“As he sees fit”: Trump lays out the stakes — and the media is starting to hear his message

In a Time interview, Trump tells us how law, order and freedom are at stake in November

Published May 3, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks outside the club house at the Trump National Golf Club on June 13, 2023 in Bedminster, New Jersey. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks outside the club house at the Trump National Golf Club on June 13, 2023 in Bedminster, New Jersey. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The election stakes are as stark as they're simple: Law and order to ensure freedom versus lawlessness and disorder without freedom. That message screams aloud from the pages of TIME Magazine’s most recent cover story, “How far would Trump go?” It’s based on interviews with Trump and others close to him, including a full transcript and fact-check.

The most chilling example of what is at stake this fall is the devastation of women’s right to privacy and reproductive freedom. Trump “would let red states monitor women’s pregnancies and prosecute those who violate abortion bans.” A scenario that gruesomely echoes The Handmaid's Tale

Doubt he means it? He’s already bragged about his role in overturning Roe v. Wade. Now he’s endorsing the next governmental invasion of women’s bodies. 

It’s not only abortion rights he’s after. All the individual freedoms our Constitution guarantees are at risk if we hand power to someone intent on being a dictator “on Day One.” As the eminent historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat tweeted Tuesday, “Trump has been conditioning Americans for years to desire authoritarian rule with him as dictator.”

She pointed to Trump’s response to Time's question about whether he understood “why so many Americans see all this talk of dictatorship as contrary to our most cherished freedoms?” He disagreed, insisting quite the opposite: “I think a lot of people like it.”

Constant repetition that the abnormal is normal: That’s how authoritarians pave the path to dictatorial rule. The unending recital of once-aberrant ideas dissolves resistance to the elimination of norms and conditions the populace to the relaxation of constraints on the leader.

Consider just four stunning samples from TIME’s interview with Trump: 

First, there’s Trump’s promise to “deploy the National Guard to American cities as he sees fit.” The federal “Posse Comitatus statute,” adopted 150 years ago, “remove[s] the military from regular civil law enforcement.” 

A legislated exception to that law allowed the steps taken in 1957 and 1963 by Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Jack Kennedy — they invoked the Insurrection Act and federalized the National Guard to keep rebellious Southern governors and police from obstructing the established rights of black students to an equal education. 

Perversely, during the insurrection on January 6, Trump sat on his hands after inciting the mob. In any case, he’s not talking about insurrection when he discusses “going into the cities.” He’s talking about using the military “as he sees fit,” legally or not. That would spell doom for our First Amendment rights to assemble peaceably in protest against his policies.

Second, he vowed “to carry out a deportation operation designed to remove more than 11 million people from the country. . . [and is] willing to build migrant detention camps and deploy the U.S. military to that end.” Never mind that, as Justice Antonin Scalia once wrote, “the Fifth Amendment entitles [noncitizens] to due process of law in deportation proceedings.” Never mind that the Supreme Court has repudiated its World War II decision blessing detention camps for Japanese Americans.

Third, Trump said he is “weighing pardons for every one of his supporters accused of attacking the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, more than 800 of whom have . . . been convicted.” Forget the beatings by flagpole of bear-sprayed police. Forget the terrorism and the desecration of the halls and offices of the Capitol, the mob chorus screaming, “Hang Mike Pence.” Such mass pardons would open the floodgates to future political violence by Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and any paramilitary group that supports Trump.

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Fourth and perhaps most ominous of all, Trump refused to rule out violence if he loses the 2024 election. “If we don't win, . . . it depends. It always depends on the fairness of an election.” Fairness, no doubt, “as he sees fit.” If Trump loses, prepare for January 6 deja vu with Proud Boys “stand[ing] by.”

Three guardrails stop most human beings from committing terrible evils: A sense of right and wrong, the threat of being stopped, and fear of punishment. None exist for Trump.

As to the first, only someone comatose for the last nine years would fail to see that Trump’s guiding lights are money, power and self-interest, not a moral code. 

Regarding the second, he plans to stock another Trump administration with yes-men and strip civil service protections from government employees who aren’t loyal to him and ready to betray their constitutional oath.

And as to the third, the Supreme Court majority gives every indication of being “in the tank for Trump,” and he told TIME that he would “fire a U.S. Attorney who doesn’t carry out his order to prosecute someone.” The guardrails will be down, the car will be going 110 mph on the mountain curve, and it will be veering straight over the constitutional cliff.

On Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in DC, President Joe Biden paused the joking and put it on the line with his audience of political journalists: 

I’m . . .  asking you to rise up to the seriousness of the moment; move past the horse race numbers and . . . the distractions . . . and focus on what’s actually at stake. [The stakes] couldn’t be higher.

Hats off to Time and outlets like it that take to heart the unique gravity of this moment.

By Laurence H. Tribe

Laurence H. Tribe is Carl M. Loeb University Professor and professor of constitutional law emeritus at Harvard Law School.

MORE FROM Laurence H. Tribe

By Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

MORE FROM Dennis Aftergut

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