For Trump, It’s Payback Time

For Trump, It’s Payback Time

Government by state-sponsored vendetta looms

December 21, 2016

In his nine-city victory tour following Election Day, Donald Trump might have been expected to ditch the mean-spirited, personal attacks that had defined his campaign, and sound a more presidential note. After all, in his election night acceptance speech, Trump had exhorted the nation to “bind the wounds of division,” and had graciously thanked Hillary Clinton “for her service to the country.”

Instead, the president-elect’s “thank you” swing through key battleground states was vintage Trump. In Cincinnati, he declared: “We did have a lot of fun fighting Hillary, didn’t we?” as the crowd chanted “Lock Her Up!” In Salt Lake City, he lashed out at popular Utah independent candidate Evan McMullin, calling him only “that guy,” and asking: “What the hell was he trying to prove?” In Hershey, Pennsylvania, he mocked CNN chief national correspondent John King, who had predicted Trump’s loss. He also took digs at Ohio Governor John Kasich, a leading Republican Trump critic, and at one of his favorite punching bags, the “very, very dishonest” news media.

Trump’s score-settling victory tour speaks volumes about what his adversaries should expect once he takes office. Easily offended, pugnacious, and slow to forget, Trump has bragged that his most important business lesson was: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard.” Not content to win, Trump must see his opponents suffer. On the campaign trail, his petty pissing matches coarsened the tone of civil discourse.

Once he is president, however, Trump’s thirst for revenge poses a much more troubling threat: that in his quest for vengeance, he will violate the Constitution and trample on civil liberties. Well known for his obsessive focus on loyalty and payback, Trump may now leverage the government’s full weight to exact revenge on adversaries, wage personal vendettas, advance his business interests, and punish disfavored groups, from Muslims to federal workers, journalists and progressive activists.


AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Brenda Abdelall, of Muslim Advocates, along with Wade Henderson, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Janet Murguia, the President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, and Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, discuss the rise in hate crimes since Trump's election at the National Press Club in Washington. 

To be sure, Trump has made a few stabs at reconciliation. In theory, his late-November declaration that he would no longer seek a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton should have reassured those alarmed by his “Lock Her Up” campaign pledges, which had drawn comparisons to the strong-arm tactics of Ugandan dictator Idi Amim.

But if anything, Trump’s assurances in a New York Times staff interview that he no longer wished to prosecute the rival he once branded as “Crooked Hillary” demonstrated just how prone he might be to abuse his executive power. Trump has no more business calling off a federal probe as he does instigating one, given the protocols that insulate Justice Department criminal investigations from White House political pressure.

Trump’s blithe suggestion that it is time to “move forward” and leave the Clintons alone only underscores the danger that this president, more than any other in recent memory, will call on federal agencies to settle personal and political scores. A recent Trump transition team letter asking the Energy Department to list all employees and contractors who had attended climate change meetings alarmed Democrats on Capitol Hill. Energy officials refused to comply, and transition officials said the letter was “not authorized.” But Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal and several fellow Democrats asked the Office of Special Counsel to investigate whether the letter violated laws that protect civil servants from partisan coercion or retaliation.

Trump certainly wouldn’t be the first president to abuse his presidential authority to engage in political retaliation—think Richard Nixon’s “enemies list,” and Lyndon B. Johnson’s use of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to spy on Republican presidential rival Barry Goldwater. Both presidents also spied on anti-Vietnam War, civil rights, and other leftist groups. Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama stand accused of directing the Internal Revenue Service to audit or sabotage opposition politicians or groups.

But with his litigious business record, penchant for vendettas, and slippery grasp of civil liberties, Trump poses a threat to government impartiality never before seen in the United States. As a real-estate mogul and celebrity, Trump used litigation as his number one negotiating tool, embroiling himself and his businesses in more than 4,000 lawsuits, according to a USA Today tally. Now Trump no longer needs the courts, but may lean on federal agencies to carry out his campaign pledges to promote mass surveillance, punish news organizations, and torture terror suspects. And the normal checks on executive overreach, such as curbs on government surveillance and robust media oversight, have been substantially weakened in recent years.

