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If Donald Trump becomes president again, how authoritarian would his agenda be?

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SEAN HANNITY: You are promising America tonight you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The other day, one of former President Donald Trump's top allies in the media, Sean Hannity, tried to give Trump a break. Hannity was interviewing Trump on a Fox News town hall, and he fed him a layup question aimed at letting Trump respond to the mounting concerns about just how authoritarian the former president sounds as he runs for a second term. Hannity gave Trump two chances to walk back some of the startling rhetoric, and Trump didn't really leap at the opportunity.

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DONALD TRUMP: I love this guy. He says, you're not going to be a dictator; are you? I said, no, no, no, other than Day 1.

DETROW: Trump is facing 91 felony charges across four criminal cases, but he's leading his Republican primary opponents by double digits, and he's tied or ahead of President Biden in most early polls. In an interview with Univision, a Spanish-language news outlet, Trump said he would try to get his opponents out of the election entirely, influencing election outcomes.

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TRUMP: 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. Mostly, that would be - you know, they would be out of business.

DETROW: On social media, Trump recently said that former Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley, who stood up to Trump's attempts to overturn the 2020 election, should be executed. It all paints a pretty clear picture of what a second Trump administration would look like. Former Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney told NPR's Leila Fadel that Americans shouldn't count on the system of checks and balances.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: What's at stake here for the country?

LIZ CHENEY: It couldn't be higher. It really couldn't. And sometimes you hear people say - there was an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal recently where they suggested that even if Donald Trump were elected, it wouldn't be that bad because, of course, we have these institutions and we have these traditions and we have the separation of powers and that people could somehow count on that to restrain him. And one of the main messages of my book is, no, you can't. You cannot count on those institutions to restrain him.

DETROW: Donald Trump is openly laying out his agenda for a second term. Just how authoritarian would it be? In the coming weeks, we are going to take a close look at the different ways it could play out. And today we'll start with a branch of the federal government where that campaign of retribution would likely be focused, the Department of Justice. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson covered nearly every moment of Donald Trump's first four years in the White House and has been looking into what a second term could mean at the DOJ. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So you've been talking to people about this, about what might be possible when it comes to actual policy, when it comes to actual decisions being made. Trump has talked so often about retribution and revenge. What could that actually look like?

JOHNSON: One of the things that came up over and over again in my reporting this week was concern about Trump possibly prosecuting his political adversaries. He said he wants to do that - to prosecute members of the Biden family, people who have criticized him, like former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and others who may be in line to testify against him in federal court trials next year. I also spoke with former Justice Department lawyer Carrie Cordero. She's now at the Center for a New American Security. She says it would take a lot of people inside the Justice Department to drum up a prosecution that's out of bounds or not supported by the facts and the law. But with enough time and enough personnel, it is possible.

DETROW: And is personnel the main thing to think about here? - because I'm thinking back to the first time around and a lot of the people who had long careers inside the Justice Department, who were in key positions, who often kind of pushed back or didn't follow the Twitter demands to do X or Y - very different situation by the end of that first term, when there were people in the Justice Department who were taking serious part in these conversations about the election results. I mean, what's the right way to think about the types of people Trump would be staffing a second go around with?

JOHNSON: Yeah, Scott. Remember; Donald Trump tried to make a man named Jeffrey Clark the acting attorney general at the end of his first term. Clark backed these phony voter fraud claims and wanted the DOJ to send letters to state authorities talking about election fraud. That was actually averted by a threat of mass resignations near the end of Trump's term. But people inside and outside the Justice Department worry the people Trump might want to run the Justice Department next time around will be more compliant. There's really a lot of concern about upending the norms that have been in place since Watergate that erect some kinds of boundaries between the DOJ and the White House. This year Jeff Clark actually wrote a white paper saying the Justice Department is not independent of the White House.

Now, the Trump campaign says only it is responsible for policy if he wins again. But already names of possible cabinet members are emerging, and people like Stephen Miller, Mike Davis, senators like Mike Lee or J.D. Vance - they're all mentioned as possible DOJ appointees in a Trump Justice Department. And they're, by and large, not people with DOJ or prosecutorial experience. And they're also pretty vocal on behalf of some of Donald Trump's most extreme policy positions.

DETROW: So if people are being put into place in these key positions early on who are on the same wavelength as Trump, who have the same norm-breaking approach, who don't think of the DOJ as an independent agency, what are some of the ways that they could shape the Justice Department or what law and order looks like?

JOHNSON: You know, Trump mostly avoided the Justice Department and its role in the clemency process at the end of his first term. This time around, some of Trump's appointees potentially could embrace Trump's use of clemency pardon power, which is virtually unlimited, and power to commute sentences, make certain kinds of criminal cases go away that have already been brought. But even more than that, Trump's overall approach to crime and punishment might turn out to be pretty brutal. Here's civil rights leader Sherrilyn Ifill, who's now at Harvard University, about to start a new job at Howard.

SHERRILYN IFILL: One of the things Trump has talked about is, you know, shoplifters being executed. You know, if you take - caught stealing something from a store, you should be shot. And we shouldn't underestimate the way Trump's vision of law, to the extent he thinks of it even as law, will permeate throughout the country.

JOHNSON: You know, it's not lost on me that in his first term, Trump said it would be OK if police roughed up suspects when they put them in the back of patrol cars. And the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration actually resigned after that statement. Sherrilyn Ifill is worried that some people in law enforcement may be emboldened by it in a potential Trump second term.

DETROW: You've talked about the broad powers of clemency and pardoning that a president has. This is a president who is currently charged with federal criminal crimes. There are two different cases currently against Trump in the federal system - one in Florida related to classified documents, one in Washington, D.C., related to his attempt to overturn the election. What powers would Trump have to shape those cases against him if they haven't gone to trial by the time he would take office?

JOHNSON: You know, Donald Trump could try to pardon himself in one or both of those cases if he wins the White House. It's an unsettled legal question whether he has that authority. But he certainly might try. Or he could just direct his new attorney general or somebody at the top of the Justice Department on an acting basis to get rid of those cases. And we know from recent history courts are really reluctant to tell prosecutors who they can and can't charge with crimes, how to use that important discretion they have. That issue came up when Bill Barr ran the Justice Department and he tried to back away from prosecuting Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. The courts came down and said, you know, we can't tell the Justice Department who to prosecute and who not to prosecute. And the DOJ did not go ahead with that case against Flynn.

DETROW: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you for your reporting on this. I feel like we will talk about it again soon.

JOHNSON: Oh, happy to be here always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.