even laws would protect the nation, when Trump cheerfully ran roughshod over them during his first term.
“We have to stop applying norms to Trump and expecting he will abide by them,” she said. “We have to get that through our heads. Four more years of Trump will be our undoing.”
Learning The Powers Of The Presidency
Trump’s authoritarian tendencies go back decades, but were not particularly noteworthy coming from a New York City real estate developer or, later, a television game show host.
In 1990, following the brutal crackdown of protests in Beijing, Trump said: “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
As he began campaigning for president in 2015, his rhetoric began to grow more ominous. He proposed rounding up every undocumented immigrant in the United States for deportation and banning the entry of all Muslims into the country.
He also continued his public admiration for murderous dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, even calling him a better leader than U.S. President Barack Obama. In 2016, Trump professed respect for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un for killing his uncle and others as a way to consolidate power. “It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one,” Trump said.
After winning the presidency later that year, Trump moderated his tone somewhat, and focused on bringing people into his administration he believed would win him respect. He recruited, for example, former Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis for defense secretary, Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly to run the Department of Homeland Security, and ExxonMobil chairman Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
Yet almost without exception, these well-regarded leaders wound up leaving after clashes with Trump, and the former president now attacks them personally as part of the “swamp” or the “deep state” that was supposedly always out to thwart him.
As Trump’s term progressed, more and more of his original staff departed, to be replaced by those whose primary qualification appeared to be personal loyalty to him. By the final months, many of those in key roles had the “acting” qualifier in their titles — meaning they had not been confirmed to their jobs by the Senate.
“The former president didn’t fully come to understand his powers or to abuse them until the very end of his term,” said Norm Eisen, a lawyer in Obama’s White House who later worked on the first impeachment of Trump for extorting Ukraine. “Necessity is the mother of invention, and that includes autocracy.”
“Trump learned from the ‘mistakes’ of relying on institutionalist and ‘deep state’ puppets who refused to adhere to his will when he required them to,” added Michael Steele, a former RNC chairman. “He will not make that mistake again.”
Making Fascism Great Again
Another “mistake” Trump will likely learn from was neglecting to fill the upper echelons of the military and the intelligence services with devoted acolytes.
On June 1, 2020, when Trump exhibited his most authoritarian display to date by ordering the violent clearing of Lafayette Square across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House so that he could walk to a nearby church to be photographed holding a Bible, he was accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chair Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Both men within days apologized for their presence, calling it inappropriate.
Trump and his top aides were incensed by what they considered disloyalty, which came on top of the military’s refusal to take part in crackdowns on protests across the United States in response to the murder of a Black man by police in Minneapolis.
Those statements and positions, Boston College’s Richardson believes, were critical seven months later, when Trump understood that he could not depend on the military to back his coup attempt. “The resistance of the military to Trump’s demands three years ago, during the June 2020 crisis, was so crucially important,” she said.
To this day, Trump and his allies disparage Milley, Esper and other top military leaders as disloyal — which all but guarantees that Trump, should he return to the White House, will work hard to have loyalists in those and other key positions by 2028, Steele and others said.
“His test for leadership in the administration and federal agencies will be pure fealty, likely people akin to the lawyers he surrounded himself with in the run-up to Jan. 6,” Jolly said.
Yet regardless of what Trump may want come the end of his term, said former Trump White House lawyer Steven Groves, he would face an obstacle that did not exist for him in 2020: a Republican presidential primary that will produce a 2028 nominee.
If that person were to beat the Democratic nominee, there would be a Republican president-elect waiting to take the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2029, who would also have Secret Service protection and the almost certain backing of the Supreme Court’s chief justice.
“There would have been an entire election process that will have happened,” Groves said, adding that the oath of office would go forward, and the new president would have the right to take control of the White House. “Once that motorcade rolls up Pennsylvania Avenue, there’s only one president at a time.”
To avoid that, Trump in 2027 would have to put himself forward as a candidate for the GOP nomination, which would bring all manner of legal challenges citing the Constitution’s limit of two terms, Groves said.
Others who believe Trump cannot seriously damage American democracy point to laws requiring, for example, that Trump’s top appointments be approved by the Senate, which would prevent him from bypassing Congress and simply labeling every top official “acting” from the get-go.
But such a process- and rules-oriented faith in the “system” is misplaced when it comes to Trump, say those warning about a second term, because he’s shown that he doesn’t care about norms, rules or laws.
“I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” he boasted to supporters in 2019.
What’s more, Republicans in Congress — who currently control the House and may well control the Senate, too, in 2025 — have to date shown little inclination to challenge Trump, who retains a powerful hold over a large swath of the GOP voting base. The 2020 impeachment of Trump for extorting Ukraine got just a single Republican vote in Congress, while his second impeachment, carried out just days after his followers had overrun the Capitol, received precisely 17 GOP votes.
And this time, Trump could have a much stronger incentive to not leave office. Although as president he would almost certainly be able to end any federal prosecution against himself, he would not have that power over criminal cases against him in New York and Georgia, the latter of which could potentially bring him decades in prison.
They warn that if Trump has had four years to purge those loyal to the Constitution out of government — including the upper ranks of the military, the Justice Department, the Secret Service and the intelligence community ― and replaced them with those primarily loyal to him, then there will be no realistic way of forcing him to leave the White House when his term is up.
“He will be attempting to appoint collaborators,” Eisen said.
“If Donald Trump is elected president in 2024, there is literally no predicting the future of representative democracy in America. The one thing we can be sure of, if past is prologue, is that there is no length to which he would not go to remain in power, including attempting to delay or cancel the 2028 election altogether,” said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican consultant in Florida. “The man is a no-kidding existential menace to the republic.”