The Atlantic’s new issue sounds alarm over second Trump term

The Hill

The Atlantic’s new issue sounds alarm over second Trump term

Lauren Sforza – December 4, 2023

The Atlantic’s new issue sounds alarm over second Trump term

The Atlantic’s newest issue is sounding the alarm over a potential second term by former President Trump, warning that another four years under the former president would be worse than the first.

For The Atlantic’s January/February issue, the magazine published a 24-article project titled “If Trump Wins” to outline what a second Trump presidency would look like. The magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, wrote an editor’s note titled, “A Warning,” to introduce the series, which largely argues against another Trump term.

He wrote that for a short-lived period he believed Trump would never be a candidate for the White House again. He said this period lasted only from Jan. 6, 2021, to Jan. 28, 2021 — the date when former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) visited the former president at his Mar-a-Lago residence.

“And so here we are. It is not a sure thing that Trump will win the Republican nomination again, but as I write this, he’s the prohibitive front-runner. Which is why we felt it necessary to share with our readers our collective understanding of what could take place in a second Trump term,” Goldberg wrote.

“Our team of brilliant writers makes a convincingly dispositive case that both Trump and Trumpism pose an existential threat to America and to the ideas that animate it. The country survived the first Trump term, though not without sustaining serious damage. A second term, if there is one, will be much worse,” Goldberg continued.

Goldberg emphasized that The Atlantic is not a partisan magazine, noting that its issues with the former president do not stem from him being a Republican.

“We believe that a democracy needs, among other things, a strong liberal party and a strong conservative party in order to flourish. Our concern is that the Republican Party has mortgaged itself to an antidemocratic demagogue, one who is completely devoid of decency,” he wrote.

David Frum, a staff writer for The Atlantic, used his piece to argue that Trump would lurch the country into a “constitutional crisis” if elected again. Frum was a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush.

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Frum wrote that his article argues that “Trump’s attempt to destroy the legal system will lead — not to dictatorship — but to chaos, to the paralysis of the presidency, the US government, an open door to US enemies.”

The New York Times also published an article Monday pushing back on a second Trump term that argued his win could lead to a “more radical” term than the first.

“As he runs for president again facing four criminal prosecutions, Mr. Trump may seem more angry, desperate and dangerous to American-style democracy than in his first term. But the throughline that emerges is far more long-running: He has glorified political violence and spoken admiringly of autocrats for decades,” according to the article.

Trump’s campaign dismissed The Atlantic’s articles in a statement to The Hill.

“This is nothing more than another version of the media’s failed and false Russia collusion hoax,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement. “The Atlantic will be out of business soon because nobody will read that trash.”

A New Trump Administration Will ‘Come After’ the Media, Says Kash Patel

Donald Trump, who has already promised to use the Justice Department to “go after” his political adversaries, is expected to install Mr. Patel in a senior role if he returns to power.

By Jonathan Swan, Maggie Haberman and Charlie Savage December 5, 2023

Kash Patel stands holding a microphone in his right hand and gesturing with his left hand.
“We are going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens,” said Kash Patel, who served on the National Security Council during former President Donald J. Trump’s administration. Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

A confidant of Donald J. Trump who is likely to serve in a senior national security role in any new Trump administration threatened on Tuesday to target journalists for prosecution if the former president regains the White House.

The confidant, Kash Patel, who served as Mr. Trump’s counterterrorism adviser on the National Security Council and also as chief of staff to the acting secretary of defense, made the remarks on a podcast hosted by Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former strategist, during a discussion about a potential second Trump presidency beginning in 2025.

“We will go out and find the conspirators, not just in government but in the media,” Mr. Patel said. “Yes, we’re going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens, who helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections — we’re going to come after you. Whether it’s criminally or civilly, we’ll figure that out.” He added: “We’re actually going to use the Constitution to prosecute them for crimes they said we have always been guilty of but never have.”

Earlier in the interview, when asked by Mr. Bannon whether a new administration would “deliver the goods” to “get rolling on prosecutions” early in a second term, Mr. Patel noted that the Trump team had a “bench” of “all-America patriots,” but he said he did not want to name any names “so the radical left-wing media can terrorize them.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Patel, Erica Knight, pointed out that in the same conversation with Mr. Bannon, Mr. Patel said they would “follow the facts and the law.” She also sent The New York Times a statement from Mr. Patel, reading, “When President Trump takes office in 2025, we will prosecute anyone that broke the law and end the weaponized, two tier system of justice.”

But Mr. Trump, who is facing 91 felony charges in four separate cases, has already promised to use the Justice Department to “go after” his political adversaries — signaling that a second Trump term would build on the ways it opened investigations into his enemies during his first term and fully abandon the post-Watergate norm of Justice Department independence.

“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,” Mr. Trump said in June.

Mr. Patel was a relatively unknown Capitol Hill staffer in the early days of the Trump administration, in 2017, but he became an aggressive defender of Mr. Trump against the investigation into whether the president’s 2016 campaign conspired with Russians to affect the outcome. Over the next four years, he rose to become one of Mr. Trump’s most trusted aides and among the most powerful national security officials in the federal government.

In late 2020, Mr. Trump trusted Mr. Patel to such a degree that he asked for him to be installed as a deputy director of either the C.I.A. or the F.B.I. Mr. Trump jettisoned this plan only after senior officials, including the former C.I.A. director Gina Haspel and former Attorney General William P. Barr, argued forcefully against the move. Mr. Barr wrote in his memoir that he told Mark Meadows, then the chief of staff, that having Mr. Patel become deputy F.B.I. director would only happen “over my dead body.”

Over the past three years, since leaving government, Mr. Patel has capitalized on his fame as a Trump insider. He has sold “Kash” merchandise on an online store and wrote a children’s book about the Russia investigation in which a “King Donald” is persecuted by a wicked “Hillary Queenton.” The story’s hero is a wizard named “Kash” who exposes a conspiracy to tear down King Donald. Mr. Trump declared that he wanted to “put this amazing book in every school in America.”

Mr. Patel himself has filed defamation suits against The New York Times, CNN and Politico. And since leaving government he has set up a fund-raising entity to “fight the deep state” and finance lawsuits on behalf of the “everyday Americans” who he says have been “defamed” by what he calls “the fake news mafia.”

Mr. Patel’s threats against the news media echo warnings from Mr. Trump himself.

In a Truth Social post in September, the former president wrote: “I say up front, openly, and proudly, that when I WIN the Presidency of the United States, they and others of the LameStream Media will be thoroughly scrutinized for their knowingly dishonest and corrupt coverage of people, things, and events.” He added: “Why should NBC, or any other of the corrupt & dishonest media companies be entitled to use the very valuable Airwaves of the USA, FREE?”

In the same post, Mr. Trump wrote that “Comcast, with its one-side and vicious coverage by NBC NEWS, and in particular MSNBC,” should be “investigated for its ‘Country Threatening Treason.’”

Earlier this year, Mr. Trump recorded a video for his campaign website in which he promised that in a second term he would bring the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadcast licenses, “back under presidential authority as the Constitution demands.”

A spokesman for Mr. Trump, Steven Cheung, was asked if the former president disavowed Mr. Patel’s comments. Mr. Cheung did not answer the question directly, instead referring to a recent public statement from Mr. Trump’s top two campaign advisers that read, “Any personnel lists, policy agendas, or government plans published anywhere are merely suggestions. Likewise, all 2024 campaign policy announcements will be made by President Trump or members of his campaign team. Policy recommendations from external allies are just that — recommendations.”

Mr. Patel is among a small number of former senior national security officials from Mr. Trump’s first term who have stayed close to him. He was appointed by Mr. Trump in June 2022 to be one of his representatives to interact with the National Archives, whose officials had spent months the previous year trying to retrieve reams of presidential records that left the White House when Mr. Trump did, including classified material.

Mr. Patel told Breitbart News during an interview in 2022 that he had been on hand when Mr. Trump declassified documents before leaving office.

That interview attracted interest from federal investigators, who in May 2022 had subpoenaed any remaining classified documents that he hadn’t turned over. Three months later, the F.B.I. executed a search warrant to locate additional classified material at Mr. Trump’s Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago. Mr. Trump’s office claimed shortly after the search of the club that he had a standing order in place as president by which materials that left the Oval Office for the White House residence were considered declassified.

Several former senior officials, including former Vice President Mike Pence, said they knew of no such order.

Despite Mr. Trump’s obsession with news coverage and his need to stay in the headlines dating back to the 1980s, he has grown increasingly threatening toward the press throughout his life and particularly since his political campaigns began in 2015.

He has talked about changing libel laws to make it easier to sue over coverage. He repeatedly encouraged crowds at his rallies to antagonize the reporters gathered at the back covering the events. Once in office, he began referring to the press in public as “the enemy of the people,” language often used by despots globally to justify anti-press crackdowns.

He was obsessed with leaks. He wanted aides to interfere with the merger between AT&T and CNN, which covered him rigorously. And he told advisers he wanted officials to obtain phone records of a journalist covering him, a request that apparently was never fulfilled.

But Mr. Trump is suggesting there will be results next time.

“They are a true threat to Democracy and are, in fact, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!” Mr. Trump wrote in September on Truth Social. “The Fake News Media should pay a big price for what they have done to our once great Country!”

Ex-Flunkies Steve Bannon and Kash Patel Warn Trump Is Serious About Revenge

Daily Beast

Ex-Flunkies Steve Bannon and Kash Patel Warn Trump Is Serious About Revenge

AJ McDougall – December 5, 2023

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Kash Patel promised Steve Bannon, a fellow member of the former Trump adviser club, that the former president means to deliver on the vengeance he has vowed to exact should he win re-election to the White House next year. While hosting Patel on his War Room podcast Tuesday, Bannon asked if he felt “highly confident” that a fresh Trump administration could quickly “get rolling on prosecutions.” Patel, who held a number of national security roles in the Trump administration, replied that they already had “the bench for it.” Without naming said members of the bench, Patel continued, “We will go out and find the conspirators, not just in government but in the media… We’re going to come after you—whether it’s criminal or civilly, we’ll figure that out. But yeah, we’re putting you all on notice and Steve, this is why they hate us. This is why we’re tyrannical.” During the episode, Bannon issued his own warning. “And I want the Morning Joe producers that watch us,” he said, addressing the MSNBC staffers directly, “and all the producers that watch us—this is just not rhetoric. We’re absolutely dead serious.”

