In a speech before his supporters, the former president charged forward in an uncharted direction, talking openly about leveraging the power of the presidency for political reprisals.
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“This is the final battle,” former President Donald J. Trump told supporters at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday. “They know it, I know it, you know it, everybody knows it.”
Donald J. Trump has for decades trafficked in the language of vengeance, from his days as a New York developer vowing “an eye for an eye” in the real estate business to ticking through an enemies ledger in 2022 as he sought to oust every last Republican who voted for his impeachment. “Four down and six to go,” he cheered in a statement as one went down to defeat.
But even though payback has long been part of his public persona, Mr. Trump’s speech on Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference was striking for how explicitly he signaled that any return trip to the White House would amount to a term of spite.
“In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice,’” Mr. Trump told the crowd in National Harbor, Md. “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
He repeated the phrase for emphasis: “I am your retribution.”
Framing the 2024 election as a dire moment in an us-versus-them struggle — “the final battle,” as he put it — Mr. Trump charged forward in an uncharted direction for American politics, talking openly about leveraging the power of the presidency for political reprisals.
His menacing declaration landed differently in the wake of the pro-Trump mob’s assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in a last-ditch effort to keep him in power. The notion that Mr. Trump’s supporters could be spurred to violence is no longer hypothetical, as it was in 2016 when he urged a rally audience to “knock the crap out of” hecklers. The attack on the Capitol underscored that his most fanatical followers took his falsehoods and claims of victimhood seriously — and were willing to act on them.
ImageMr. Trump’s speech was laced with allusions to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, so far the chief threat to his winning another nomination. Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times
While Mr. Trump has long walked up to a transgressive line, he has often managed to avoid unambiguously crossing it, leaving his intentions just uncertain enough to allow his supporters to say he is being mistreated or misinterpreted.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, said the speech was “a call to political action to defeat the Democrats who have put their collective boot on the throats of Americans,” adding, “Anyone who thinks otherwise is either being disingenuous or is outright lying because they know President Trump continues to be a threat to the political establishment.”
But John Bolton, a national security adviser under Mr. Trump who later broke publicly with him, had little doubt what the former president meant on Saturday. “I think he’s talking about retribution he would exact on people who would cross him,” said Mr. Bolton, who also served as ambassador to the United Nations. The reference was not about Mr. Trump’s supporters, Mr. Bolton said, but about Mr. Trump himself.
“It would be, first and foremost, getting back at the people he thinks deserve some kind of punishment for not doing what he tells them to do,” Mr. Bolton said. “And it’s a big group of people.”
Understand the Events on Jan. 6
- Timeline: On Jan. 6, 2021, 64 days after Election Day 2020, a mob of supporters of President Donald J. Trump raided the Capitol. Here is a close look at how the attack unfolded.
- A Day of Rage: Using thousands of videos and police radio communications, a Times investigation reconstructed in detail what happened — and why.
- Lost Lives: A bipartisan Senate report found that at least seven people died in connection with the attack.
- Jan. 6 Attendees: To many of those who attended the Trump rally but never breached the Capitol, that date wasn’t a dark day for the nation. It was a new start.
After Mr. Bolton’s public falling-out with Mr. Trump, the former ambassador wrote a detailed book about his time working for the president, describing his behavior as “obstruction of justice as a way of life” and depicting Mr. Trump as endlessly transactional. When Mr. Trump could not persuade a federal judge to block the book’s publication, he threatened Mr. Bolton on Twitter.
Mr. Trump’s comments on Saturday were in his prepared remarks, rather than being off the cuff. His aides seemed pleased with the inherently sinister tone. The remarks were quickly packaged and pinned atop his campaign’s “War Room” Twitter page, and “I am your retribution,” in all capital letters, was turned into the subject line of a fund-raising email.
Mr. Trump’s speech was laced with allusions to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, so far the chief threat to his winning another nomination. He referred, for instance, to “some in our party” who have been open to cutbacks in Social Security. “I wonder who that might be,” Mr. Trump mocked.
