The events of recent months have quashed any remaining notion that Donald Trump might abandon his quest for political power after being turned out of office by voters two years ago. He is still holding his trademark rallies, sometimes complete with QAnon call-outs, in principle to support Republican candidates but in practice holding on to center stage to hawk his own accomplishments and grievances.

The former president has had plenty of help in staying in the public eye. The House’s January 6 Committee recently voted to subpoena him to testify. The FBI raided Mar-a-Lago, his home in Palm Beach, Florida, in search of classified documents he kept after leaving office. And multiple other legal woes have ensured that some news of each day features Trump.

President Donald Trump’s second term.
Photo-illustration by Gluekit; Source photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty

A Trump bid for the White House in 2024 is looking increasingly likely. Despite his legal troubles, he remains a strong favorite among Republicans, of whom only a quarter prefer that he sit the next one out, according to a September poll. A criminal charge against Trump would barely shake the devotion of his political base, the same poll says; judging by the reaction to the Mar-a-Lago raid, it might even fire up his supporters all the more. Not even a conviction, complete with a prison sentence, need prevent him from running: Eugene V. Debs, a labor activist, ran for president in 1920 while serving a six-month sentence for his role in a railroad strike.

If Trump does run and his opponent is Joe Biden, he’d win, according to at least one recent poll. As the possibility of a potential Trump second term presents itself, more Americans will wonder—or worry, given that 61 percent, mostly Democrats and independents, don’t want him to run—what the 45th President of the United States might do as the 47th president.

In recent speeches, Trump has conjured a dark vision, reminiscent of the American carnage speech he gave at his inauguration in 2017: an America going up in flames with the blessings of a cabal of progressive Democrats and their puppet masters. “There is no higher priority than cleaning up our streets, controlling our borders, stopping the drugs from pouring in and quickly restoring law and order in America,” Trump said in a speech this summer. “Despite great outside dangers, our biggest threat in this country remains the sick, sinister and evil people from within.”

The specifics of Trump 47’s policies—to the extent that Trump bothers with policies—are a matter of speculation. But some broader actions seem certain, according to current and former Trump insiders interviewed by Newsweek: avoiding his first-term approach of appointing people who might protect him from his worst instincts and instead packing the administration with loyalists; trying to get a firmer grip on the military with an eye to consolidating power; drastically shrinking the civil service and throwing a steady diet of red-meat culture-war goodies at his base.

These policies would open the door even wider than it already is to the disenfranchisement of voters, including Blacks, LGBTQ people and Native Americans. The FBI, Internal Revenue Service and the military could be harnessed to harass or imprison his political enemies. Foreign policy would be turned on its head, as Trump resumes his antagonism toward allies in Europe and renews his friendship with Vladimir Putin. And basic democratic norms, such as the constitutional prohibition of a third presidential term, could give way.

In other words, it would be classic Trump—but more so, and with fewer obstacles standing in his way. “If you thought it was insane during his first term, you haven’t seen anything yet,” says Reed Galen, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, a Republican-run political action committee that opposes Trump and Trumpism.

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Donald Trump makes the keynote speech on the last day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016.
David Hume Kennerly/Getty

A Cabinet of Cronies

Mired as he may still be in criminal investigations, and possibly having been charged with crimes and conceivably even convicted, Trump’s very first move at regaining the presidency may well be to pardon himself, along with family members and key friends and supporters, from all crimes. He has already stated he would pardon the January 6 insurrectionists, and he might use pardons throughout a second term to thrill his base with impunity from disruptive or even violent acts of protest, or a rebellion that might otherwise be prosecutable.

While pardoning himself would make most of his criminal problems evaporate, state charges—such as those brewing in Georgia over his pressure to overturn the 2020 election results—are immune to presidential pardons. But the Supreme Court is likely to ensure that state charges, as well as any civil complaints pending against him, would be put on hold during his second term. “As long as he’s president, he’s got pretty complete protection from legal problems,” says Russ Tremayne, an associate professor emeritus of history at the College of Southern Idaho.