Why a Second Trump Presidency May Be More Radical Than His First

Why a Second Trump Presidency May Be More Radical Than His First

Charlie Savage, Jonathan Swan and Maggie Haberman – December 4, 2023

Donald J. Trump, wearing a blue suit and pointing to his right.
The extreme policy plans and ideas of Donald J. Trump and his advisers would have a greater prospect of becoming reality if he were to win a second term. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Donald Trump has long exhibited authoritarian impulses, but his policy operation is now more sophisticated, and the buffers to check him are weaker.

In the spring of 1989, the Chinese Communist Party used tanks and troops to crush a pro-democracy protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Most of the West, across traditional partisan lines, was aghast at the crackdown that killed at least hundreds of student activists. But one prominent American was impressed.

“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Donald J. Trump said in an interview with Playboy magazine the year after the massacre. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.”

It was a throwaway line in a wide-ranging interview, delivered to a journalist profiling a 43-year-old celebrity businessman who was not then a player in national politics or world affairs. But in light of what Mr. Trump has gone on to become, his exaltation of the ruthless crushing of democratic protesters is steeped in foreshadowing.

Mr. Trump’s violent and authoritarian rhetoric on the 2024 campaign trail has attracted growing alarm and comparisons to historical fascist dictators and contemporary populist strongmen. In recent weeks, he has dehumanized his adversaries as “vermin” who must be “rooted out,” declared that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” encouraged the shooting of shoplifters and suggested that the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, deserved to be executed for treason.

As he runs for president again facing four criminal prosecutions, Mr. Trump may seem more angry, desperate and dangerous to American-style democracy than in his first term. But the throughline that emerges is far more long-running: He has glorified political violence and spoken admiringly of autocrats for decades.

A row of people, mostly in suits, in front of a blue backdrop and behind a lectern at a news conference.
Fani Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga., brought one of the sets of indictments that Mr. Trump faces. Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

As a presidential candidate in July 2016, he praised the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as having been “so good” at killing terrorists. Months after being inaugurated, he told the strongman leader of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, that his brutal campaign of thousands of extrajudicial killings in the name of fighting drugs was “an unbelievable job.” And throughout his four years in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump blew through boundaries and violated democratic norms.

What would be different in a second Trump administration is not so much his character as his surroundings. Forces that somewhat contained his autocratic tendencies in his first term — staff members who saw their job as sometimes restraining him, a few congressional Republicans episodically willing to criticize or oppose him, a partisan balance on the Supreme Court that occasionally ruled against him — would all be weaker.

As a result, Mr. Trump’s and his advisers’ more extreme policy plans and ideas for a second term would have a greater prospect of becoming reality.

To be sure, some of what Mr. Trump and his allies are planning is in line with what any standard-issue Republican president would most likely do. For example, Mr. Trump would very likely roll back many of President Biden’s policies to curb carbon emissions and hasten the transition to electric cars. Such a reversal of various rules and policies would significantly weaken environmental protections, but much of the changes reflect routine and longstanding conservative skepticism of environmental regulations.

Other parts of Mr. Trump’s agenda, however, are aberrational. No U.S. president before him had toyed with withdrawing from NATO, the United States’ military alliance with Western democracies. He has said he would fundamentally re-evaluate “NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission” in a second term.

He has said he would order the military to attack drug cartels in Mexico, which would violate international law unless its government consented. It most likely would not.

He would also use the military on domestic soil. While it is generally illegal to use troops for domestic law enforcement, the Insurrection Act allows exceptions. After some demonstrations against police violence in 2020 became riots, Mr. Trump had an order drafted to use troops to crack down on protesters in Washington, D.C., but didn’t sign it. He suggested at a rally in Iowa this year that he intends to unilaterally send troops into Democratic-run cities to enforce public order in general.

“You look at any Democrat-run state, and it’s just not the same — it doesn’t work,” Mr. Trump told the crowd, calling cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco crime dens. “We cannot let it happen any longer. And one of the other things I’ll do — because you’re supposed to not be involved in that, you just have to be asked by the governor or the mayor to come in — the next time, I’m not waiting.”

Mr. Trump’s plans to purge undocumented immigrants include sweeping raids, huge detention camps, deportations on the scale of millions per year, stopping asylum, trying to end birthright citizenship for babies born on U.S. soil to undocumented parents and invoking the Insurrection Act near the southern border to also use troops as immigration agents.

A line of people, some carrying bags, walking through an airport.
Mr. Trump has sweeping plans to deal with undocumented immigrants. Credit…Verónica G. Cárdenas for The New York Times

Mr. Trump would seek to expand presidential power in myriad ways — concentrating greater authority over the executive branch in the White House, ending the independence of agencies Congress set up to operate outside of presidential control and reducing civil service protections to make it easier to fire and replace tens of thousands of government workers.

More than anything else, Mr. Trump’s vow to use the Justice Department to wreak vengeance against his adversaries is a naked challenge to democratic values. Building on how he tried to get prosecutors to go after his enemies while in office, it would end the post-Watergate norm of investigative independence from White House political control.

In all these efforts, Mr. Trump would be backed in a second term by a well-funded outside infrastructure. In 2016, conservative think tanks were bastions of George W. Bush-style Republicanism. But new ones run by Trump administration veterans have sprung up, and the venerable Heritage Foundation has refashioned itself to stay in step with Trumpism.

A coalition has been drawing up America First-style policy plans, nicknamed Project 2025. (Mr. Trump’s campaign has expressed appreciation but said only plans announced by him or his campaign count.) While some proposals under development in such places would advance longstanding Republican megadonor goals, such as curbing regulations on businesses, others are more tuned to Mr. Trump’s personal interests.

The Center for Renewing America, for example, has published a paper titled “The U.S. Justice Department Is Not Independent.” The paper was written by Jeffrey Clark, whom Mr. Trump nearly made acting attorney general to aid his attempt to subvert the election and is facing criminal charges in Georgia in connection with that effort.

Asked for comment, a spokesman for Mr. Trump did not address specifics but instead criticized The New York Times while calling Mr. Trump “strong on crime.”

Even running in 2016, Mr. Trump flouted democratic norms.

He falsely portrayed his loss in the Iowa caucuses as fraud and suggested he would treat the results of the general election as legitimate only if he won. He threatened to imprison Hillary Clinton, smeared Mexican immigrants as rapists and promised to bar Muslims from entering the United States. He offered to pay the legal bills of any supporters who beat up protesters at his rallies and stoked hatred against reporters covering his events.

In office, Mr. Trump refused to divest from his businesses, and people courting his favor booked expensive blocks of rooms in his hotels. Despite an anti-nepotism law, he gave White House jobs to his daughter and son-in-law. He used emergency power to spend more on a border wall than Congress authorized. His lawyers floated a pardon at his campaign chairman, whom Mr. Trump praised for not “flipping” as prosecutors tried unsuccessfully to get him to cooperate as a witness in the Russia inquiry; Mr. Trump later did pardon him.

A woman in a white dress with a red floral pattern and a man in a dark suit and white shirt exiting an airplane.
Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, received White House posts despite an anti-nepotism law. Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

But some of the most potentially serious of his violations of norms fell short of fruition.

Mr. Trump pressured the Justice Department to prosecute his adversaries. The Justice Department opened several criminal investigations, from the scrutiny of former Secretary of State John Kerry and of the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey Jr. to the attempt by a special counsel, John Durham, to find a basis to charge Obama-era national security officials or Mrs. Clinton with crimes connected to the origins of the Russia investigation. But to Mr. Trump’s fury, prosecutors decided against bringing such charges.

And neither effort for which he was impeached succeeded. Mr. Trump tried to coerce Ukraine into opening a criminal investigation into Mr. Biden by withholding military aid, but it did not cooperate. Mr. Trump sought to subvert his 2020 election loss and stoked the Capitol riot, but Vice President Mike Pence and congressional majorities rejected his attempt to stay in power.

There is reason to believe various obstacles and bulwarks that limited Mr. Trump in his first term would be absent in a second one.

Some of what Mr. Trump tried to do was thwarted by incompetence and dysfunction among his initial team. But over four years, those who stayed with him learned to wield power more effectively. After courts blocked his first, haphazardly crafted travel ban, for example, his team developed a version that the Supreme Court allowed to take effect.

Four years of his appointments created an entrenched Republican supermajority on the Supreme Court that most likely would now side with him on some cases that he lost, such as the 5-to-4 decision in June 2020 that blocked him from ending a program that shields from deportation certain undocumented people who had been brought as children and grew up as Americans.

Republicans in Congress were often partners and enablers — working with him to confirm judges and cut corporate taxes, while performing scant oversight. But a few key congressional Republicans occasionally denounced his rhetoric or checked his more disruptive proposals.

In 2017, then-Senator Bob Corker rebuked Mr. Trump for making reckless threats toward North Korea on Twitter, and then-Senator John McCain provided the decisive vote against Mr. Trump’s push to rescind, with no replacement plan, a law that makes health insurance coverage widely available.

It is likely that Republicans in Congress would be even more pliable in any second Trump term. The party has become more inured to and even enthusiastic about Mr. Trump’s willingness to cross lines. And Mr. Trump has worn down, outlasted, intimidated into submission or driven out leading Republican lawmakers who have independent standing and demonstrated occasional willingness to oppose him.