“Immigrants, Muslims, minorities, people who publicly disagree with the president—all should be worried,” says Frederick A.O. (Fritz) Schwartz, Jr., the chief counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice. Schwartz should know; he served as chief counsel to the Church Committee, the Senate panel that investigated surveillance abuses by the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency during the Watergate years.

Nor is the potential for executive abuses limited to Trump, who has surrounded himself with a coterie of advisers and cabinet picks whose punitive instincts are almost as pronounced as the president-elect’s. These include incoming attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, a GOP senator rejected for a federal judgeship due to his false prosecution of black activists when he was a U.S. Attorney in Alabama, and Mike Pompeo, an aggressively anti-Clinton House Republican who wants to roll back curbs on government surveillance, in line to head the CIA. Trump’s selection of fast-food CEO Andy Puzder, who authored an anti-labor book, to head the Labor Department bodes poorly for unions and workers. So does Trump’s recent Twitter attack on a labor leader who dared to question the president-elect’s deal with Carrier to keep jobs in the U.S.

Joe Catron/Creative Commons

Anti-Trump protesters in New York.  

Trump’s inner circle includes Chief White House Strategist Stephen Bannon, whose Breitbart News Network has served as a platform for the white supremacist “alt-right,” and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who wants to revive an Un-American Activities Committee, like the one that helped Senator Joe McCarthy destroy so many lives. Of course, Gingrich failed to make the cut for Trump’s cabinet, as did Chris Christie, the early Trump backer and New Jersey governor famous for his role in “Bridgegate,” a scheme to snarl traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey, to punish a mayor who had failed to endorse his 2013 re-election. Christie was a victim of what’s been called a “Stalinesque” White House transition purge that reportedly goes back to another revenge-minded Trump adviser, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Christie, it seems, once prosecuted Kushner’s father, who was ultimately imprisoned on tax fraud and other charges in 2004, and Kushner wanted to get even.

The backbiting churn on Trump’s campaign and transition teams, and his reliance on an inner circle of trusted family members and advisers, echo the top-down loyalty purges associated with fascist regimes. That makes some Republicans as vulnerable as Trump’s Democratic opponents. Clashes with such GOP senators as Arizona’s John McCain and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who tangled with Trump on the campaign trail, may complicate Trump’s confirmation and legislative battles.

As Trump campaign surrogate Omarosa Manigault, an Apprentice contestant, told the Independent Journal Review following the election: “Mr. Trump has a long memory, and we’re keeping a list.” Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, found himself on the wrong side of that list when Trump advisers lobbied publicly to block his consideration as secretary of state, citing his attacks on and failure to back Trump during the campaign.


TRUMP’S AIDES HAVE DISMISSED any talk of retribution, but now that the GOP controls both chambers of Congress, the new president will operate unconstrained by the usual check on a runaway chief executive—congressional oversight by an opposing party. Constraints on executive branch agencies have been weakened as well. Following the Watergate scandal and the Church Committee’s report, a series of executive orders limited surveillance and infiltration by the NSA, the FBI, and other federal agencies except in cases involving suspected criminal activity.

But after the 9/11 terror attacks, Congress and the George W. Bush administration substantially broadened federal agencies’ authority to indefinitely detain immigrants and capture domestic telephone, email, and financial records. Following revelations that the NSA was engaged in bulk collection of Americans’ call records, Congress barred that activity with the USA Freedom Act in 2015. But the government’s power to monitor Americans’ communications with no warrant or judicial oversight remains unconstitutionally broad, say civil liberties advocates.

“We have systematically, since 9/11, dismantled the protections that were put in place specifically to stop administrations from harassing political enemies or disfavored minorities,” says Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center’s liberty and national security program. And surveillance, Goitein warns, “is the tool by which vendettas can be realized and played out.”

Trump’s explicit threats against a range of individuals and groups make government-orchestrated payback more than theoretical. Some Trump targets are more vulnerable than others. At the top of the list are Muslims, immigrants and other religious and ethnic minorities. Trump has promoted the surveillance of mosques, stepped-up law enforcement patrols in Muslim neighborhoods, and the establishment of a national database of U.S. Muslims to combat terrorism—all steps that the American Civil Liberties Union has challenged as unconstitutional. He once spoke of a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S., and now proposes a Commission on Radical Islam, sparking religious discrimination fears.