Once the immediate threat of legal action is gone, Trump would be free to focus on filling the executive branch with supporters, from the 15 cabinet heads on down. One lesson Trump drew from his first term is to prize loyalty over all else, including political views, experience and competence, says Todd Belt, director of the George Washington University Political Management program. “He’ll try to hollow out the executive branch so he can put in people who pass some sort of loyalty test,” he says. “In the first term you saw people around him who were trying to save him from his own worst tendencies, but you won’t see many of those next time around.”

Some of the likely contenders for key roles are already identifiable, says the Lincoln Project’s Galen. “The people in Trump’s orbit at the end of his first term were all singularly unqualified for the job,” he says, “but now they’d come back with a better understanding of how to get things done.” These Trump ultra-loyalists would be given key posts at the State Department, the Department of Justice, the CIA, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies.

There’s no shortage of people and organizations that are reportedly developing lists of Trump loyalists suitable as second-term political appointees. They include the America First Policy Institute and the Heritage Foundation, both dedicated to empowering Trump, and Ginni Thomas, spouse of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, among others.

“I spent basically the final year of his first term mapping out a second-term agenda,” says Brooke Rollins, director of the Domestic Policy Council during the Trump administration. She is now president and CEO of the America First Policy Institute, which has close ties to Trump. “I’m hoping that on day one of his second term we’ll be ready with an even more productive and compelling way to serve the American people.”

She offers former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt, who served as Trump’s Interior Secretary, as an example of the sort of people who are likely to be reinstalled and who now better know their way around government. Bernhardt opened more public land to oil and gas drilling, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, relaxed energy-industry regulation and weakened endangered species protections. Trump must have liked his work: He was designated to take over the government in the event of a catastrophe during Trump’s 2020 State of the Union Address.

Among those likely candidates for top White House and cabinet positions: Stephen Miller, who served in Trump’s White House as a speechwriter and policy advisor and was the architect of many anti-immigrant stances and policies; former general and Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn, a QAnon supporter who pled guilty to lying to the FBI before being pardoned by Trump; Jeffrey Clark, a former assistant attorney general for the DOJ who actively plotted to override Biden’s election win and whom Trump tried to name attorney general until the threat of mass DOJ resignations intervened and Kash Patel, former Trump acting United States secretary of defense, who has been dedicated to raising support for various Trump causes, such as building a fund to sue journalists and writing a children’s book that portrays the Russian election interference investigations as a nefarious plot to undermine Trump.

The U.S. Constitution requires that top cabinet officials be confirmed by the Senate, but Trump is unlikely to have the strong Republican majority he’d need to make that process go smoothly. He will likely follow his first-term playbook in leaving many of his appointees in acting capacities rather than seeing them blocked in the Senate, says John Bolton, who was Trump’s national security advisor until he resigned in 2019 after 18 months.

“He’ll fill his administration with flunkies who will never get confirmed,” says Bolton. “In the national security field, I couldn’t name three people who would even be willing to consider being part of a Trump second term.” Even if Trump does manage to get some nominees confirmed, he adds, they aren’t likely to last long given the high rate of turnover in Trump’s first administration.

As acting officials, Trump’s appointees will be able to carry out a deep purge of government. His acting cabinet officials would install loyalists in the top level of the civil service who would in turn appoint other loyalists under them, comprising as many as 4,000 political appointees across the federal government.

Trump has already tipped his hand about how he plans to dismantle the “deep state,” an imagined army of liberals permeating government down through the civil service that’s prepared to undermine conservative values at every turn. In late October 2020, during the closing days of the term, the Trump administration issued a new job classification for civil service employees: the Schedule F appointment, which allows the reclassifying of tens of thousands of civil-service jobs as positions that can help shape federal policy. Although it almost sounds like a promotion, it’s anything but. Being reclassified under Schedule F would remove all civil-service protections against being fired, leaving employees vulnerable to the political whims of their superiors, just as any political appointee might be.

Upon gaining the presidency, Biden immediately got rid of Schedule F, but Trump could simply bring it back. One result, says Rollins, would be to disempower the federal government in some areas and shrink it. “There’ll be a return to across-the-board deregulation,” she says.