Mr. McCain, who was the 2008 G.O.P. presidential nominee, died in 2018. Former Representative Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach Mr. Trump for inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, riot and helped lead the committee that investigated those events, lost her seat to a pro-Trump primary challenger. Senator Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and the only G.O.P. senator who voted to convict Mr. Trump at his first impeachment trial, is retiring.

A row of people on a wooden dais, with American flags and a large screen behind them.
Representative Liz Cheney, center right, helped lead the investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and later lost a primary challenge to a pro-Trump candidate. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Fear of violence by Trump supporters also enforces control. In recent books, both Mr. Romney and Ms. Cheney said that Republican colleagues, whom they did not name, told them they wanted to vote against Mr. Trump in the Jan. 6-related impeachment proceedings but did not do so out of fear for their and their families’ safety.

Perhaps the most important check on Mr. Trump’s presidency was internal administration resistance to some of his more extreme demands. A parade of his own former high-level appointees has since warned that he is unfit to be president, including a former White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly; former defense secretaries Jim Mattis and Mark T. Esper; the former national security adviser John R. Bolton; former Attorney General William P. Barr; and others.

Mr. Trump in turn has denounced them all as weak, stupid and disloyal. He has privately told those close to him that his biggest mistakes concerned the people he appointed, in particular his choices for attorney general. The advisers who have stuck with him are determined that if he wins a new term, there will be no officials who intentionally stymie his agenda.

In addition to developing policy papers, the coalition of think tanks run by people aligned with Mr. Trump has been compiling a database of thousands of vetted potential recruits to hand to a transition team if he wins the election. Similar efforts are underway by former senior Trump administration officials to prepare to stock the government with lawyers likely to find ways to bless radical White House ideas rather than raising legal objections.

Such staffing efforts would build on a shift in his final year as president. In 2020, Mr. Trump replaced advisers who had sought to check him and installed a young aide, John McEntee, to root out further officials deemed insufficiently loyal.

Depending on Senate elections, confirming particularly contentious nominees to important positions might be challenging. But another norm violation Mr. Trump gradually developed was making aggressive use of his power to temporarily fill vacancies with “acting” heads for positions that are supposed to undergo Senate confirmation.

In 2020, for example, Mr. Trump made Richard Grenell — a combative Trump ally and former ambassador to Germany — acting director of national intelligence. Two prior Trump-era intelligence leaders had angered Mr. Trump by defending an assessment that Russia had covertly tried to help his 2016 campaign and by informing Democratic leaders it was doing so again in 2020. Mr. Grenell instead won Mr. Trump’s praise by using the role to declassify sensitive materials that Republicans used to portray the Russia investigation as suspicious.

A man in a blue suit and white shirt at a lectern, in front of numerous American flags.
Richard Grenell was one of the acting heads named by Mr. Trump for positions that are supposed to undergo Senate confirmation. He became acting director of national intelligence. Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

After Mr. Trump left office, there were many proposals to codify into law democratic norms he violated. Ideas included tightening limits on presidents’ use of emergency powers, requiring disclosure of their taxes, giving teeth to a constitutional ban on outside payments and making it harder to abuse their pardon power and authority over prosecutors.

In December 2021, when Democrats still controlled the House, it passed many such proposals as the Protecting Our Democracy Act. Every Republican but one — then-Representative Adam Kinzinger, who was retiring after having voted to impeach Mr. Trump after the Jan. 6 riot — voted against the bill, which died in the Senate.

The debate on the House floor largely played out on a premise that reduced its urgency: Mr. Trump was gone. Democrats argued for viewing the reforms as being about future presidents, while Republicans dismissed it as an unnecessary swipe at Mr. Trump.

“Donald Trump is — unfortunately — no longer president,” said Representative Rick Crawford, Republican of Arkansas. “Time to stop living in the past.”

Charlie Savage writes about national security and legal policy. An individual winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting about presidential power, he is also the author of the books “Takeover” and “Power Wars.”

Jonathan Swan is a political reporter who focuses on campaigns and Congress. As a reporter for Axios, he won an Emmy Award for his 2020 interview of then-President Donald J. Trump, and the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Aldo Beckman Award for “overall excellence in White House coverage” in 2022. 

Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent and the author of “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. 

Trump’s revenge? GOP braces for daily blasts from ‘orange Jesus’

Politico

Trump’s revenge? GOP braces for daily blasts from ‘orange Jesus’

Burgess Everett, Olivia Beavers and Meridith McGraw – December 4, 2023

Eric Gay/AP

Congressional Republicans are steeling themselves for a return to daily life with Donald Trump — which means constant, uncomfortable questions about his erratic policy whims and political attacks.

With Trump far ahead of the GOP primary pack and leading President Joe Biden in some polls, Republicans are getting a preview of future shellshock akin to their experiences in 2016 and his presidency. It’s likely to continue for the next 11 months. And perhaps four more years after that.

Trump’s recent call to replace the Affordable Care Act is triggering a particularly unwelcome sense of deja vu within the GOP. Even as many Senate Republicans steered away from Trump over the past couple years, now they’re increasingly resigned to another general election that could inundate them with the former president’s often fact-averse and hyperbolic statements.

But Hill Republicans are girding to treat Trump the third-time nominee the same way they did Trump the neophyte candidate and then president. They’re distancing themselves and downplaying his remarks, which touch on policy stresses like his urge to end Obamacare and political grievances like his vow to come down “hard” on MSNBC for its unfavorable coverage.

“He is almost a stream of consciousness,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), one of only three Senate Republicans who will remain in office after voting to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial — the other four have either already left or plan to next year. It’s “analogous to when every day he would tweet,” Cassidy added, “and 99 percent of the time it never came to anything.”

Even so, Trump’s return threatens to spark the same clashes with the Hill GOP that took a heavy political toll on the party, perhaps to an even stronger degree than his first term. Some potential flashpoints are evident in his agenda: Trump is likely to tap nominees who rankle Senate Republican leaders and pursue a polarizing bid to reshape the civil service into a less independent force.

Other sources of tension will be political. Trump could try to force an ouster of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, if the Kentucky Republican even tries to keep the top job under another Trump presidency. House Republicans could see their own leadership shakeup if Trump is elected, since the former president has the power to purge a leader he dislikes.

“One thing I’m pretty certain of is that the leadership is all up in the air. And I don’t think any of them survive after this term,” said Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio), a Trump ally who recently began airing public criticisms of Speaker Mike Johnson.

Trump’s first four years as president were a time of nearly constant tension within the establishment GOP, which wanted another nominee in 2016 but gradually fell in line behind him. Those stresses boiled over after the violent riot of Jan. 6, 2021, with many Republicans savaging Trump for stoking the Capitol insurrection and 17 Republicans in both chambers opposing him at his second impeachment trial.

Most of those 17 Republicans will be gone from Congress by the end of 2024. Those who will remain are slowly resurrecting a familiar dynamic: pushing aside worries that he’ll lose again to Biden and minimizing his online screeds and less palatable policy proposals.

“I’m under no illusions what that would be like,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who served as the GOP whip during Trump’s first two years as president and voted to acquit Trump. “If it’s Biden and Trump, I’m gonna be supporting Trump. But that’s obviously not without its challenges.”

The retiring Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted to convict Trump at two impeachment trials, put it more bluntly. He recalled meeting with a health secretary during Trump’s administration to delve into the president’s policies: “They had nothing. No proposal, no outlines, no principles.”

“He says a lot of stuff that he has no intention of actually doing,” Romney said of Trump. “At some point, you stop getting worried about what he says and recognize: We’ll see what he does.”

Trump is paying little heed to how Republicans on Capitol Hill are reacting to his candidacy or plans for a second term. While only 13 of the 49 Republican senators have endorsed Trump, he has racked up over 80 House GOP endorsements and the list is expected to grow. In a statement, Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung said the former president’s “second term will be one for the ages” and attacked Biden.

Even for those who liked Trump’s policies during his term, his related slew of controversies is an inescapable part of the deal.

“We have a lot of people on our side that utilize Donald Trump for their political benefit,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said, people who “get really tired of answering questions about Donald Trump. And I don’t think that’s fair to the president. You don’t get the good without … the whole package.”

Another House-Senate GOP split is also likely to emerge if Trump continues steaming toward the nomination. Senate Republicans can win back the majority next year even if he loses the presidential election, given their red-leaning map.

But in the House, Republicans’ future is more deeply intertwined with the vacillations of the mercurial ex-president. And many of Trump’s House GOP critics don’t even want to entertain the idea of trying to govern alongside him; in interviews, some simply shook their heads and furrowed their brows in feigned fatigue.

“Shit, yeah,” Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) replied when asked whether his colleagues are worried about clashing with Trump. “The orange Jesus?” he added with a laugh.

Trump’s allies argued that his second term would be smoother than the first, notwithstanding the reality of his chaotic exit from office and subsequent indictments.

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), an influential voice on the House’s right flank, said Trump has “learned that there are people who [he] can trust and can’t trust.”

Miller, a former Trump aide, said that the presidential frontrunner would look more closely to “allies like me who are moderately pragmatic, that are all in on the America First agenda,” than more unpredictable conservatives like the eight (including Biggs) who voted to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. He dismissed those Trump allies as “the freak shows within our party.”

Trump’s team is confident of their broader relationships in the House and predicted GOP senators would fall in line behind pro-Trump colleagues like Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio and Rick Scott of Florida. Indeed, Johnson has endorsed Trump for president and recently met with him at Mar-a-Lago on the sidelines of a political fundraiser at Trump’s club. The two men, who have a good relationship since Johnson’s days on the Judiciary Committee during Trump’s first impeachment, had a friendly conversation and smiled for a photo together.

Johnson also supported Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, as did most House Republicans. Most Senate Republicans, on the other hand, did not — which could mean more static toward McConnell and his allies should Trump reclaim the White House.

A Trump adviser laughed off a question about McConnell’s relationship with Trump, arguing “there’s not much that Trump hasn’t said on that himself.”

