Trump Town Hall Shows His Second-Term Plan: Shattering Even More Norms

In little over an hour, Donald J. Trump suggested the United States should default on its debts for the first time in history, injected doubt over the country’s commitment to defending Ukraine from Russia’s invasion, dangled pardons for most of the Capitol rioters convicted of crimes, and refused to say he would abide by the results of the next presidential election.

The second-term vision Mr. Trump sketched out at a CNN town-hall event on Wednesday would represent a sharp departure from core American values that have been at the bedrock of the nation for decades: its creditworthiness, its credibility with international allies and its adherence to the rule of law at home.

Mr. Trump’s provocations were hardly shocking. His time in office was often defined by a the-rules-don’t-apply-to-me approach to governance and a lack of interest in upholding the post-World War II national security order, and at 76 he is not bound to change much.

But his performance nonetheless signaled an escalation of his bid to bend the government to his wishes as he runs again for the White House, only this time with a greater command of the Republican Party’s pressure points and a plan to demolish the federal bureaucracy.

The televised event crystallized that the version of Mr. Trump who could return to office in 2025 — vowing to be a vehicle of “retribution” — is likely to govern as he did in 2020. In that final year of his presidency, Mr. Trump cleared out people perceived as disloyal and promoted those who would fully indulge his instincts — things he did not always do during the first three years of his administration, when his establishmentarian advisers often talked him out of drastic policy changes.

“From my perspective, there was an evolution of Donald Trump over his four years, with 2020 I think being the most dramatic example of him — the real him,” said Mark T. Esper, who served as Mr. Trump’s defense secretary. “And I suspect that would be his starting point if he were to win office in 2024.”

In a statement, Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Mr. Trump, dismissed criticisms of the former president, who he said “spoke directly to Americans suffering from the Biden decline and President Trump’s desire to bring about security and economic prosperity on Day 1.” He added, “Understandably, this vision is not shared by the failed warmongers, political losers and career bureaucratic hacks — many of whom he fired or defeated — who have created all of America’s problems.”

At the town-hall event, Mr. Trump almost cavalierly floated ideas that would reshape the nation’s standing in the world, vowing to end the Ukraine war within 24 hours and declining to commit to supporting the country, an American ally that has relied on billions of dollars in aid to hold off the Russian onslaught.

“Do you want Ukraine to win this war?” CNN’s Kaitlan Collins pressed.

Mr. Trump evaded.

“I don’t think in terms of winning and losing,” he replied, adding that he was focused on winding down the conflict. “I think in terms of getting it settled so we stop killing all these people.” He did not mention that the killing was initiated by Russia.

Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a Democrat who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and is close to President Biden, said there were fears internationally of Mr. Trump’s return.

“His performance last night just reinforced what so many of our allies and partners have told me concerns them over the past two years — that a return of Trump to the White House would be a return to the chaos,” he said.

Some Republican elected officials who are skeptical of U.S. aid to Ukraine praised Mr. Trump’s performance. Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio called his Ukraine answer “real statesmanship.”

Mr. Miller argued that Mr. Trump had an “entire term with no new wars, and he’s ready to do it again.”

In New Hampshire, the audience of Republicans lapped up Mr. Trump’s one-liners and slew of insults — to Ms. Collins (a “nasty person,” he jeered, echoing his old attack on Hillary Clinton), to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to E. Jean Carroll, the woman whom a jury this week found Mr. Trump liable of sexually abusing and defaming. And the crowd expressed no dissent as he again tried to rewrite the history of Jan. 6, 2021, when his supporters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn his election loss.

“It was a beautiful day,” Mr. Trump said.

If he becomes president again, he said, he would “most likely” pardon “a large portion” of his supporters who were convicted over their actions on Jan. 6. “They were there with love in their heart,” he said of the crowd, which he beamed had been the “largest” of his career.

“You see what you’re going to get, which is a presidency untethered to the truth and untethered to the constitutional order,” said Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the Republican Party’s most prominent Trump critic remaining on Capitol Hill. “The idea that people who’ve been convicted of crimes are all going to be pardoned, or for the most part pardoned, is quite a departure from the principles of the Constitution and of our party.”

