American Autocracy: Trump Is Intent on Persecuting His Perceived Enemies

Donald Trump and Joe Biden during a presidential debate on Oct. 22, 2020. (Pavlo Conchar / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump has said he will be a dictator on “day one.” He and his advisors and associates have publicly discussed hundreds of further actions to be taken during a second Trump presidency that directly threaten democracy, the rule of law, as well as U.S. (and global) security. We ignore leaders who promise dictatorship—and those who enable them—at our own peril. The United States, like many other functioning democracies, is hardly immune from backsliding and lurching toward autocracy.

In this three-part American Autocracy series, we track Trump’s comments on feminist issues. This installment: his stance on political enemies and those who disagree with him. (Parts one and two explore the threat a Trump presidency poses for abortion and the LGBTQ+ community.)

The autocracy threat tracker was originally published on Just Security, an online forum for the rigorous analysis of security, democracy, foreign policy and rights. The authors will continue to update that version of the tracker. Below is an excerpt.

Persecuting His Perceived Political Enemies and Demonizing Americans With Whom He Disagrees

Trump has vowed to use the Justice Department to investigate and criminally punish President Biden and his family.

  • Jan. 8, 2024, Truth Social: “If I don’t get Immunity, then Crooked Joe Biden doesn’t get Immunity […] Joe would be ripe for Indictment. By weaponizing the DOJ against his Political Opponent, ME, Joe has opened a giant Pandora’s Box.”
  • Aug. 15, 2023: Trump said, “[A]s soon as I am reelected, I will appoint a real special counsel, or maybe you’ll call him a special prosecutor, whatever you want to call it … to look at all of these bribes, kickbacks, and other crimes, as well as the shameless attempt at a coverup. Justice will be done. The Biden crime family will be looked at. We have to get there first, we have to win the election. They’re trying to step in my way at every path because the one person they don’t want to run is Donald Trump. But when we get there, the Biden crime family will pay a price like other people are being forced to pay. And that price will be very, very substantial.”
  • Aug. 5, 2023, South Carolina GOP event, Trump said: “From the first day in office, I will appoint a special prosecutor to study each and every one of the many claims being brought forth by Congress concerning all of the crooked acts, including the bribes from China and many other countries, that go into the coffers of the Biden crime family.”
  • June 13, 2023, Bedminister, N.J.: “I will appoint a real special prosecutor to go after the most corrupt president in the history of the United States of America, Joe Biden, and the entire Biden crime family.”
  • June 27, 2023, Concord, N.H., Trump said: “I will appoint a real special prosecutor to investigate the Biden bribery and crime ring.”
  • Jan. 9, 2024, Washington, D.C.: “I feel that as a president, you have to have immunity, very simple…It’s the opening of a Pandora’s box and it’s a very, very sad thing that’s happened with this whole situation.”

Trump has suggested prosecuting his political opponents as well as those “who have become critical of his time in office.”

  • Nov. 9, 2023, Trump said: “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’d be out of business. They’d be out of the election.”
  • Nov. 8 , 2023, Hialeah, Fla., Trump said: “Now that he indicted me, we’re allowed to look at him. But he did real bad things.”
  • Oct. 9, 2023, Wolfeboro, N.H.: Trump said, “This is third-world-country stuff, ‘arrest your opponent.’ And that means I can do that, too.”
  • June 13, 2023, The Howie Carr Show: Trump warned that charges against him have “opened Pandora’s box” in terms of political investigations, ominously adding, “You will see what happens.”

Trump has also suggested that Jan. 6 committee members should go to prison.

Trump has expressed support for executing high-ranking American government officials, and while in office he used the levers of government to harass and intimidate his political opponents.

As president, Trump tried to influence DOJ investigations despite knowing that he was not supposed to do so.