McConnell’s office declined to comment for this story. He’s made zero effort to rejuvenate his partnership with Trump, which crumbled after Jan. 6.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) argued that McConnell and Trump could still rekindle their partnership, “remembering that there’s pre-election and then there’s post-election. Things change after people become elected.”

Another Republican close to Trump’s campaign specifically mentioned Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), whose reelection Trump threatened to oppose, as a potential target of future ire. (Thune won his race handily in 2022.)

In an interview, Thune acknowledged that Trump was in a strong position but said he likes what he’s hearing from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign. Thune advised fellow Republicans to “be prepared to respond to similar types of ideas and proposals and statements in the future” from Trump as the primary accelerates.

Other Republicans who served during the first Trump presidency are reluctant to make any predictions about the future — beyond expecting the unexpected.

Still, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said plenty in the GOP dread Trump’s return to the political spotlight but “everybody is being more private about it.”

“I wouldn’t expect him to be different,” Simpson said, adding that many colleagues worry about “four years of revenge … we just have to wait and see.”

A Troubling Trump Pardon and a Link to the Kushners

A commutation for a drug smuggler named Jonathan Braun had broader implications than previously known. It puts new focus on how Donald Trump would use his clemency powers in a second term.

By Michael S. Schmidt, Maggie Haberman and Alan Feuer – November 27, 2023 

Jonathan Braun, former President Donald J. Trump, and Mr. Braun’s wife pose for a picture on a golf course in front of palm trees. Mr. Trump is giving a thumbs up and wearing a red Make America Great Again hat, dark pants and a white polo shirt that says “President Donald Trump.”
In April 2022, Jonathan Braun, left, and his wife, Miriam, visited a Trump resort in Florida. Mr. Braun said they ran into the former president by coincidence.

Even amid the uproar over President Donald J. Trump’s freewheeling use of his pardon powers at the end of his term, one commutation stood out.

Jonathan Braun of New York had served just two and a half years of a decade-long sentence for running a massive marijuana ring, when Mr. Trump, at 12:51 a.m. on his last day in office, announced he would be freed.

Mr. Braun was, to say the least, an unusual candidate for clemency.

A Staten Islander with a history of violent threats, Mr. Braun had told a rabbi who owed him money: “I am going to make you bleed.” Mr. Braun’s family had told confidants they were willing to spend millions of dollars to get him out of prison.

At the time, Mr. Trump’s own Justice Department and federal regulators, as well as New York state authorities, were still after him for his role in an entirely separate matter: his work as a predatory lender, making what judges later found were fraudulent and usurious loans to cash-strapped small businesses.

Nearly three years later, the consequences of Mr. Braun’s commutation are becoming clearer, raising new questions about how Mr. Trump intervened in criminal justice decisions and what he could do in a second term, when he would have the power to make good on his suggestions that he would free supporters convicted of storming the Capitol and possibly even to pardon himself if convicted of the federal charges he faces.

Just months after Mr. Trump freed him, Mr. Braun returned to working as a predatory lender, according to New York State’s attorney general. Two months ago, a New York state judge barred him from working in the industry. Weeks later, a federal judge, acting on a complaint from the Federal Trade Commission, imposed a nationwide ban on him.

A New York Times investigation, drawing on documents and interviews with current and former officials, and others familiar with Mr. Braun’s case, found there were even greater ramifications stemming from the commutation than previously known and revealed new details about Mr. Braun’s history and how the commutation came about.

  • The commutation dealt a substantial blow to an ambitious criminal investigation being led by the Justice Department’s U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan aimed at punishing members of the predatory lending industry who hurt small businesses. Mr. Braun and prosecutors were in negotiations over a cooperation deal in which he would be let out of prison in exchange for flipping on industry insiders and potentially even wearing a wire. But the commutation instantly destroyed the government’s leverage on Mr. Braun.The investigation into the industry, and Mr. Braun’s conduct, remains open but hampered by the lack of an insider.
  • At multiple levels, up to the president, the justice system appeared to fail more than once to take full account of Mr. Braun’s activities. After pleading guilty to drug charges in 2011, Mr. Braun agreed to cooperate in a continuing investigation, allowing him to stay out of prison but under supervision for nine years — a period he used to establish himself as a predatory lender, making violent threats to those who owed him money, court filings show.Since returning to predatory lending after being freed, Mr. Braun is still engaging in deceptive business tactics, regulators and customers say.
  • In working to secure his release, Mr. Braun’s family used a connection to Charles Kushner, the father of Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, to try to get the matter before Mr. Trump. Jared Kushner’s White House office drafted the language used in the news release to announce commutations for Mr. Braun and others.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Braun said he did not know how his commutation came about.

“I believe God made it happen for me because I’m a good person and I was treated unfairly,” he said, adding that his supporters tried “multiple paths” to get him out of prison but he had no idea which one succeeded.

He said the 10-year sentence he received for marijuana trafficking was excessive and made him a victim of the criminal justice system. He denied any wrongdoing as a lender, and insisted that he had never talked to prosecutors about cooperating in the criminal predatory lending investigation.

He said he had never met Jared Kushner. And he said a picture from April 2022, showing him and his wife on a golf course with the former president, had nothing to do with the commutation but was a chance three-minute encounter during a visit to a Trump property in Florida for a Passover event.

“I didn’t meet him because of what happened, I just happened to be there the same time,” Mr. Braun said.

Mr. Braun’s commutation highlights what former administration officials say were major problems at the Trump White House as it considered clemency applications: the lack of rigorous vetting of applications and the sidelining of the Justice Department, which has traditionally screened candidates.

Mr. Kushner took a major role in the less structured vetting process that resulted in Mr. Braun’s commutation. The Justice Department investigators from Manhattan involved in the cooperation negotiations with Mr. Braun were never consulted.

As other convicts seeking clemency did, Mr. Braun’s family retained Alan Dershowitz, the prominent lawyer and Trump ally who worked with Jewish organizations pushing for pardons, at least one of which had received financial support from the Kushner family.

Mr. Dershowitz, who represented Mr. Trump in his first impeachment, had a direct line into Mr. Kushner’s office, and succeeded in helping win clemency from Mr. Trump for a number of other people. Mr. Dershowitz said he did not remember what steps he took to help Mr. Braun but said they were minimal.

Jared Kushner declined to comment, and Charles Kushner hung up when called by a reporter, as did Jacob Braun, Mr. Braun’s father. The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan did not respond to messages seeking comment.

A spokesman for Mr. Trump said all pardon applications “went through a vigorous vetting and review process,” but he did not address specific questions about Mr. Braun’s commutation.

William P. Barr, a Trump attorney general who had left by the time of the Braun commutation, said when he took over the Justice Department he discovered that “there were pardons being given without any vetting by the department.”

Mr. Barr added that he told Trump aides they should at least send over names of those being considered so the department could thoroughly examine their records. While the White House Counsel’s Office tried to do so, the effort fell apart under the crush of pardon requests that poured in during the final weeks before Mr. Trump left office, according to people with direct knowledge of the process.

Mr. Trump walking through the open door of a blue Air Force One.
Mr. Trump boarding Air Force One for the last time on Jan. 20, 2021. He pardoned Mr. Braun in the final hours of his presidency. Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Marc Short, the chief of staff to Mr. Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, said when the vice president’s office was approached by Mr. Trump’s aides about clemency applications, it opted not to participate.

“The pardon process at the end of the administration was so unseemly it would make the Clintons blush,” Mr. Short said, referring to the final-days pardons issued by President Bill Clinton — including one to the fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife donated $450,000 to Mr. Clinton’s presidential library.

Mr. Braun’s path to receiving a last-minute commutation began in 2009, when the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn, working with the Drug Enforcement Administration, raided what prosecutors said was a stash house for a marijuana smuggling ring run by Mr. Braun.

When Mr. Braun found out about the raid, he rented a car and drove 25 hours straight from Florida to an Indian reservation in upstate New York where, dressed in all black, he was smuggled into Canada, according to court filings. He then fled to Israel.

The Justice Department placed him on a special Interpol list that asked Israel to apprehend him. By 2010, he was back in New York, the Justice Department had charged him and he was behind bars.

In the days after his arrest, prosecutors asked a federal judge to keep him in jail until he went on trial. The prosecutors said Mr. Braun could not be deterred and was violent or willing to use the specter of violence against those who owed him money or might turn on him. Mr. Braun, the prosecutors said, had access to millions of dollars in untraceable cash, and was willing to do anything to stay out of prison.

The judge ordered that Mr. Braun be held pending trial. After nearly a year and a half in custody, Mr. Braun agreed to plead guilty. As part of the plea deal, he began cooperating secretly with the government’s investigations into other drug smugglers, particularly higher profile ones abroad, according to a former law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal workings of an investigation.

In exchange, the prosecutors agreed to release Mr. Braun from jail, putting him on house arrest and delaying his sentencing on the drug charges while they pursued new cases with his help. It is unclear what information Mr. Braun provided the authorities or whether it led to convictions.

Often, a cooperator can remain free for a few months by providing investigators with useful information. Sometimes, a court will hold off sentencing for a year or two as the cooperation continues. Throughout the process, federal authorities are supposed to monitor cooperators to ensure they do not break the law.

For reasons that remain unexplained, Mr. Braun was permitted by the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn to live relatively freely for nearly the next decade, and he was able to turn his focus to an enterprise rife with cash and threats: providing loans to struggling small businesses that often had nowhere else to turn.

Former prosecutors and defense lawyers said they had never heard of a defendant being allowed to delay sentencing for such a long period or using his freedom to engage in the conduct he did. A spokesman for the Brooklyn federal prosecutor’s office declined to comment on Mr. Braun’s case.

The business Mr. Braun entered is known by many names: the merchant cash advance industry, predatory lending or, in the view of some law enforcement officials, loan sharking.

Small businesses — like restaurants and contractors — have long faced a problem: They need cash on a daily basis to buy ingredients and supplies, and pay employees so they can operate while awaiting customer payments.