The plan would have a devastating impact on broad swaths of federal employees, claims Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union. “The non-political civil service will be destroyed, and government will be filled with administration flunkies,” he says. “You can expect overt discrimination against Blacks, Jews, Latinos, and gays and lesbians. It’s going backwards decades.” Kelley adds that the attack on the civil service will be the leading edge of a broader dismantling of government programs that will see the privatization of Medicare, Social Security and other services.

Rollins, though, sees it differently. “Toward the end of the first term, we figured out how to root out decades of federal agency growth that happened under both parties and how to deconstruct it in a productive way,” she says. “The bureaucracy morphed into having a goal of protecting the bureaucracy, instead of serving the American people. Schedule F is a small part of giving the CEO of the federal government a way to ensure that his team of 2-million-plus people is aligned with his mission.”

Another former senior administration official, who asked not to be named, dismisses complaints about Schedule F as the product of entitlement. “Civil service bureaucrats lose their minds over many things,” the former official says. “If you take their parking space they act like their pet’s head fell off.”

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Stephen Miller.
Anna Moneymaker/Bloomberg/Getty

Consolidating Power

Once surrounded by loyalists, Trump would likely embark on a spree of executive orders intended to undo as many of the Biden administration’s accomplishments as possible. “When you get a second bite at the apple, you have to move fast before the other side has a chance to build up resistance,” says the Lincoln Project’s Galen. Executive orders allow the president to alter the shape of everything from economic policy to trade to social welfare without having to persuade Congress to pass laws. Trump issued 220 executive orders as president, compared to the 147 Barack Obama issued in his first term.

Executive orders often end up in a gray area of the Constitution that puts them in conflict with the rights of Congress to govern the country through lawmaking—for instance, one of Trump’s first executive orders was a failed attempt to undo Obamacare. Trump’s orders in a second term will likewise be challenged in a stream of lawsuits. But given that Trump himself appointed about one quarter of the federal judges currently serving, including half of the Supreme Court’s six-justice conservative majority, those orders might fare reasonably well.

Next up in Trump’s efforts to consolidate power would probably be to exert more control over the military. The Constitution forbids U.S. presidents from using the military domestically and, by longstanding tradition, from deploying federal law enforcement agencies to further political agendas. But in 2020, during his first term, Trump used Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, as well as Customs and Border Protection agents, to monitor—and in some cases confront and detain—Black Lives Matter protesters. As many as 700 agents were deployed in Washington, D.C., alone. After the bizarre photo op alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, after police violently cleared protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House, Milley later reportedly said he feared Trump would try to stage a military coup to stay in office after losing the election. Milley apologized for participating in the photo op.

In a second term, Trump might do much more to try to bend the military to his will, and to mobilize federal law-enforcement agencies to harass those he perceives as enemies. He would start by trying to fire and replace as many military leaders likely to resist him as possible, insists Tremayne. “He would absolutely be able to put in people who are loyal to him in the military,” he says.

To help bring the military under his influence, Trump would probably throw a lot of money at the Pentagon‘s budget, notes Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and a former Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs. “I suspect defense spending would be a high priority,” he says.

Trump would also quickly clean house at the DOJ, including purging the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies, and installing leaders bent on investigating Democratic opponents and putting on shows of force against liberal protests.

“More than anything else, Trump wants revenge,” says Bolton. The election loss in 2020 and various investigations into his actions have left Trump highly motivated to combat any perception of his being a loser, says Bolton.

The results would turn various arms of government into instruments of Trump’s ire and insecurity. “He’ll direct the Justice Department and the IRS to control and harass his political opponents,” says Galen. “Who will tell him that he can’t?” Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has said as much out loud.

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John Bolton.
Mark Wilson/Getty
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The Supreme Court on October 7, 2022.
Eric Lee/Bloomberg/Getty

America Abroad

Once he’s remade the government, Trump will look overseas for opportunities to exercise his power and influence. In a second term, he might well follow through on his threats to pull out of NATO, as well as ending commitments to various allies around the world, including Japan and South Korea. “I think he might try to get the U.S. out of these alliances,” says Princeton’s Friedberg. “He never expressed any interest in or understanding of them.”

