Trump’s ‘dictator’ remark jolts the 2024 campaign — and tests his GOP rivals on debate day

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Sean Hannity was trying to throw Donald Trump a life vest, and Trump was waving it off.

At a town hall in Davenport, Iowa, on the eve of what may be the final Republican primary debate of the campaign, the Fox News host asked the likely GOP nominee whether he had “any plans whatsoever, if reelected president, to abuse power? To break the law? To use the government to go after people?”

Trump parried. Hannity probed. He again asked Trump whether he was indeed “promising America tonight you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?"

"Except for Day One," Trump said.

Were Trump’s initial remarks a Trumpian jest? A threat? A promise?

Whether Trump was smiling and winking at a dictatorship, his declaration marked a pivotal point in the race — coming as he and those who would likely populate his second-term administration spark concerns that they are laying the groundwork for a more authoritarian style of governance.

And the timing could hardly have been more significant — immediately throwing down a gauntlet for his remaining four challengers as they gather in Alabama tonight. Implicitly, his interview served as an invitation for them to either acquiesce or criticize their party’s frontrunner in a primary where they have been reflexively reluctant to do so. His day-one dictator remarks offer Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy the opening to either reject or affirm that a thread of authoritarianism is now woven into the fabric of the Republican Party.

Democrats saw in Trump’s remarks a threat — but for them, the episode also jolts the likely general election matchup between Trump and Biden back to familiar and friendly terrain. An issue set that includes democracy and abortion access proved a potent combination at the ballot box for the party in the midterm elections.

At virtually the same time as Trump’s remarks, President Joe Biden was at a series of fundraisers in Boston, acknowledging that Trump and his threat to democracy was his raison d'etre — the animating force of his re-election campaign.

“Trump’s not even hiding the ball anymore,” an unguarded Biden said. “He’s telling us exactly what he wants to do. He’s making no bones about it.”

In a statement following Trump’s remarks, Biden’s campaign backed up that message. "Donald Trump has been telling us exactly what he will do if he's reelected and tonight he said he will be a dictator on day one,” Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said. “Americans should believe him.”

Republicans may well read Trump’s comments as a trademark Trumpian jest, another stand-in-the-middle-of-5th-Avenue-and-shoot-somebody moment. “This guy [Hannity], he says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you? I said, ‘No, no, no — other than Day One.”

Asked by Hannity to clarify his remarks, Trump quickly spun back on message, saying he would use the powers of the presidency to drill and secure the border. "That is not retribution," Hannity said, looking relieved.

But former Rep. Liz Cheney, the former vice chair of the Jan. 6 Committee, who said she is weighing a third-party presidential bid of her own, saw in Trump’s remarks a promise. Pressed by CNBC Squawk Box’s Joe Kernen on whether she preferred a Biden administration, Cheney said “We’re in a moment, however, where we face on the other side a man who, he doesn’t deny that he thinks what happened on Jan. 6 is a special thing. He glorifies it every day. He says he’s going to take vengeance when he’s elected again. He said even last night, ‘Yes, I’m going to be a dictator for a day.’”

Back in Davenport, as Hannity wrapped the town hall, the crowd’s reaction left no confusion over how Trump’s town hall and his remarks landed.

They gave him a standing ovation.