How Times reporters cover politics. Times journalists may vote, but they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. That includes participating in rallies and donating money to a candidate or cause.

Banks often won’t lend to them, especially small firms with troubled credit histories, providing an opening for the merchant cash advance business to offer them financing on strict, sometimes usurious, terms that include high-interest rates and exorbitant fees. (Technically, they provide cash in exchange for a percentage of future revenues, an arrangement that typically gives them access to the borrower’s books and sometimes the borrower’s bank accounts.)

An examination of court records by The Times found that between when the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn first let him out of prison in 2011 and when he reported to prison in 2020, Mr. Braun was accused of violently threatening eight people who owed him money. Another man accused Mr. Braun in a lawsuit of shoving him from the deck of a house in Staten Island in 2018.

A black pickup truck drives past a sign that reads “federal correctional institution” that sits on a winding road next to trees.
Mr. Braun eventually reported to the federal prison in Otisville, N.Y., in 2020.Credit…Mike Segar/Reuters

Among those threatened was a real estate developer, who said Mr. Braun told him: “I will take your daughters from you,” according to court documents.

Another borrower said in an affidavit Mr. Braun told him, “Be thankful you’re not in New York, because your family would find you floating in the Hudson.”

Over that time, companies connected to Mr. Braun made 1,900 fraudulent and illegal loans, some with interest rates greater than 1,000 percent, according to the New York State attorney general.

Even as Mr. Braun was starting to become a threatening presence, the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn actually gave him more freedom. In May 2017, prosecutors and probation officers approved Mr. Braun being removed from house arrest.

Five months later, Mr. Braun threatened the rabbi of a synagogue that had borrowed money from him, according to New York’s attorney general. Mr. Braun told the rabbi he would beat and “publicly embarrass him,” adding: “I am going to make you bleed” and “I will make you suffer for every penny.”

Nearly a decade after he was first charged in the drug case, prosecutors scheduled his sentencing. Anonymous letters accusing him of violent threats were then filed on the docket of the judge overseeing his case.

Despite his cooperation with the ongoing drug investigations, the judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Mr. Braun tried to appeal, but weeks before the pandemic hit in early 2020, he reported to the federal penitentiary in Otisville, N.Y.

In prison, Mr. Braun’s legal troubles actually worsened. In June 2020, New York’s attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission, which was run by a Trump appointee at the time, sued him for his role as a predatory lender. The New York attorney general credited reporting by Bloomberg News — which in 2018 first documented Mr. Braun’s business practices and revealed last year that he had returned to predatory lending — as the impetus for the suit.

At the same time, a dogged New York Police Department detective named Joseph Nicolosi, who was assigned to work as an investigator for the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, was trying to build a wide-ranging criminal case focused on predatory lenders.

The inquiry faced a big challenge. Unlike many financial fraud cases, where the government relies on documents to prove charges, federal prosecutors concluded they needed something more in this case: a turncoat to flip on higher-ups, explain the intricacies of lending agreements, say they knew what they were doing was wrong and serve as a narrator on the witness stand.

Finding that witness was proving difficult, but investigators believed they had a strong candidate sitting behind bars.

So in the fall of 2020, Mr. Nicolosi drove to Otisville to meet with Mr. Braun. Mr. Nicolosi had previously tried to flip Mr. Braun when he was free, but now Mr. Nicolosi — armed with a possible get-out-of-jail card in exchange for cooperation — had leverage over him as he sat marinating in the misery of federal prison.

At the meeting, which Mr. Braun’s lawyer attended, both sides discussed what a deal could look like.

Mr. Braun made clear he would do anything the government asked of him — including wearing a wire to record calls with his former business partners — if the government would agree not to prosecute him for his role in the lending business, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Negotiations between Mr. Braun and prosecutors stretched into the final days of Mr. Trump’s presidency. But what the prosecutors did not know was that Mr. Braun, his family and allies were pursuing an entirely different effort to help him regain his freedom through the White House’s clemency process. And among the channels they were exploiting was a tie to the Kushner family.

Jared Kushner stands in the Oval Office, framed by journalist’s microphones.
Mr. Braun had ties to the family of Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and a former White House senior adviser. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Mr. Braun, The Times found, was in the inaugural class of the Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, N.J., which was heavily funded by Jared Kushner’s family. Mr. Braun enrolled in its first freshman class, alongside Jared Kushner’s youngest sister, Nicole.

In an interview, a merchant cash advance dealer recounted how a cousin of Mr. Braun — whom Mr. Braun put in charge of his business when he went to prison and who took on a major role in trying to get him out — had told him in the wake of the commutation that Mr. Braun’s father, Jacob Braun, had sought help from Jared Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, about getting their pleas for a commutation before Mr. Trump.

The cousin, Isaac Wolf, was said to have recounted that Charles Kushner and Jacob Braun had known each other for many years. Mr. Wolf credited the Kushner family with coming through for Mr. Braun, the merchant cash advance dealer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be publicly associated with Mr. Braun.

Others who dealt with Mr. Braun also later relayed to investigators that they had been told that the Braun family helped secure the commutation by relying on their connections to the Kushner family.

The Brauns also retained Mr. Dershowitz, a Trump ally who developed such a strong relationship with Jared Kushner that he nominated Mr. Kushner for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on Middle East peace 10 days after Mr. Trump left office.

Mr. Dershowitz said Jacob Braun would call him regularly.

“Every single Friday by 3 o’clock in the afternoon: ‘Hi this is Jacob Braun, I’m so upset my son is still in prison, what can you do? It’s unfair, he’s a good boy,’” Mr. Dershowitz recounted.

Mr. Dershowitz said he handled so many clemency requests that he could not recall what he did for Mr. Braun, whom he might have talked to at the White House about his case or how much he was paid. But he said his involvement was minimal, perhaps just a phone call.

In the chaotic final weeks of the Trump presidency, the volume of clemency requests overwhelmed the White House Counsel’s Office. Requests were being fielded by numerous White House officials — and many came in through Mr. Kushner’s office.

It is unclear what type of due diligence, if any, the White House did on Mr. Braun. The New York attorney general and the F.T.C. had put out news releases about their civil actions against him in June 2020, and the suits they filed were a matter of public record. An inquiry to the Justice Department could have revealed the plea deal discussions.

A portrait of Alan Dershowitz with his hand on his face.
Jacob Braun, Mr. Braun’s father, made contact with and retained Alan Dershowitz, seen in a 2015 photo, the prominent lawyer and Trump ally who was active in seeking clemency for convicts. Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Just hours before Mr. Trump left office on Jan. 20, 2021, the White House sent out the news release, written by Mr. Kushner’s office, announcing Mr. Braun’s commutation, along with similar summaries for the 143 convicts who received pardons and commutations in the final batch, according to a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Kushner thought it was important to honor each person granted clemency with a personalized write-up, the person said.

The release misspelled Mr. Braun’s first name. And it overstated the time he had served in prison.

“Upon his release, Mr. Braun will seek employment to support his wife and children,” the release said.

The federal investigators in Manhattan learned of the commutation early that morning, immediately calling Mr. Braun’s lawyer to express their fury over how the president had undercut his own department’s investigation by removing all the leverage prosecutors had over Mr. Braun.

In the weeks that followed, investigators made another attempt to reach a cooperation deal with Mr. Braun, meeting with him in person. But no longer needing help getting out of prison, Mr. Braun essentially called their bluff, signaling that if they thought they had a case against him they should indict him. Since then, the prosecutors have brought no charges against Mr. Braun or anyone else with ties to him in the industry.

Just a few months after his release, Mr. Braun returned to working in the merchant cash advance business.

Amid the ongoing suits against him by state and federal regulators, he remained in a relatively behind-the-scenes role. While he would make major decisions, he would use an email account that did not include his name, his name was left off business documents and his interactions with customers were limited, according to court documents and a former merchant cash advance dealer.

But in the experience of at least one borrower who dealt with him, his business practices remained unchanged.

Dr. Robert Clinton is a North Carolina physician who during the pandemic turned his urgent care facility into a Covid testing center. He turned to merchant cash advance dealers because it took months for insurance companies and the federal government to reimburse him.

A portrait of Dr. Robert Clinton who is standing at the front desk of a medical clinic wearing a plaid suit jacket.
Mr. Braun’s companies made arrangements with Dr. Robert Clinton for loans and eventually pushed him to the brink of financial ruin. Credit…Kate Medley for The New York Times

Relying on similar tactics to what he was accused of employing before he went to prison, the companies affiliated with Mr. Braun withheld some of the financing they had agreed to provide Dr. Clinton but charged him interest on the full amount, imposed heavy fees with little or no warning and unilaterally withdrew money from Dr. Clinton’s bank accounts, according to court documents.

At one point, another merchant cash advance dealer who had lent money to Dr. Clinton called him in a panic to warn about Mr. Braun.

“You gotta get away from him and pay him off — we are all afraid of him — anytime Jon Braun is involved he could seize your assets, block your bank accounts,” the other merchant cash advance dealer told Dr. Clinton, in the doctor’s recounting of the conversation.

As Dr. Clinton’s finances deteriorated, he got a call from a man who claimed his name was Mike Wilson and that he was working for one of the Braun-affiliated lenders. The man told Dr. Clinton that he would send a private jet down to pick him up so he could bring expensive watches he had to New York to use as collateral for the money he owed, Dr. Clinton said.

In an apparent slip-up during conversations with Dr. Clinton at the time, the man said: Refer to me as Jon.

Dr. Clinton rejected the idea and, with help from a lawyer, Shane Heskin, sued the Braun-affiliated companies, saying they had fleeced him for over a million dollars.

A major portion of the suit was dismissed because North Carolina usury laws provided no protection for Dr. Clinton. Now, Dr. Clinton — who still owes other merchant cash advance dealers several million dollars — spends his days doing some telemedicine and the rest of his time trying to get money back from insurance companies and the federal government.