A spokesperson for the Center for Renewing America, another organization with close ties to Trump, puts it this way: “He wants to end overseas entanglements, like the idea that we need to jump in on the Ukraine conflict and shovel money at them.”

Trump 47 would take an even tougher line on China than 45, says Friedberg, and for that reason might even strengthen commitments to protect Taiwan. He would also likely continue to treat Putin as a potential ally. “Trump seemed eager to cultivate his favor,” Friedberg says. “He claims he’d do a lot to help Ukraine, but I’m skeptical. I think he’d be sympathetic to Putin’s arguments.” But Trump’s impulsiveness, he adds, makes it impossible to predict what he would do in a given scenario.

Bolton attributes Trump’s unpredictability in foreign affairs to his limited ability to grasp them. “When I was his national security advisor, he didn’t seem to understand what I was saying in many areas,” says Bolton, invoking Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, who reportedly called Trump a “moron” after a Pentagon meeting. (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly claimed the phrase was “fucking moron.”) Says Bolton: “I’d point to Rex Tillerson’s iconic two-word description of Trump, and I don’t know that that’s changed.”

Bolton argues that Trump’s weak mastery of international relations could be disastrous for America and the world if a nuclear crisis emerges during his second term—an increasingly likely prospect, given Putin’s ongoing threats to use nukes against Ukraine. “Trump would be dangerous because he doesn’t understand what nuclear weapons mean in national security strategy,” he says. “There would be a meltdown in the Oval Office.”

Nor would Trump bring much nuance to foreign trade, Bolton adds. “His approach would be to try to make deals that are bigger and better than anyone else’s,” he says. “He wanted the publicity from making the deal of the century with China, but it didn’t work. He couldn’t define the deal of the century.” Most likely, says Friedberg, Trump would just resume heading down the protectionist path of his first term by trying to extract concessions, mostly from U.S. allies, wielding the threat of tariffs.

The Agenda

Egged on by his base and by ideologues and trusted advisers like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, who served briefly as a Trump White House strategist, Trump would double down on his culture-war, hot-button agenda. He’s as much as said he intends to continue the controversial policies of his first term. “We would continue what we’re doing, we’d solidify what we’ve done, and we have other things on our plate that we want to get done,” Trump told The New York Times‘ Peter Baker in August, 2020. Among the likely agenda items:

▸ The Economy: The America First Policy Institute’s Rollins describes the core of Trump’s planned second-term economic policy in one phrase: “More tax cuts.” She adds: “But it won’t be complete austerity. He’ll be looking at infrastructure investments, and ways to restore the flow of capital into America’s forgotten communities.” She says Black and Hispanic communities would benefit from these programs, which would encourage investment in local businesses.

▸ Immigration: Trump might finally get to build his wall. “He’d definitely try,” says George Washington’s Belt. “Authoritarians love monuments to themselves.” Rollins agrees it’s a sure thing: “It’s 100 percent he’ll build it,” she says. More troublingly to those outside his base, Trump would enact ever harsher policies aimed at keeping would-be immigrants out and deporting undocumented immigrants. “He’d go out of his way to detain people, to separate families, and to ship people back across the border,” says Galen. “It would be a big increase in scale and speed compared to his first term, with Trump exerting government authority wherever he could.” These efforts would take a big toll on farmers, many of whom are heavily dependent on undocumented workers—but farmers tend to be Trump supporters, so they won’t pressure him much to ease up.

▸ Environment: Trump’s policy here would be simple enough, says Belt. “He’ll cancel all U.S obligations on slowing climate change,” he says, “and open natural gas and oil exploration, along with clean coal.” Subsidies and tax breaks for electric cars and other green-energy initiatives would go out the window.

▸ Religion: “We’ll see prayer in schools, and the Supreme Court will say it’s OK,” says Galen. “Trump doesn’t care one way or another about religion, to him it’s just about power. If his evangelical base wants it, then sure, they can have it as a reward for their support.” Religious groups would also receive support from the Trump administration in their efforts to ban birth control and discriminate against gay and trans people, including giving states the right to ban gay marriage. The Supreme Court may be ready to let it happen. In addition, Rollins says a second Trump administration will push to support charter schools, many of which are religious. “Especially after the COVID years, we see a lot more interest in that from parents,” she says.