Casting himself as a “warrior” was another reminder that Mr. Trump is generally determined to let no one — including a Florida governor fresh off clashes with Disney and the College Board — evince more strength than the former president in warring with the left and its perceived allies.
How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.
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Facing investigations in two states and in two cases overseen by the Justice Department, Mr. Trump repeatedly insisted that the judicial system should not be trusted, holding himself and his supporters up as the true arbiters of justice. Mr. Trump said the same day that he would not exit the presidential race if he were indicted.
Mr. Bolton pointed to another part of Mr. Trump’s speech: “This is it. Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.”
“I think that’s also a signal that he’s not going to accept a second defeat, the same way he didn’t accept the first defeat,” Mr. Bolton said of Mr. Trump’s election lies. Mr. Bolton suggested Mr. Trump’s efforts to stay in power were not a well-oiled plan, but a series of day-to-day impulses he was acting on. But what Mr. Trump is saying now, Mr. Bolton said, is different.
In essence, Mr. Bolton said, the former president is “pretty much calling for something close to civil insurrection.”
Mick Mulvaney, who served as Mr. Trump’s acting chief of staff, saw the speech in terms of its potential to turn off general-election voters who rejected the former president in 2020.
“It’s a great line for his hard-core supporters,” said Mr. Mulvaney, who attended a recent donor retreat hosted by Mr. DeSantis. “But he just lost another two points with suburban women in the Midwest.”
Planning is already underway for 2025 should Mr. Trump win the White House again. Advisers have discussed reimposing a Trump-era executive order, known as Schedule F, that would give the president vast power to replace what have traditionally been civil service workers embedded across the federal bureaucracy.
Mr. Trump alluded to those efforts on Saturday.
“I will totally obliterate the deep state,” he said, “I will fire …” he went on, before being interrupted by applause and “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chants. “I will fire the unelected bureaucrats and shadow forces who have weaponized our justice system like it has never been weaponized before.”
ImageMr. Trump’s comments on Saturday were in his prepared remarks, rather than being off the cuff. His aides seemed pleased with the inherently sinister tone. Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times
Mr. Trump has for decades sought to play the role of victim and vowed vengeance on those who cross him, beginning in 1973 with the first Justice Department investigation into what it said were his family business’s racially discriminatory housing practices, a case he eventually settled. He cried foul in August when the F.B.I. searched his private club, Mar-a-Lago, for classified documents that he had not turned over despite a grand jury subpoena. And he has railed against that investigation and the state inquiries in New York and Georgia, denouncing both prosecutors in those states — who are Black — as “racist” for looking into him.
Jason Stanley, a Yale professor who wrote the book “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them,” said the danger in undermining trust in the rule of law was that it left little alternative to overthrowing or overturning the system itself.
“This is the final battle,” Mr. Trump said on Saturday. “They know it, I know it, you know it, everybody knows it.”
Dr. Stanley said that such language was all the more notable given the context of Jan. 6. “He’s saying it’s a war,” he said. “There is not law versus chaos, there is just him versus his enemies, your enemies.”
He added bluntly, “Trump engages in fascist rhetoric.”
Last month, Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host, asked Mr. Trump directly if he would “use the powers of the presidency to punish people who punished you.”
“No, I wouldn’t do that,” Mr. Trump said, before indulging the topic further. “I would be entitled to a revenge tour, if you want to know the truth,” he said, “but I wouldn’t do that.”
Demanding unconditional loyalty — and promising retaliation if he doesn’t get it — has been so much a fixture of his career that former employees at his company often say the public still doesn’t fully understand what he is capable of.
“If given the opportunity, I will get even with some people that were disloyal to me,” Mr. Trump told Charlie Rose in a November 1992 interview about those who had crossed him during his recent financial struggles.
One dissident member of a board he dealt with, Mr. Trump said, was finally removed “after being hit over the head with a cannon.”
“What was the cannon?” Mr. Rose asked.
“The cannon,” Mr. Trump replied, “was me.”