In a filing this summer, the New York attorney general said Mr. Braun, through his companies, “continues to commit usury.”

Mr. Braun continues to portray himself as a victim of an unfair criminal justice system.

What is so bad about me?” he said in the interview with The Times. “I never hurt anybody, never did anything wrong to anybody.”

The exterior of Mr. Clinton’s clinic with signs reading “Haymount Urgent Care” and another sign for Covid vaccines that is missing letters.
Mr. Braun and his companies put liens on Dr. Clinton’s business, leading to cascading financial problems that Dr. Clinton said cost him $1.6 million.Credit…Kate Medley for The New York Times

Matthew Cullen, Kirsten Noyes, Kitty Bennett, Alain Delaquérière and Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

Michael S. Schmidt is an investigative reporter for The Times covering Washington. His work focuses on tracking and explaining high-profile federal investigations. More about Michael S. Schmidt

Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent and the author of “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. More about Maggie Haberman

Jonathan Swan is a political reporter who focuses on campaigns and Congress. As a reporter for Axios, he won an Emmy Award for his 2020 interview of then-President Donald J. Trump, and the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Aldo Beckman Award for “overall excellence in White House coverage” in 2022. More about Jonathan Swan

Alan Feuer covers extremism and political violence for The Times, focusing on the criminal cases involving the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and against former President Donald J. Trump.  More about Alan Feuer

Trump’s pardoning of a Kushner-linked drug smuggler undercut a larger DOJ investigation

Insider

Trump’s pardoning of a Kushner-linked drug smuggler undercut a larger DOJ investigation

Lloyd Lee – November 27, 2023

Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump.AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
  • Donald Trump pardoned Jonathan Braun, a convicted drug smuggler, on his last day in office.
  • Meanwhile, the DOJ hoped to use Braun in a separate probe into the predatory-lending business.
  • Braun’s commutation meant the DOJ lost the leverage it needed to get him to cooperate, the NYT reported.

Donald Trump’s pardoning of a convicted marijuana smuggler with ties to the Kushner family threw a wrench in the Justice Department’s larger probe into the predatory-lending industry, The New York Times reported.

On his last day in office, Trump pardoned Jonathan Braun, a Staten Island resident who at the time was serving a 10-year prison sentence for money laundering and running an international marijuana smuggling ring.

Braun’s pardon came while Trump’s Justice Department was working out its own deal with Braun to fast-track his sentence in exchange for his cooperation with a separate DOJ probe into the predatory-lending or merchant-cash-advance industry.

In the merchant-cash-advance business, lenders offer cash-strapped borrowers, such as small businesses, financing with high interest rates and fees. These terms can often leave borrowers in a vicious cycle of debt.

Braun was convicted of drug smuggling in 2011, but a law-enforcement official told the Times under the condition of anonymity that Braun was released from jail after a year and a half in custody as part of a plea deal to cooperate with investigations into other high-profile drug smugglers.

Although he was placed under house arrest, Braun was largely able to live as a free man for reasons still unknown, the Times reported. He spent nearly the next decade leading a predatory-lending operation as a “principal” of Richmond Capital group, prosecutors said in court documents seen by Business Insider.

Prosecutors accused Braun of harassing and sending threats to his clients. Braun, for example, told one merchant not to “fuck with him” and threatened, “I know where you live. I know where mother lives,” prosecutors said.

In eight years, Braun advanced about $80 million, targeting desperate small-business owners and setting interest rates often higher than 1,000% yearly, Bloomberg reported.

In a telephone interview with the Times, Braun denied any wrongdoing as a lender.

Years after his 2011 drug-smuggling conviction, Braun was sentenced to 10 years in a New York prison despite cooperating with investigators. He began his sentence in 2020, according to the NY attorney general.

But Braun’s hand in the lending industry made him a valuable asset to the Justice Department since the US attorney’s office in Manhattan was investigating the wider predatory-lending business, the Times reported.

With Braun’s experience, the DOJ hoped to cut out a deal with the convicted smuggler by commuting his sentence in exchange for providing information on other predatory lenders and possibly wearing a wire, the Times reported.

That deal would fall apart after Trump pardoned Braun in January 2021.

Key to gaining his clemency, The Times reported, was Braun’s connection to the family of Jared KushnerIvanka Trump‘s husband and a senior White House advisor during the Trump Administration.

Braun was a member of the inaugural class of the Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, New Jersey, which the Kushner family funded, the report said.

As a member of the first freshman class, Braun was classmates with Jared Kushner’s youngest sister, Nicole, the Times reported.

One merchant-cash-advance dealer told the Times that Braun’s cousin, Isaac Wolf, told him Braun’s father sought help from Kushner’s father, Charles, to secure a pardon.

On his last day in office, Trump pardoned Braun, releasing a statement that misspelled Braun’s first name, despite calling for drug dealers to receive the death penalty a year later at a Pennsylvania rally.

“Every pardon application went through a vigorous vetting and review process overseen by the Office of the Pardon Attorney and various White House departments, including the counsel’s office,” a Trump spokesperson said in an email to Insider. “President Trump acted upon their recommendations that were based off each individuals’ circumstances.”

The Braun family also retained Alan Dershowitz, a member of Trump’s legal counsel, during the impeachment proceedings in 2020.

Dershowitz told the Times that Braun’s father regularly called him, saying he was “so upset my son is still in prison” and asked what the attorney could do to help.

The lawyer told the publication he could not recall what he did for Braun but that his involvement could have just been a phone call.

“I believe God made it happen for me because I’m a good person, and I was treated unfairly,” Braun told the Times, adding that his supporters sought several avenues to get him out of prison.

A spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan could not be reached for comment during the weekend.

Trump hints at expanded role for the military within the US. A legacy law gives him few guardrails

Associated Press

Trump hints at expanded role for the military within the US. A legacy law gives him few guardrails

Gary Fields – November 27, 2023

FIlE - Surrounded by Army cadets, President Donald Trump watches the first half of the 121st Army-Navy Football Game in Michie Stadium at the United States Military Academy, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in West Point, N.Y. Experts in constitutional law and the military say the Insurrection Act gives presidents tremendous power with few restraints. Recent statements by former President Donald Trump raise questions about how he might use it if he wins another term. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
FILE - Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Claremont, N.H. (AP Photo/Reba Saldanha, File)
 Surrounded by Army cadets, President Donald Trump watches the first half of the 121st Army-Navy Football Game in Michie Stadium at the United States Military Academy, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in West Point, N.Y. Experts in constitutional law and the military say the Insurrection Act gives presidents tremendous power with few restraints. Recent statements by former President Donald Trump raise questions about how he might use it if he wins another term. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 26, 1957, file photo, members of the 101st Airborne Division take up positions outside Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. The troops were on duty to enforce integration at the school. During the Civil Rights era, Presidents Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower used the law to protect activists and students desegregating schools. Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect Black students integrating Central High School after that state’s governor activated the National Guard to keep the students out. (AP Photo/File)
 In this Sept. 26, 1957, file photo, members of the 101st Airborne Division take up positions outside Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. The troops were on duty to enforce integration at the school. During the Civil Rights era, Presidents Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower used the law to protect activists and students desegregating schools. Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect Black students integrating Central High School after that state’s governor activated the National Guard to keep the students out. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - President George H.W. Bush addresses the nation on May 1, 1992, from the Oval Office in Washington. George H.W. Bush was the last president to use the Insurrection Act, a response to riots in Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of the white police officers who beat Black motorist Rodney King in an incident that was videotaped. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook, File)
President George H.W. Bush addresses the nation on May 1, 1992, from the Oval Office in Washington. George H.W. Bush was the last president to use the Insurrection Act, a response to riots in Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of the white police officers who beat Black motorist Rodney King in an incident that was videotaped. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook, File)
FILE - A fire burns out of control at the corner of 67th Street and West Boulevard in South Central Los Angeles, on April 30, 1992. On April 29, 1992, four white police officers were declared innocent in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, and Los Angeles erupted in deadly riots. George H.W. Bush was the last president to use the Insurrection Act, a response to riots in Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of the white police officers who beat Black motorist Rodney King in an incident that was videotaped. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)
A fire burns out of control at the corner of 67th Street and West Boulevard in South Central Los Angeles, on April 30, 1992. On April 29, 1992, four white police officers were declared innocent in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, and Los Angeles erupted in deadly riots. George H.W. Bush was the last president to use the Insurrection Act, a response to riots in Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of the white police officers who beat Black motorist Rodney King in an incident that was videotaped. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)
FILE - In this June 1, 2020 file photo, President Donald Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church, in Washington. Walking behind Trump from left are, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Experts in constitutional law and the military say the Insurrection Act gives presidents tremendous power with few restraints. Recent statements by former President Donald Trump raise questions about how he might use it if he wins another term. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
In this June 1, 2020 file photo, President Donald Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John’s Church, in Washington. Walking behind Trump from left are, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Experts in constitutional law and the military say the Insurrection Act gives presidents tremendous power with few restraints. Recent statements by former President Donald Trump raise questions about how he might use it if he wins another term. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Campaigning in Iowa this year, Donald Trump said he was prevented during his presidency from using the military to quell violence in primarily Democratic cities and states.

Calling New York City and Chicago “crime dens,” the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination told his audience, “The next time, I’m not waiting. One of the things I did was let them run it and we’re going to show how bad a job they do,” he said. “Well, we did that. We don’t have to wait any longer.”

Trump has not spelled out precisely how he might use the military during a second term, although he and his advisers have suggested they would have wide latitude to call up units. While deploying the military regularly within the country’s borders would be a departure from tradition, the former president already has signaled an aggressive agenda if he wins, from mass deportations to travel bans imposed on certain Muslim-majority countries.

A law first crafted in the nation’s infancy would give Trump as commander in chief almost unfettered power to do so, military and legal experts said in a series of interviews.

The Insurrection Act allows presidents to call on reserve or active-duty military units to respond to unrest in the states, an authority that is not reviewable by the courts. One of its few guardrails merely requires the president to request that the participants disperse.

