Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, aides worried he wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would allow him to deploy the military on U.S. soil. The prospect became a vivid possibility on January 6, 2021. What hasn’t been widely discussed is that Donald Trump came within sentences of making it happen – two years prior.
Trump asked aides to draft language invoking the extraordinary powers in 2019, so that he could expel migrants from the United States by force. The president was talked out of it. But if a MAGA figure returns to the White House, our luck may run out.
That’s because “Trump 2.0” won’t be as bad as many think. It will be worse.
Over the course of the past two years, I’ve interviewed dozens of former officials about the ex-president’s undisclosed plans, including what Trump or a savvier successor would do in office next time. The picture was bleaker than I expected.
I thought I’d seen the worst. After all, I served as chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security for part of the Trump era. We believed the man’s immoral impulses could be managed. We were catastrophically wrong. I wrote an unsigned opinion piece from within the administration to shine a light on presidential misconduct, but it only got darker. So I quit my job, unmasked myself as the anonymous author, and recruited others to campaign against the president in 2020.
Trump lost. In many ways, so did I. Contending with the vindictive chief executive nearly destroyed my life, from financial and legal troubles to stalkers and death threats. More importantly, it nearly destroyed our republic.
Since then, I’ve wondered: how much worse could it have been? What will happen if the disgraced tycoon or the “next Trump” recaptures the presidency? I’ve asked cabinet secretaries, Trump aides, whistleblowers, and current and former GOP leaders.
Three predictions alarmed me the most.
First, ex-officials I spoke with warn that the executive branch will be weaponized by another MAGA president in previously unreported ways.
“The damage Trump did in the first term is reparable,” said former national security advisor John Bolton, but he said the next Trump “would do damage that is not reparable, especially in a White House surrounded by fifth-raters.”
Intelligence agencies and the military are of particular concern.
“The MAGA movement has paved the way for a politicized intelligence community,” explained Fiona Hill, a former advisor on Trump’s National Security Council (NSC). She worries that having ideologues run such agencies “will lead the United States into wars” – wars that America might not be prepared to win.
Trump’s former defense secretary Mark Esper added that his “biggest concern would be withdrawing troops from key places abroad” and “abandoning alliances,” projecting the next Trump could leave America vulnerable to attack. Other defense leaders worry about military forces being brought home for the wrong reasons.
Indeed, Donald Trump came close to deploying armed U.S. troops on American soil in February 2019. After watching television footage of migrants at the border, he told aides to invoke the Insurrection Act to put down what he called “an invasion.” Then-president Trump prepared to include the announcement in his State of the Union Address, forcing a number of officials (myself included) to rush to the White House and talk the president out of it.
Next time, no agency will be spared from such abuses of power.
Interviewees told me about everything from MAGA plans to force the Education Department to kick undocumented children out of public schools (the idea was a “cockroach that wouldn’t die,” claimed Josh Venable, Trump’s former chief of staff at the department) all the way to “fully gutting” the Department of Veterans Affairs in order to use its $250 billion budget on other political priorities (“Veterans would die by the thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands,” explained Jim Byrne, Trump’s number-two at the agency).
Second, the legislative branch will be neutralized and GOP objectors muzzled.
Former Tea Party congressman Reid Ribble said Congress’s checks and balances against the presidency “will be undone entirely” by another MAGA White House. Current and former Republican representatives like him projected that another Trump would actively obstruct Congress, from bypassing the Senate by installing unqualified “acting” officials to run government agencies to simply ignoring subpoenas.
If there’s a legislative agenda, one veteran GOP operative said it would be: “guns, gays, and girls.” The White House would pressure Congress to water down gun laws, overturn protections for same-sex marriage, and seek to outlaw abortion, putting the culture wars center stage.
Meanwhile, would-be GOP dissenters will think twice about voicing concern.
“I don’t use the word ‘frightening’ very often, but it really did frighten me,” recalled former GOP Congressman Scott Rigell, reflecting on how swiftly people like him were ostracized from the party for opposing Trumpism, calling it “cult worship.”
Even after GOP rebels like Adam Kinzinger and Denver Riggleman were run out of Congress, the vitriolic threats and abuse continued. “Now I carry at all times,” one ousted Republican confessed, revealing a concealed pistol in his waistband. “I’m carrying a Wilson Combat 45.”
Former RNC chair Michael Steele said the intimidation works, which is why it will escalate next time. “That’s why the hammer came down so hard on Liz Cheney—to send a message of fear,” he remarked. “No one wants to be targeted the way she’s been targeted.”
Third, the justice system will be used to punish the MAGA movement’s enemies.
Former FBI leader Andy McCabe and others worry that purging the FBI of “the deep state” has gone from an unserious Trump refrain to a mainstream GOP position. They fear the bureau will be used for revenge.
“You will see them cock the weapon and aim it at a new target,” explained Tom Warrick, a Trump-era counterterrorism czar. “I assume we are going to see the invention of domestic terrorist enemies,” he said. Warrick predicted political opponents would be harassed under the guise of counterterrorism — “one of the scariest aspects of what a ‘Trump Two’ would bring into office.”
The courts may not be able to protect these Americans, especially if the White House ignores the judges, as Trump wanted to do. Jon Burks, former chief of staff to House Speaker Paul Ryan, said that a refusal by Trump 2.0 to comply with court orders could spark “war in the justice system.”
Others used words like “civil war,” “soft secession” and “political assassinations” to describe how such a period might devolve. Such terminology would have seemed absurd less than a decade ago. Now it is eerily common in conversations with former officials.
So what can we do?
We should assume the probability of a MAGA redux is significant. The GOP’s anti-democratic, populist wing remains firmly in control of the party, and if another Trump-like leader is elected, Congress and the courts will struggle to keep up.
We may be left to depend on conscientious insiders, the dwindling few in government who are prepared to blow the whistle in times of crisis. Unfortunately, they risk extinction. The cost of speaking up in the U.S. remains alarmingly high, and would-be whistleblowers fear crowd-sourced hate and death threats.
Short of giving up on free speech, there’s only one way to lower the price of dissent: increase the supply. More people must step forward and tell the truth, especially the many GOP figures who privately shared with me their fears about the MAGA movement, or the everyday Americans who’ve been swept up in it, only to find they’ve been swindled.
The only scenario scarier than a wayward president deploying troops on U.S. city streets is the scenario in which no one is brave enough to say anything.
As the 2024 primary season approaches, voters can make sure we don’t end up in this situation by telling themselves the truth: democracy can’t afford a repeat.
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