Trump’s pick to be national security adviser, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, has called Islamism a “vicious cancer” that “has to be excised.” The president-elect’s transition team includes former Reagan defense official Frank Gaffney, a man the Southern Poverty Law Center has called “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes,” and who accused Obama of being a secret Muslim. The Council on American-Islamic Relation has penned a letter with 30 other groups asking Obama to toughen protections against domestic surveillance in anticipation of abuses by a Trump administration.

Some immigration lawyers have advised undocumented immigrants to go into hiding following Trump’s pledge to deport two million “criminal illegal immigrants” in his first 100 days, a modification of his initial plan for mass deportations. Muslims, immigrants, Jews, and African Americans have all seen spikes in hate crimes during Trump’s candidacy and since his election.

The media also stand directly in Trump’s line of fire. On the campaign trail, he whipped up crowds to join him in deriding reporters as “scum,” pledged to sue The New York Times (he has yet to follow through), and threatened to retaliate against reporters who fact checked his statements. He also systematically singled out, demeaned, expelled, and denied press credentials to specific organizations and journalists.


Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

Senator Jeff Sessions, speaking in Phoenix. 

On his first visit to the White House to meet with Obama, Trump ditched the customary press corps, a move the White House Correspondents’ Association decried as “unacceptable.” As a businessman, Trump and his companies lodged more than a half-dozen libel suits against news organizations. As a candidate, Trump threatened to “open up our libel laws” to make it easier to sue news outlets—a pledge that he appears to have now sidelined, and that would have been hard to realize in any case, since libel claims are governed by state, not federal, laws.

News organizations arguably helped elect Trump with their wall-to-wall coverage, but are now weaker than ever to stand up to up to him. Newsrooms decimated by economic losses and plunging credibility are now competing not only with fake news circulating on social media, but with ideological outlets such as Breitbart, which may soon function as the administration’s de facto mouthpiece. Breitbart itself has announced plans to lodge a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against an as-yet-unnamed “major media company” for calling it white supremacist.

Trump has even attacked the First Amendment freedoms of actors on the casts of Hamilton and Saturday Night Live, and it’s easy to imagine him directing the Federal Communications Commissions to deny licenses to shows or outlets he doesn’t like. Trump’s anti-media attacks have alarmed the Committee to Protect Journalists, which warned before Election Day that “a Trump presidency represents a threat to press freedom unknown in modern history.”

The calculus by which a President Trump giveth and taketh away may be loyalty and disloyalty, as well. Some state and local officials may cash in on or lose federal dollars under a Trump administration. Will states such as Maine, whose GOP Governor Paul LePage endorsed Trump early on, reap the rewards of federal grants or infrastructure investments under Trump? And will states like Ohio, where Republican Governor John Kasich said Trump was “not prepared” to be president and skipped the GOP Convention, get stiffed? Democratic mayors in Chicago, New York, Seattle, and elsewhere have pledged to protect immigrants from deportation as “sanctuary cities,” despite Trump’s campaign promise to withhold taxpayer dollars from cities that do not cooperate with federal immigration officials.

“We’re in trouble,” West Side Alderman Emma Mitts told the Chicago Tribune, especially when it comes to “infrastructure, any funding that’s coming that they have control over.” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has vowed to keep the city’s police from cooperating with federal mass deportation efforts.

Civil rights activists are also bracing themselves for a surveillance state nightmare. “This is a guy who will have no problem targeting civil rights leaders, targeting reporters,” the Reverend Al Sharpton, who heads the National Action Network, told The Washington Post. “We’re back to a Nixon enemies-list world.” One difference may be that Trump seems less inclined than Nixon to hide his use of the executive branch to punish opponents, and would have a harder time doing so in any case. The same technological advances that now make it easier for the government to spy on citizens also make it harder for federal officials to keep their own activities secret for long. Nevertheless, the warning that Senator Frank Church issued in 1975 seems uncannily prescient today:

“If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny,” Church then said on Meet the Press, “and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know.” That tyranny, Church warned, “is the abyss from which there is no return.” 

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