“The principal constraint on the president’s use of the Insurrection Act is basically political, that presidents don’t want to be the guy who sent tanks rolling down Main Street,” said Joseph Nunn, a national security expert with the Brennan Center for Justice. “There’s not much really in the law to stay the president’s hand.”

A spokesman for Trump’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment about what authority Trump might use to pursue his plans.

Congress passed the act in 1792, just four years after the Constitution was ratified. Nunn said it’s an amalgamation of different statutes enacted between then and the 1870s, a time when there was little in the way of local law enforcement.

“It is a law that in many ways was created for a country that doesn’t exist anymore,” he said.

It also is one of the most substantial exceptions to the Posse Comitatus Act, which generally prohibits using the military for law enforcement purposes.

Trump has spoken openly about his plans should he win the presidency, including using the military at the border and in cities struggling with violent crime. His plans also have included using the military against foreign drug cartels, a view echoed by other Republican primary candidates such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor.

The threats have raised questions about the meaning of military oaths, presidential power and who Trump could appoint to support his approach.

Trump already has suggested he might bring back retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who served briefly as Trump’s national security adviser and twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during its Russian influence probe before being pardoned by Trump. Flynn suggested in the aftermath of the 2020 election that Trump could seize voting machines and order the military in some states to help rerun the election.

Attempts to invoke the Insurrection Act and use the military for domestic policing would likely elicit pushback from the Pentagon, where the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is Gen. Charles Q. Brown. He was one of the eight members of the Joint Chiefs who signed a memo to military personnel in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. The memo emphasized the oaths they took and called the events of that day, which were intended to stop certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s victory over Trump, “sedition and insurrection.”

Trump and his party nevertheless retain wide support among those who have served in the military. AP VoteCast, an in-depth survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide, showed that 59% of U.S. military veterans voted for Trump in the 2020 presidential election. In the 2022 midterms, 57% of military veterans supported Republican candidates.

Presidents have issued a total of 40 proclamations invoking the law, some of those done multiple times for the same crisis, Nunn said. Lyndon Johnson invoked it three times — in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington — in response to the unrest in cities after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

During the Civil Rights era, Presidents Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower used the law to protect activists and students desegregating schools. Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect Black students integrating Central High School after that state’s governor activated the National Guard to keep the students out.

George H.W. Bush was the last president to use the Insurrection Act, a response to riots in Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of the white police officers who beat Black motorist Rodney King in an incident that was videotaped.

Repeated attempts to invoke the act in a new Trump presidency could put pressure on military leaders, who could face consequences for their actions even if done at the direction of the president.

Michael O’Hanlon, director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution think tank, said the question is whether the military is being imaginative enough with the scenarios it has been presenting to future officers. Ambiguity, especially when force is involved, is not something military personnel are comfortable with, he said.

“There are a lot of institutional checks and balances in our country that are pretty well-developed legally, and it’ll make it hard for a president to just do something randomly out of the blue,” said O’Hanlon, who specializes in U.S. defense strategy and the use of military force. “But Trump is good at developing a semi-logical train of thought that might lead to a place where there’s enough mayhem, there’s enough violence and legal murkiness” to call in the military.

Democratic Rep. Pat Ryan of New York, the first graduate of the U.S. Military Academy to represent the congressional district that includes West Point, said he took the oath three times while he was at the school and additional times during his military career. He said there was extensive classroom focus on an officer’s responsibilities to the Constitution and the people under his or her command.

“They really hammer into us the seriousness of the oath and who it was to, and who it wasn’t to,” he said.

Ryan said he thought it was universally understood, but Jan. 6 “was deeply disturbing and a wakeup call for me.” Several veterans and active-duty military personnel were charged with crimes in connection with the assault.

While those connections were troubling, he said he thinks those who harbor similar sentiments make up a very small percentage of the military.

William Banks, a Syracuse University law professor and expert in national security law, said a military officer is not forced to follow “unlawful orders.” That could create a difficult situation for leaders whose units are called on for domestic policing, since they can face charges for taking unlawful actions.

“But there is a big thumb on the scale in favor of the president’s interpretation of whether the order is lawful,” Banks said. “You’d have a really big row to hoe and you would have a big fuss inside the military if you chose not to follow a presidential order.”

Nunn, who has suggested steps to restrict the invocation of the law, said military personnel cannot be ordered to break the law.

“Members of the military are legally obliged to disobey an unlawful order. At the same time, that is a lot to ask of the military because they are also obliged to obey orders,” he said. “And the punishment for disobeying an order that turns out to be lawful is your career is over, and you may well be going to jail for a very long time. The stakes for them are extraordinarily high.”

Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Michelle L. Price in New York, and Linley Sanders in Washington contributed to this report.

New House Speaker Embraces full on MAGA. Mike Johnson’s America: Revisit landmark SCOTUS decisions and use government to ‘restrain evil’

CNN

Mike Johnson’s America: Revisit landmark SCOTUS decisions and use government to ‘restrain evil’

Andrew Kaczynski and Curt Devine, CNN – November 21, 2023

Mike Johnson, the new speaker of the House, voiced support for revisiting Supreme Court decisions that struck down restrictions on the use of contraception, barred bans on gay sex and legalized same sex marriages, according to a CNN review of his prior public statements.

On a conservative talk radio show the day the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June 2022, Johnson underscored Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion that the high court should reconsider those other landmark rulings.

Johnson, citing his years as an attorney against “activist courts,” defended Thomas’ view, insisting that what Thomas was calling for was, “not radical. In fact, it’s the opposite of that.”

“There’s been some really bad law made,” he said. “They’ve made a mess of our jurisprudence in this country for the last several decades. And maybe some of that needs to be cleaned up.”

When asked about Johnson’s post-Roe comments, a spokesman for the congressman told CNN that Johnson “views the cases as settled law.”

Still, CNN’s review of more than 100 of Johnson’s interviews, speeches and public commentary spanning his decades-long career as a lawmaker and attorney paints a picture of his governing ideals: Imprisoning doctors who perform abortions after six weeks; the Ten Commandments prominently displayed in public buildings; an elimination of anti-hate-crime laws; Bible study in public schools.

From endorsing hard labor prison sentences for abortion providers to supporting the criminalization of gay sex, his staunchly conservative rhetoric is rooted in an era of “biblical morality,” that he says was washed away with the counterculture in the 1960s.

“One of the primary purposes of the law in civil government is to restrain evil,” Johnson said on one radio show in 2010. “We have to acknowledge collectively that man is inherently evil and needs to be restrained.”

His vision has been well received as a congressman in his deeply conservative district in western Louisiana. But his surprising rise to the speakership has brought his particularly subtle brand of fire-and-brimstone to second in line to the presidency — delivering him a national platform from which to shape and influence laws.

Johnson’s endorsement of Thomas’ opinion, legal experts say, positioned him significantly outside the mainstream.

“Speaker Johnson embraces a view that is not only outside of the mainstream but is so radical in terms of his endorsement of the Thomas position, that even the extremely conservative Supreme Court majority isn’t willing to go there,” said Norm Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a CNN legal analyst. “It would take the country back more than a half-century.”

The frontlines of the culture war

CNN unearthed more than two dozen radio interviews from Johnson’s time as an attorney at the socially conservative legal advocacy group Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) where Johnson litigated and voiced support for what he sometimes described as a battle for the country between the forces of good and evil.

“The arrows in the culture war are particularly directed at our youth, where the Enemy often has the greatest effect,” read the 2005  webpage for “God & Country,” a Christian local radio show co-hosted by Johnson. “We cannot lose our children to the forces of darkness. Be aware and get active in your kids’ schools.”

Topics discussed on the show included “creation science” in public schools; how to “fight the porn industry”; God’s “design for government”; and “the true meaning of ‘separation of church and state.’”

As an attorney at ADF, Johnson repeatedly battled two organizations in his fight to keep religion in the public square: The American Civil Liberties Union, which he called “the most dangerous organization in America,” and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The groups clashed over prayer in public schools, public displays of nativity scenes and the right to open public meetings with prayer.

“They have convinced an entire generation of Americans that there’s this so-called separation of church and state,” Johnson said in 2008 about the ACLU.

Johnson’s rhetoric has tapped into a “persecution complex” for evangelicals as American culture leans increasingly left on social issues, said Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor.

“They want to feel embattled. They want to fight the culture war,” Burge told CNN.

“When he talks about Griswold and Lawrence, evangelicals know that what he really is saying to them is: ‘Our way of life is under attack and liberalism is on the march. Stand firm in our convictions,’” added Burge, referring to the landmark cases that legalized gay sex and contraception use.

Rep. Mike Johnson speaking outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington during arguments over whether businesses may decline services for same-sex weddings in December 2022. - Michael A. McCoy/The New York Times/Redux
Rep. Mike Johnson speaking outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington during arguments over whether businesses may decline services for same-sex weddings in December 2022. – Michael A. McCoy/The New York Times/Redux

Johnson served not only as an attorney at ADF but a national spokesman for the organization, making appearances on radio and national television where he often addressed so-called “right of conscience” cases involving Christian businesses.

Discussing one case in New Mexico, where a wedding photography company was found in violation of the state’s anti-discrimination laws for refusing to photograph a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony, Johnson argued anti-discrimination laws did not recognize a “behavior” like homosexuality.

“There are laws on the books that prohibit discrimination against people for their immutable characteristics, their race and creed and that kind of thing,” Johnson said in a 2009 radio interview. “There’s a difference – and the law has recognized a difference – between that and homosexual behavior. As something that you do, not an immutable characteristic of what you are.”

The New Mexico Supreme Court disagreed and ruled against the company, which ADF represented. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Johnson “doesn’t understand the problem with a government compelling its citizens to follow not just religion, but a particular religion,” said Katherine Lewis Parker, the former legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina, who opposed Johnson in a lawsuit related to prayer at official meetings.