  • Trump claimed in an interview with the New York Times in December 2017 to have “an absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department.”
  • Trump signaled he would end the independence of the Department of Justice. Russell Vought, Trump’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget and potential White House chief of staff in a second Trump administration, wrote in a statement that the Justice Department was “ground zero for the weaponization of the government against the American people.” Trump has talked about investigating and removing federal, state, and local prosecutors.
  • June 10, 2023, GOP Convention, Ga., Trump called Jack Smith and others at the Justice Department “a sick nest of people that needs to be cleaned out immediately.”
  • April 27, 2023, Manchester, N.H., Trump promised to use the Justice Department to investigate local prosecutors and attorneys general: “On Day One of my new administration, I will direct the D.O.J. to investigate every radical district attorney and attorney general in America for their illegal, racist-in-reverse enforcement of the law.”
  • Aug. 5, 2023, South Carolina GOP event, Trump said: “But to investigate every radical DA and AG, and they all coordinate, you know, the Democrats. They all coordinate with the DOJ. But we’re gonna investigate every single one in America for their illegal racist-in-reverse enforcement of the law.”
  • Trump understood he was not supposed to get involved with Justice Department investigations: “[B]ecause I am the President of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things I would love to be doing and I am very frustrated by it.”

Trump rebuked chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley’s proper attempts to quell potential conflict between the U.S. and China as “treasonous” and once punishable by death.

He publicly demanded the DOJ investigate the FBI for its investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russia.

  • May 20, 2018, Twitter: “I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”

He publicly called for an investigation into Nancy Pelosi and her alleged links to Russia.

  • March 3, 2017, Twitter: “I hereby demand a second investigation, after Schumer, of Pelosi for her close ties to Russia, and lying about it.”

In March 2017, he publicly ridiculed Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and asked him to reverse his decision.

He claimed the Mueller investigation was “an illegal investigation” and that “there never should have been a special counsel.”

He called for the Justice Department to investigate Hillary Clinton for “all of the dishonesty.”

  • Nov. 3, 2017, Twitter, Trump said: “Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems. New Donna B book says she paid for and stole the Dem Primary.” “At some point the Justice Department, and the FBI, must do what is right and proper. The American public deserves it!”
  • In April 2018, Trump told White House counsel Donald McGahn that he wanted the Justice Department to prosecute Clinton.

He urged FBI Director James Comey to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn, his first national security advisor and staunch political ally.

He has called those who don’t support his reelection “demonic forces, abolishing and demolishing—and happily doing so—our country.”

  • Veterans Day 2023: At a Veterans Day rally, Trump said he would “root out” political opponents who “live like vermin within the confines of our country” warning that the greatest threats come “from within” (words that according to ABC News and others “echoed those of past fascist dictators like Hitler and Benito Mussolini,” and alarmed historians).
  • March 6, 2023, CPAC conference: Trump said, “If those opposing us succeed, our once beautiful U.S.A. will be a failed country that no one will even recognize. A lawless, open-borders, crime-ridden, filthy, communist nightmare. That’s what it’s going and that’s where it’s going … Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.”
  • Oct. 22, 2023, Truth Social, Trump said: “Democrat politicians, mainstream media personnel and Hollywood actors and producers are brazen unapologetic Communists”

In the edition of the tracker published on Just Security, the authors suggest several bipartisan solutions to autocratic threats. Read them here.

Up next:

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About , , , and

Ambassador Norman Eisen (ret.) served in the White House as special counsel and special assistant to the president for ethics and government reform and as ambassador to the Czech Republic under President Barack Obama, as well as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee from 2019–20, including for the first impeachment and trial of President Donald Trump. He’s on X/Twitter at @NormEisen.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. She writes about fascism, authoritarianism and propaganda—and the threats these present to democracies around the world.
Siven Watt is a legal fellow at Just Security. He’s on X/Twitter at @SivenWatt .
Andrew Warren has served as the duly-elected state attorney in Tampa, Fla., since 2016. Warren previously served as a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice. He’s on X/Twitter at @AndrewWarrenFL. .
Francois Barrilleaux is a research assistant at State Democracy Defenders Action where he project manages amicus briefs, op-eds and legal essays. He’s on X/Twitter at @FrenchwaEB.