▸ Healthcare: Trump will take another run at Obamacare, says Rollins. That’s in spite of previous attempts that failed for lack of any clear alternative. “We’re building out a healthcare plan that, unlike Medicare-for-all or socialized medicine, will begin to focus on cost and putting the patient and doctor back in charge of the system.”

▸ Election rights: There’s little doubt that a second Trump administration would push hard to make voting as restrictive and inconvenient as possible, fighting to eliminate all forms of voting other than filling out a paper ballot at a polling place on election day. The stated reason would be to prevent the sort of massive fraud that Trump contends cost him the 2020 election, though the claims of election fraud, made without evidence, have been thoroughly debunked. The real goal of the push for restrictions would be to favor Trump-supporting candidates,
because historically raising barriers to voting tends to cost Democrats more votes than Republicans.

And, of course, Trump will fight any effort to restore abortion rights or restrict gun rights, says Rollins. “These differing-values issues will take center stage,” she says.

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Trump in the White House in July 22, 2020.
Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg/Getty
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A demonstrator in front of Trump Tower in New York City in August.
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty

Beyond A Second Term

One fact might haunt Trump during a second term: the U.S. Constitution specifies that it would be his last. But could he find a way to stay in power?

A Constitutional amendment removing the limitation of two presidential terms is virtually out of the question, given that it requires a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress or a constitutional convention requested by two-thirds of the states. That means any scenario in which Trump stays in power would have to involve some sort of extraordinary disruption to the democratic process of choosing and transferring power to a new president.

That could take the form of a mass insurrection: a Trump-declared, military-backed national emergency in which new elections are suspended or the results thrown out because of alleged fraud. That America might in six years be going down one of these paths almost beggars belief. But it’s possible Trump might do his best to engineer it and in some ways he has been laying the groundwork, says Belt. “If we have a second Trump presidency, he will have ridden in on a tide of distrust in our electoral institutions,” he says. “America will have already gotten to a point where that sort of authoritarianism is a possibility.”

Tremayne draws parallels between Trump and Juan Perón, the president of Argentina who managed to serve four terms between 1946 and 1974, maintaining power intermittently not only through elections but through a military coup that first helped him come to prominence and later, when he was in jail, by bringing masses of working-class supporters into the streets. At times he effectively retained power even when he was not president.

Trump may be well on his way to amassing a similar type of fanatical support, which might allow him to defy the norms of democracy and retain power, notes Tremayne. “Whoever controls the mobs in the street has the biggest military,” he says. “Trumpism is like Peronism. Seventy percent of Republicans in Idaho don’t think Biden is the legitimate President. Democracy may already be toast.”

Bolton, too, can envision Trump trying to hang on past a second term. But he also suggests an alternative, far more benign vision of how Trump might cope with the hard stop that in principle awaits him at the end of that term. “In a second term, Trump will start thinking about his legacy,” he says. “He doesn’t want to go down in history as a loser. And because his supporters can’t vote for him anymore, he won’t care what they think.”

Liberated from having to play to his base, says Bolton, Trump may attempt to establish himself as someone who can restore balance to a deeply polarized America, putting behind him the fact that he himself is responsible for much of that polarization. “People think Trump is a conservative, but he’s not,” says Bolton. “Jared [Kushner, his son-in-law and former advisor] and Ivanka [Trump, his daughter and former advisor] are basically Manhattan liberals. If they said to him his next Supreme Court nomination should be a liberal, he might listen.”

The notion that Trump has been playing at being an arch-conservative to fire up his base isn’t that fantastic; he was a registered Democrat for eight years until 2009. A Trump 47 who dropped his flamethrower to pick up a fire extinguisher might be a possibility. He showed hints of being a bridge-builder early in his first term.

Bolton is quick to hedge that bet. “In the Trump universe,” he says, “you can’t rule anything out.”

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President Donald Trump’s second term.
Photo-illustration by Gluekit; Source photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty
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