It’s one of several meetings that have taken place with powerful Republicans as the party waits to hear if Trump has decided to run for reelection in 2024.
As GOP leaders lean into a potential second Trump election bid, they and all voters should be crystal clear about what they are signing up for if they stick with him.
This awareness is especially urgent now that the first round of books about the presidency of Donald Trump has been hitting stores in recent weeks. As expected, readers are offered a number of shocking revelations about behind-the-scenes moments in Trump’s orbit that were even more chaotic than they looked on television screens or sounded in news reports. They’re hearing about admissions from high-level officials about the dangers they perceived, particularly as Trump felt his grip on power slipping away.
Most recently, for example, we learned — via reports in CNN and the Washington Post of excerpts from Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker’s “I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Last Year”– that Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a “stomach-churning” feeling in the final days of the administration as he heard Trump’s false allegations about voter fraud. The general told aides, according to the book, it was a “Reichstag moment” comparable to the 1933 attack on the German parliament building that Adolf Hitler used to establish his dictatorship and launch his terror on Europe.
He and other generals feared a coup.
These books come at the same time that Republican leaders seem to be doubling down on their recognition that Trump remains the most important leader of the Republican Party. But they — and all Americans — should see these accounts as an urgent reminder of recent tumultuous history, and a new warning of the risks that are all too foreseeable, should they help him return to power.
Indeed, absurdly, during Trump’s term in office, many Republicans often acted surprised about the former president’s behavior. Despite a long-track record and visible history in the public eye, there were expressions of disbelief when Trump used his authority in aggressive fashion to pursue his own political objectives or when he refused to abide by traditional norms of governance.
But none of this should have come as a shock. The way that Trump acted as president fit into well-established patterns of who he was during his days as a controversial, media savvy real estate mogul in New York and as a reality show star who used his platform to, for example, question the birthplace of the nation’s first African American president (a claim he later retracted.) Unlike the outsider Jimmy Carter in 1976, for instance, Trump was a well-known commodity. All someone had to do was listen to him demonstrate his values in appearances on the Howard Stern Show or read the New York Post to understand what “The Donald” was all about.
Of course, now the record is even more extensive. There is the entire history of his presidency, during which he was quite transparent about the rules of the office that he thought to be irrelevant to his personal success, and the lengths to which he was willing to go in political combat.
The first of his two impeachments centered on his withholding of almost $400 million in congressionally approved military aid in order to extract from an allied leader unfounded “dirt” on his opponent, Joe Biden (he denies this).
He later used the power of his bully pulpit to rhetorically delegitimize the 2020 election results in the eyes of his supporters, a determined effort that blew up with the violence of January 6. Since that insurrection, which he incited, and for which he was impeached, Trump has shown very little contrition — and in recent weeks started to praise some of those who stormed the Capitol.
In the Leonnig and Rucker book we see how a high-ranking military official reportedly harbored real fears about a president who would ignore the results of a democratic election and seize power using force if necessary.
In Michael Wolff’s “Landslide” we find out he contemplated using the pandemic as an excuse to postpone the election altogether.
And Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender reports that Trump allegedly told Chief of Staff John Kelly during a 2018 visit to Europe that “Hitler did a lot of good things,” according to Bender’s “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost.” Trump also reportedly told advisers in 2020 that whoever leaked information about his fleeing with his family to a bunker during the George Floyd protests outside the White House that May had committed treason and should be executed for sharing details about the episode with the press.
ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl reports in a forthcoming book that Trump grew furious at former Attorney General William Barr, who disputed Trump’s claim that there was widespread voter fraud.
To be sure, Trump often did not deliver on his many threats and pronouncements—and he will challenge some of the claims in this slew of new books; it will take time to evaluate their accuracy. He has already raged against them, claiming that many of the revelations are not true.
Yet there is enough solid reporting already, combined with the public record, to make clear his views about presidential power. If Trump decides to run again, and Republicans coalesce around him — with unshakeable and obsequious loyalty — as the head of their establishment, there shouldn’t be room for them to claim how taken aback they are about the things he might be willing to do.
A vote for Trump is a vote for potentially unbridled presidential power. It is a conscious decision by a party that claims to champion small government to embolden a Commander-in-Chief who is eager to use that power — without checks and without balances.