Trump's vow to only be a dictator on 'day one' follows growing worry over his authoritarian rhetoric

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Former President Donald Trump speaks during a Commit to Caucus rally, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Ankeny, Iowa. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – As Donald Trump faces growing scrutiny over his increasingly authoritarian and violent rhetoric, Fox News host Sean Hannity gave his longtime friend a chance to assure the American people that he wouldn't abuse power or seek retribution if he wins a second term.

But instead of offering a perfunctory answer brushing off the warnings, Trump stoked the fire.

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“Except for day one,” the GOP front-runner said Tuesday night before a live audience in Davenport, Iowa. “I want to close the border, and I want to drill, drill, drill."

And in case anyone missed it, he reenacted the exchange.

“We love this guy,” Trump said of Hannity. “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.’”

Trump has a long history of making inflammatory proclamations that spark outrage from detractors and generate a stream of headlines, without ever coming to fruition. Often they are made in a tongue-in-cheek manner that allows Trump's allies to claim he was joking and cite the backlash as another example of a candidate skilled at baiting an out-of-touch press that takes him far too literally.

Trump campaign aides said Thursday that the former president was simply trying to trigger the left and the media with his dictator comment, while also seeking to focus attention on the influx of migrants at the border and stubborn inflation, two vulnerabilities for President Joe Biden heading into the 2024 general election.

But the consequences of Trump's rhetoric have been made all too clear, after he refused to accept the results of the 2020 election and a mob of his supporters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol to stop the certification of Biden's victory.

The former president, who has long expressed regard for authoritarian leaders and the power they wield, is now vowing vengeance and retribution as he outlines a second-term agenda marked by an unprecedented expansion of executive power, unparalleled interference in the justice system, and a massive purge of civil servants.

Indeed, hours before his remarks were aired, a longtime ally who is widely expected to serve in a top national security role if Trump returns to the White House vowed 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,” said Kash Patel, even though numerous federal and local officials, a long list of courts, top former campaign staffers and even Trump's own attorney general have all said there is no evidence of the fraud he alleges.

Biden and other critics have seized on Trump’s comments, painting him as a threat to democracy as they seek to turn the 2024 election into another referendum on the former president instead of Biden. Cognizant of the risks, Trump's campaign has tried to distance itself from Patel’s statement as well as headline-grabbing policy plans proposed by several outside groups staffed by longtime Trump allies, with top aides issuing a statement last month saying the groups did not speak for the campaign.

Trump, too, has tried to turn the tables on Biden, who has increasingly argued the former president poses a fundamental danger to the country. In a speech in Iowa this month, Trump insisted it is really Biden who is the true “destroyer” of democracy, citing the four criminal indictments he is facing as politically motivated efforts to damage his campaign.

It's an argument Trump and his campaign plan to continue to make heading into the 2024 general election.

The Biden campaign's attack, said Trump senior adviser Jason Miller, “is a clear sign that the Democrats believe their only possible pathway to victory is to go scorched earth on President Trump."

Despite Democrats' attempts “to make outlandish statements about what a future Trump term could look like,” Miller said, there is now a reference point: "Four years of President Trump in the White House, and he never did any of the types of things that Joe Biden is currently doing to him.”

But Trump's own words are clear.

“In 2016, I declared I am your voice. Today, I add, I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution," he said in March 2023.

In the months since, Trump has repeatedly and explicitly vowed to use the Justice Department to target his enemies in a dramatic break from the long-standing, post-Watergate tradition of independence.

“I will appoint a real special prosecutor to go after the most corrupt president in the history of the United States of America, Joe Biden, the entire Biden crime family, and all others involved with the destruction of our elections, borders and our country itself," he said in a June video.

In an interview with Univision, he went even further. “If I happen to be president and I see somebody who’s doing well and beating me very badly, I say, ‘Go down and indict them,'" he said.

Last December, he mused about circumventing the Constitution, arguing that the election fraud he alleges "allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”

He has taken an especially hostile approach to the press, vowing to “rout the fake news media," calling reporters "THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!" and saying outlets like NBC News and MSNBC should be investigated for treason.

Trump's extensive policy plans also rely on a dramatic expansion of executive power. He wants to strip tens of thousands of career federal workers of their civil service protections, has vowed new ideological tests for those entering the country and has talked about increasing the military's role on domestic soil, including sending the National Guard to the border and to cities like Chicago to tackle crime.

He has warned that the gravest threats to the nation come “not from abroad, but from within," has called for expanded use of the death penalty while praising countries that rely on “quick” trials and extrajudicial killings, and has said looters should be shot.

He has continued to praise authoritarian leaders like China's Xi Jinping, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, while dehumanizing his enemies as “scum” and “thugs” who “live like vermin."

Aides argue the former president did not enact some of his most extreme campaign promises, like jailing his then-rival Hillary Clinton or enacting “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," though he did try to ban foreign nationals from a handful of Muslim-majority countries. They note his campaign operation this time around has been widely praised as more disciplined and professional than his previous efforts — a sign of what could be to come.

But if he wins again, Trump is expected to face far fewer guardrails, including an administration filled with loyalists now experienced in wielding federal power, fewer rivals in Congress and more appointees across the courts.

Quentin Fulks, the No. 2 official on Biden’s reelection campaign, pushed back at Trump’s attempts to turn the issue back on Biden and said there is no comparison between the men. Biden, he said, is not standing at the presidential podium “saying that he’s going to round up his political enemies or use the government to go after his political enemies.”

He said it was imperative for Democrats to "call out this rhetoric when we see it and make sure the American people really know what’s at stake.”

Meanwhile, Ken Cuccinelli, a top immigration official in Trump’s administration who now leads a super PAC supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president, called the former president’s dictator remarks “provocative” and vintage Trump.

“Do I think he’s trying to needle everybody? Yes, I do. He enjoys doing that," Cuccinelli said. "Does it help improve America? No, it doesn’t. And he doesn’t care about that because his first concern is Donald Trump.”

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Colvin reported from New York.