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Donald Trump ‘Jokes’ Away Questions About Being a Dictator
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Donald Trump ‘Jokes’ Away Questions About Being a Dictator

Plus: Another debate, but don’t expect Trump’s rivals to go after him.

Happy Wednesday! It’s debate night in America once again. Sources close to the Vivek Ramaswamy campaign tell The Dispatch the show “is going to be lit” but decline to elaborate further, so make of that what you will.

Up to Speed

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the former GOP House speaker ousted by a far-right contingent of his own party in October, announced Wednesday he will not run for reelection to Congress next year and will resign from his House seat at the end of this year. “I never could have imagined the journey when I first threw my hat into the ring,” McCarthy wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed announcing his decision. “I go knowing I left it all on the field—as always, with a smile on my face.” The announcement comes one day after Rep. Patrick McHenry, a key McCarthy ally who served as interim speaker after his ouster, said he too would not seek reelection.
  • North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announced Monday he is suspending his presidential campaign. “While this primary process has shaken my trust in many media organizations and political party institutions,” Burgum said in a press release, “it has only strengthened my trust in America.” Burgum, whose most notable moment as a candidate was his gaming the debate-qualification system by paying people to donate to his campaign, never got out of the low single digits in national or early-state polling.
  • Negotiations on a bill that would pair aid to Ukraine and Israel with border-security reforms have ground to a stalemate among negotiators in the Senate, with Democrats unwilling to accept immigration changes Republicans say they won’t move a bill without. Even many of the most outspoken Ukraine hawks among Senate Republicans have said they’ll oppose Biden’s $110 billion package when a procedural vote on it comes to the Senate floor today, accusing Democrats of refusing to negotiate in good faith on a compromise package. “They want tens of billions of dollars to help our friends and allies overseas,” Sen. John Cornyn told the New York Times upon emerging from an abortive negotiating session Tuesday, “but they’re not willing to do what’s necessary to prevent a potential crisis at the border.”
  • An anonymous group of more than 40 White House interns signed a letter this week criticizing the Biden administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war and calling for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. “Our decision to intern for your Administration was driven by our shared values and the profound belief that, under your leadership, America has the potential to be a nation that stands for justice and peace,” the interns wrote. 
  • Nikki Haley had her most successful high-dollar fundraiser Monday, bringing in over $500,000 for her campaign from Wall Street backers at a New York event hosted by former Facebook executive Campbell Brown and hedge-funder Dan Senor. 
  • Haley’s New Hampshire state director Mak Kehoe is parting ways with the campaign “for personal reasons,” the Haley campaign said Tuesday. Deputy state director Tyler Clark will take the helm going into next month’s primary, in a hugely important state for Haley.

Trump Won’t Be a Dictator, ‘Except for Day One’

Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity interviews Donald Trump before a campaign rally at the Las Vegas Convention Center on September 20, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nevada.(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity interviews Donald Trump before a campaign rally at the Las Vegas Convention Center on September 20, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nevada.(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

As Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric to his base keeps getting more openly authoritarian, much of the rest of the Republican Party has responded with a by-now well-practiced move: downplaying or studiously ignoring it. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better illustration of that phenomenon than an exchange that took place early in Trump’s Iowa town hall with Fox News’ Sean Hannity last night.

First, Hannity played a clip of Trump’s now-infamous line from a speech this spring: “In 2016, I declared: I am your voice. Today I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

“I see what the media’s doing now—I put a montage together—they want to call you a dictator,” Hannity said. “I want to be very, very clear on this: To be clear, do you in any way have any plans whatsoever, if reelected president, to abuse power, to break the law, to use the government to go after people?”

This is what we in the news business call a softball, and it was plain Hannity intended it as such. Of course not, Sean, that’s just the lying fake news again.

But Trump didn’t respond like Hannity plainly expected. Here’s what he said instead:

You mean like they’re using right now? So in the history of our country, what’s happened to us, again, has never happened before. Over nonsense, over nothing, made-up charges. I often say Al Capone, he was one of the greatest of all time, if you like criminals. He was a mob boss the likes of which—Scarface, they call him. And he got indicted once, I got indicted four times. I wonder what my father and mother would say looking down.

A few minutes later, Hannity tried again. “I want to go back to this one issue though, because the media has been focused on this and attacking you. Under no circumstances, you are promising America tonight you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?”

“Except for day one,” Trump replied.  

“Except for? …” replied a bemused Hannity. “Except for day one,” Trump repeated.

“Meaning?”

“Meaning I want to close the border and I want to drill, drill, drill.”

“That’s not—that’s not retribution.”

“I love this guy,” Trump grinned to the crowd. “He says, ‘you’re not gonna be a dictator, are you?’ I said, no, no, no. Other than day one. We’re closing the border and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that I’m not a dictator.”

“That—that—that sounds to me like you’re going back to the policies when you were president,” Hannity finished.

It hardly needs saying that Trump was, on a certain level, joking around with that last answer—gleefully leaning into liberal fears that he would act as a dictator in the same way he used to spitball about doing away with presidential term limits. But it still bears noticing: Trump, speaking to a friendly moderator in front of a friendly crowd, offered twice the opportunity to assure them he would remain within the bounds of the law if reelected, chose instead to first double down on his own grievances against his enmities and then to laugh the question off. Hannity, apparently figuring the latter was the best he was going to get, didn’t try to extract any more commitments from Trump about abusing power after that.

GOP Candidates Poised to Skate By Trump Legal Troubles Once More

We’re down to four GOP presidential contenders who will be taking the debate stage in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, tonight: Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Chris Christie. (Donald Trump qualified too, of course, but as usual is electing not to attend.) With time getting very short before next month’s Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, this may be one of the top-tier candidates’ last best chances to gain some ground against Trump—and one another—in those early contests. 

But don’t expect them to go after the former president’s biggest liability: his major legal troubles.

David spent the last few days taking the temperature of top campaign advisers and super PAC strategists for DeSantis and Haley. In a piece for the site today, he outlines how both candidates still think direct shots at Trump’s legal troubles would be likelier to “boomerang” on the one making the attack as to knock any shine off the frontrunner:

“Campaigns are going to behave rationally and it’s currently not in anyone’s interest to head down this road,” a strategist advising a super PAC said. Added a strategist advising one of the campaigns: “Christie sure as hell isn’t getting any traction.” The former New Jersey governor has attacked Trump relentlessly over his myriad ethical and legal scandals. But in New Hampshire, where Christie has campaigned almost exclusively, he’s running third with 11.3 percent.

David also spoke to Matt Gorman, erstwhile spokesman for Sen. Tim Scott’s recently suspended presidential campaign, whose assessment was largely the same: “It doesn’t move a single vote in the Republican primaries. All these pundits love to talk about taking Trump head on. If it were that simple and they’re so smart, they should do it. It takes more strategy than running head first into a wall.”

Check out the whole piece here.

Notable and Quotable 

“He is, number one, from your standpoint, cognitively—you like to use that word, cognitively—he’s not good. But it’s not for me to say.”

—Donald Trump to Sean Hannity on President Joe Biden’s mental fitness for office, December 5, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.