Retribution or 'remarkably vindictive'? Why Trump's push for more presidential power alarms his foes

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WASHINGTON - Donald Trump wants more than to be president again.

He wants to be a president with more power.

When not attacking President Joe Biden, or defending his four criminal indictments, Trump has proposed a series of measures that would basically give presidents authority to hire and fire more government officials.

Trump's plans would give the president expanded executive control to impose new policies without congressional approval; it would also enable him to push investigations of political opponents.

"He wants to convert American democracy into some kind of autocracy," said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University and author of "Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present."

Trump and his allies say they are trying to make the government more accountable to elected officials and the voters. They claim that the bureaucracy thwarted many of their plans during the first Trump administration, from travel bans to border security.

"With you at my side, we will demolish the Deep State," Trump told supporters this week in Derry, N.H., echoing a mantra he uses all the time on the campaign trail.

Donald Trump in a New York City courtroom this month.
Donald Trump in a New York City courtroom this month.

The power to investigate

Trump has also pledged "retribution" against his enemies, including investigators and prosecutors who brought four criminal cases against him, including attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

The Justice Department, the FBI and other law enforcement officials are supposed to operate independently, beyond politics.

Trump would seek to erase that line, and has vowed to investigate Biden, son Hunter Biden, and congressional lawmakers who have investigated or impeached him.

"When they start playing with your elections and trying to arrest their political opponent − I mean, I can do that too," Trump said.

Officials who have been threatened by Trump have expressed worry about what a second term of his would bring.

Among them: Gen. Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff whom Trump accused of treason and suggested should be executed.

“He’ll start throwing people in jail, and I’d be on the top of the list,” Milley has told associates, according to a long profile of the general in The Atlantic.

Day-to-day operations

Trump's proposed power grab also targets day-to-day operations of the government, again in areas that are supposed to be beyond political control.

Regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission would come under more presidential authority, if Trump has his way.

That would inject politics into items like environmental regulations, consumer protection rules, and the setting of interest rates - a potential boon for big donors with access to the president.

"Everything can be more easily plundered for profit," Ben-Ghiat said.

Many of these decisions need to be made by experts, said Noah Rosenblum, an assistant professor at New York University School of Law who has studied Trump's proposals.

"When they make these decisions, they should be independent of political considerations," Rosenblum said.

Biden: Trump is a threat to democracy

Trump's opponents for the Republican presidential nomination have not made much of the proposals to increase the power of the presidency.

Biden and the Democrats have, meaning the scope of government is likely to be more of an issue in the 2024 general election than the GOP primary.

In late September, the incumbent president devoted the central part of a major speech on democracy to what he called the "MAGA movement," a reference to the Trump political slogan "Make America Great Again."

Biden said Trump and MAGA extremists are promoting the dangerous idea that "this president is above the law, with no limits on power."

For example, Biden noted that Trump is seeking to revive "impoundment," a proposal to refuse to spend money appropriated by Congress for programs he opposes. When President Richard Nixon tried that five decades ago, Congress responded with the Impoundment Control Act of 1974, preventing presidents from imposing their own funding decisions without congressional approval.

Congress would no doubt oppose many of Trump's proposals, and courts would likely have the final say.

"This MAGA threat is the threat to the brick and mortar of our democratic institutions," Biden said in his speech. "But it’s also a threat to the character of our nation."

Trump's trials?

Another apparent reason for Trump's plans to give more authority to the presidency: It would make it easier for him to beat the criminal charges against him. A new President Trump could probably have the federal cases, and throw new obstacles at the state cases.

The federal Justice Department has indicted Trump twice, once over attempts to steal Biden's election victory and the other over his handling of classified documents.

In addition, a state grand jury in Georgia indicted Trump and others on conspiracy charges of trying to steal the election in that state.

A New York City grand jury indicted Trump on charges related to hush money.

Trump is trying to delay all of these trials until after Election Day of Nov. 5, 2024 − even if he fails at that, another Trump presidency would likely have some kind of impact on prosecutions and appeals.

Trump's retribution

In a still-remembered speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference in March 2023, Trump cast his 2024 campaign as "retribution" against his many enemies.

“In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice,’” Trump said back in February. “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution."

Trump opponents say the presidency is not the office to settle scores.

Rosenblum, a legal historian, said it appears Trump wants to increase the power of presidency to run roughshod over Congress and the courts, and to get back at his "perceived enemies."

It would amount to "turning the presidency into something more like a kingship," he said.

Rosenblum added: "He has proven himself to be remarkably vindictive."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump wants more presidential power − including to investigate foes