Mr. Trump also embraced the possibility of defaulting in the debt-ceiling standoff between President Biden and congressional Republicans, an act that economists say could spell catastrophe for the global economy.

“You might as well do it now because you’ll do it later, because we have to save this country,” Mr. Trump said. “Our country is dying.”

Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican who is running a long-shot campaign for president in 2024, said Mr. Trump’s potential return to the White House posed an “enormous” risk for the nation.

“He has shown such a disrespect for our institutions of government that are critical to our democracy,” Mr. Hutchinson said, adding that he had been particularly unnerved by the talk of defaulting. “He talked like it was OK for the United States to default on the debt. And that’s like putting his past business practices of using bankruptcy as a tool and applying that to the government.”

Despite such warnings from old-guard Republicans, the cheers from the conservative crowd in New Hampshire during the CNN event were an audible reminder of Mr. Trump’s sizable lead in Republican primary polls.

Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush’s two presidential victories, said in an interview that “for true believers and ardent supporters, it was a boffo performance” by Mr. Trump. But he said that other Republicans would now be forced to answer for “a big pile of noxious material on their doorsteps.”

“Do other Republicans believe that rioters who attacked police, broke into the Capitol on Jan. 6 and, in some cases, attempted to overthrow the government should be pardoned?” Mr. Rove asked. “Do other Republicans agree that it doesn’t matter if the United States government defaults on its debt? Do other Republicans not care who wins in Ukraine?”

One of the most controversial policies of Mr. Trump’s presidency was the forced separation of migrant parents from their children at the southern border, which Mr. Trump reversed himself on in June 2018 after a huge backlash.

But during the town hall on Wednesday, Mr. Trump suggested he would revive it. “Well, when you have that policy, people don’t come,” he said. “If a family hears they’re going to be separated, they love their family, they don’t come.”

Casual observers might be inclined, as some did in 2016, to take Mr. Trump’s most extreme statements, such as his casual embrace of allowing the nation to default, seriously but not literally.

But underneath Mr. Trump’s loose talk are detailed plans to bulldoze the federal civil service. These proposals have been incubating for more than two years within a network of well-funded and Trump-connected outside groups.

In the final, chaotic weeks of the 2020 election, Mr. Trump’s lawyers, having crafted a novel legal theory in strict secrecy, released an executive order known as Schedule F that aimed to wipe out most employment protections against firing for tens of thousands of federal workers.

Mr. Trump ran out of time to carry out that plan. But a constellation of conservative groups has been preparing to revive the effort if he regains the presidency in 2025.

Pressed by Ms. Collins, Mr. Trump would not say he was willing to accept the 2024 results.

Former Representative Liz Cheney, who lost her Republican primary bid for re-election after helping lead the House’s investigation into Jan. 6, said of the Trump town hall, “Virtually everything Donald Trump says enhances the case against him.”

“Donald Trump made clear yet again that he fully intended to corruptly obstruct Congress’s official proceeding to count electoral votes in order to overturn the 2020 election,” said Ms. Cheney, who has made opposing Mr. Trump’s return to power her top political priority since her defeat last year. “He says what happened on Jan. 6 was justified, and he celebrates those who attacked our Capitol.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Trump also denounced his former vice president, Mike Pence, for upholding the 2020 election results and waved off the suggestion that Mr. Pence had been at risk on Jan. 6, even though the Secret Service tried to evacuate him from the Capitol.

“I don’t think he was in any danger,” Mr. Trump said.

Marc Short, who was with Mr. Pence that day as his chief of staff, called out Mr. Trump’s double standard in defending violence by his supporters while claiming to broadly stand for law and order.

“Many of us called for the prosecution of B.L.M. rioters when they destroyed private businesses,” Mr. Short said, referring to Black Lives Matter supporters. “It’s hard to see how there’s a different threshold when rioters injure law enforcement, threaten public officials and loot the Capitol.”

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