In that 2007 suit, three residents in Forsyth County, North Carolina, argued local officials had an unconstitutional “practice of sponsoring sectarian prayer” with specific references to Jesus during meetings. Johnson defended the officials and argued that even in Congress, prayers often contain Christian references, which he called a “logical function of the nation’s demographics.”

During a deposition, Johnson peppered one of the plaintiffs about what type of prayer would be acceptable in county meetings. “So if someone might be offended by virtually any prayer, should we just get rid of prayer entirely?” he asked.

An appeals court ruled against Johnson’s arguments in 2011, though the Supreme Court later ruled in favor of allowing such prayers in a separate case.

“I think he is a true believer and I think he wants to blend religion and government,” Parker said of Johnson.

Homosexuality was a frequent topic for Johnson, which he has called “inherently unnatural” and a “dangerous lifestyle.” In addition to suggesting he hopes the Supreme Court will reverse its decision allowing same-sex marriage, he also wrote in support of Texas’ anti-sodomy laws, which said gay men caught having sex could be fined.

“It recognized a fundamental right, a constitutional right to, to sodomy, which had never been recognized before,” Johnson said at a forum in 2005 on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence v. Texas — which struck down the ban on gay sex in that state. 

Johnson supported an Arkansas law against same-sex couples adopting children, citing it as “good public policy” in 2008. In 2013, he opposed President Barack Obama’s appointment of an “openly homosexual” ambassador, Wally Brewster, to the Dominican Republic, calling it a provocative move against the Catholic country.

Move to government

In 2015, transitioning from his role at ADF to a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, Johnson sparked national controversy with the “Marriage and Conscience Act.” The bill aimed to protect individuals objecting to same-sex marriage on religious grounds but faced opposition from Johnson’s hometown editorial board, business leaders and even Republicans in the state legislature.

Critics argued it could enable discrimination against LGBTQ individuals by businesses. Following backlash, the bill never reached a vote. In response to the bill’s failure, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, issued a similar executive order.

“Apparently, defending religious liberty makes one ‘anti-gay’ now,” Johnson wrote on Facebook amid debate on the bill.

Just two years later, Johnson moved from the state legislature to Congress where he’s maintained a 92% rating from the CPAC Center for Legislative Accountability – 11% higher than the average Republican in 2022.

In this 2018 photo, US Rep. Mike Johnson files his paperwork at the secretary of state's office as he qualified for his congressional re-election bid in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. - Melinda Deslatte/AP
In this 2018 photo, US Rep. Mike Johnson files his paperwork at the secretary of state’s office as he qualified for his congressional re-election bid in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. – Melinda Deslatte/AP

In Congress, Johnson signed on to some of the toughest anti-abortion bills, such as a 2021 so-called “heartbeat bill,” which would essentially outlaw abortion after six weeks. He has repeatedly called states that allow abortion “pro-death” states.

“It is truly an American holocaust,” Johnson said in May 2022 on local DC radio. “The reality is that Planned Parenthood and all thesebig abortion (providers), they set up their clinics in inner cities. They regard these people as easy prey. I mean, it’s true.”

Johnson also supported plans to change Medicare and Social Security benefits while increasing the retirement age, emphasizing urgency in addressing escalating entitlement.

He has blamed booming entitlements costs in part on abortion.

“And you don’t have 40 or 50 million able-bodied workers in the economy,” Johnson said on a podcast he co-hosts with his wife. “That would be paying taxes into the system to be able to support their elderly, you know, neighbors and friends.”

On numerous occasions, Johnson also voiced approval for a Louisiana state trigger law – passed in 2006 – which banned abortion without exceptions for rape and incest the day Roe v. Wade was overturned.

Rep. Mike Johnson speaks during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on July 14, 2022 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on threats to individual freedoms after theUS Supreme Court reversed the Roe v. Wade decision on abortions. - Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Rep. Mike Johnson speaks during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on July 14, 2022 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on threats to individual freedoms after theUS Supreme Court reversed the Roe v. Wade decision on abortions. – Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

“I’m grateful to be from Louisiana, one of the dozen states or so that has a trigger law that will automatically become an abortion free state, pro-life,” Johnson said in 2022.

In 2022, Johnson introduced a bill that some described as a national version of what critics call Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The bill never made it out of committee.

For Johnson and those who share his worldview, such policies have spiritual implications not only for individuals but the entire nation, said Philip Gorski, a professor and chair of the sociology department at Yale University who has studied Christian nationalism.

“There is much more at stake for Johnson and others who crome from that conservative Christian subculture,” he said. “There is this view the United States is a Christian nation which has entered into a sacred covenant with God that involves upholding certain standards of Christian morality, and when those standards are violated, when those precepts are broken, it threatens the entire country with divine wrath and all kinds of decline.”

Efforts to keep Trump in office
In this screenshot taken from a congress.gov webcast, Rep. Mike Johnson speaks during a House debate session to ratify the 2020 presidential election at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. - congress.gov via Getty Images
In this screenshot taken from a congress.gov webcast, Rep. Mike Johnson speaks during a House debate session to ratify the 2020 presidential election at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. – congress.gov via Getty Images

Following Trump’s 2020 reelection defeat, Johnson played a pivotal role in efforts to overturn the election – urging his colleagues to sign onto the Texas Attorney General’s longshot lawsuit aiming to throw out the results in key swing states.

“It was rejected by a bipartisan majority of the Supreme Court,” Eisen told CNN, but Johnson was willing to  “perpetuate the loser as the winner and to twist the law and the facts to support that.”

Johnson also endorsed some fringe conspiracies, including the unsubstantiated belief that voting software machines were manipulated.

On January 6, 2021, Johnson voted to object the election results, later saying he was doing his “duty to uphold the Constitution.”

For Johnson, the vote to keep Trump in office reflected a striking evolution from his past critique of Trump in 2015, whom, as first reported by the New York Times, he openly labeled as “dangerous,” lacking “character,” and devoid of a “moral center.” It was the apex of the transactional relationship between the religious right and former TV star.

During a church service in 2022, reflecting on the conclusion of Roe v. Wade, Johnson remarked that much of the credit belonged to Trump.

“There is a lot of credit to go around, but you have to acknowledge, Donald Trump for all of his, peccadillos, okay? Bless him,” Johnson said. “He was true to his word.”

Trump has big plans for a second term. Critics say they pose a threat to democracy.

Yahoo! News

Trump has big plans for a second term. Critics say they pose a threat to democracy.

Ben Adler, Senior Editor – November 20, 2023

Donald Trump in 2020. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Donald Trump in 2020. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump’s campaign is developing plans to use the federal government to punish his political opponents if he wins a second term next year, and critics — including some prominent Republicans, even some staffers from his first term — say these plans would imperil American democracy.

On the campaign trail, Trump has made numerous public references to exacting revenge upon detractors and rivals, including promising to appoint a special prosecutor to “go after” President Biden for unspecified crimes. Earlier this month, in a speech and in a post on Truth Social, he referred to left-wing Americans as “vermin.”

Historians said such dehumanizing of one’s political opponents is frequently used by fascist dictators. Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung responded by saying, “Those who try to make that ridiculous assertion are clearly snowflakes grasping for anything because they are suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome and their entire existence will be crushed when President Trump returns to the White House.”

According to the Washington Post, Trump has privately said he would direct the Department of Justice to investigate officials from his first term who have since criticized his tenure, including:

  • Former White House chief of staff and retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly
  • Former Attorney General William P. Barr
  • Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark A. Milley
  • Former Trump White House special counsel Ty Cobb
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley in 2022. (Ting Shen/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley in 2022. (Ting Shen/Xinhua via Getty Images) (Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images)

According to his advisers, Trump intends to fire up to tens of thousands of career government professionals and replace them with his allies, and ​​will refuse to spend congressional appropriations on programs he opposes.

The New York Times has reported that Trump’s plans to crack down on illegal immigration will include:

  • Using military funds to erect detention camps
  • Using a public-health emergency law to shut down asylum requests at the border
  • Ending birthright citizenship for babies born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants

Trump also reportedly plans to send the military into Mexico to combat drug cartels, with or without the Mexican government’s permission.

A number of high-profile Republican elected officials, conservative legal scholars and veterans of Trump’s first term in office have said Trump’s intentions would weaken the justice system and threaten the rule of law. Here are some of the most notable criticisms:

Former Rep. Liz Cheney, Republican from Wyoming

Former Rep. Liz Cheney.
Former Rep. Liz Cheney. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) (Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images)

“He cannot be the next president, because if he is, all of the things that he attempted to do, but was stopped from doing by responsible people around him at the Department of Justice, at the White House Counsel’s Office, all of those things, he will do. There will be no guardrails.”

Sarah Matthews, a former Trump White House and campaign press aide

“His policies are not centered around improving the lives of his supporters or Americans in general, it’s centered around consolidating power for Trump, and that way he can wield it to enact that revenge on anyone he deems as an enemy. And that is what is scary.”

Former federal appeals court Judge Michael Luttig, appointed by President George H.W. Bush, and former assistant White House counsel under President Ronald Reagan

“I am more worried for America today than I was on January 6. … [Trump’s] election would be catastrophic for America’s democracy.”

Former Trump-appointed Attorney General Rod Rosenstein

“Making prosecutorial decisions in a nonpartisan manner is essential to democracy. The White House should not be meddling in individual cases for political reasons.”

Former Trump administration national security adviser John Bolton

National security adviser John Bolton in 2018.
National security adviser John Bolton in 2018. (Evan Vucci/AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“He doesn’t think in policy directions when he makes decisions, certainly in the national security space. It’s all connected with how things benefit Donald Trump. … In a second Trump term, we’d almost certainly withdraw from NATO.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, Republican from Utah and 2012 Republican nominee for president

“Donald Trump represents a failure of character, which is changing, I think, in many respects, the psyche of our nation and the heart of our nation. And that’s something which takes a long time — if ever — to repair.”