Trump, Vowing ‘Retribution,’ Foretells a Second Term of Spite

Former President Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., March 4, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)
Former President Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., March 4, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

Donald Trump has for decades trafficked in the language of vengeance, from his days as a New York developer vowing “an eye for an eye” in the real estate business to ticking through an enemies ledger in 2022 as he sought to oust every last Republican who voted for his impeachment. “Four down and six to go,” he cheered in a statement as one went down to defeat.

But even though payback has long been part of his public persona, Trump’s speech on Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference was striking for how explicitly he signaled that any return trip to the White House would amount to a term of spite.

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“In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice,’” Trump told the crowd in National Harbor, Maryland. “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

He repeated the phrase for emphasis: “I am your retribution.”

Framing the 2024 election as a dire moment in an us-versus-them struggle — “the final battle,” as he put it — Trump charged forward in an uncharted direction for American politics, talking openly about leveraging the power of the presidency for political reprisals.

His menacing declaration landed differently in the wake of the pro-Trump mob’s assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in a last-ditch effort to keep him in power. The notion that Trump’s supporters could be spurred to violence is no longer hypothetical, as it was in 2016 when he urged a rally audience to “knock the crap out of” hecklers. The attack on the Capitol underscored that his most fanatical followers took his falsehoods and claims of victimhood seriously — and were willing to act on them.

While Trump has long walked up to a transgressive line, he has often managed to avoid unambiguously crossing it, leaving his intentions just uncertain enough to allow his supporters to say he is being mistreated or misinterpreted.

Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Trump, said the speech was “a call to political action to defeat the Democrats who have put their collective boot on the throats of Americans,” adding, “Anyone who thinks otherwise is either being disingenuous or is outright lying because they know President Trump continues to be a threat to the political establishment.”

But John Bolton, a national security adviser under Trump who later broke publicly with him, had little doubt what the former president meant on Saturday. “I think he’s talking about retribution he would exact on people who would cross him,” said Bolton, who also served as ambassador to the United Nations. The reference was not about Trump’s supporters, Bolton said, but about Trump himself.

“It would be, first and foremost, getting back at the people he thinks deserve some kind of punishment for not doing what he tells them to do,” Bolton said. “And it’s a big group of people.”

After Bolton’s public falling-out with Trump, the former ambassador wrote a detailed book about his time working for the president, describing his behavior as “obstruction of justice as a way of life” and depicting Trump as endlessly transactional. When Trump could not persuade a federal judge to block the book’s publication, he threatened Bolton on Twitter.

Trump’s comments on Saturday were in his prepared remarks, rather than being off the cuff. His aides seemed pleased with the inherently sinister tone. The remarks were quickly packaged and pinned atop his campaign’s “War Room” Twitter page, and “I am your retribution,” in all capital letters, was turned into the subject line of a fundraising email.

Trump’s speech was laced with allusions to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, so far the chief threat to his winning another nomination. He referred, for instance, to “some in our party” who have been open to cutbacks in Social Security. “I wonder who that might be,” Trump mocked.

Casting himself as a “warrior” was another reminder that Trump is generally determined to let no one — including a Florida governor fresh off clashes with The Walt Disney Co. and the College Board — evince more strength than the former president in warring with the left and its perceived allies.

Facing investigations in two states and in two cases overseen by the Justice Department, Trump repeatedly insisted that the judicial system should not be trusted, holding himself and his supporters up as the true arbiters of justice. Trump said the same day that he would not exit the presidential race if he were indicted.

Bolton pointed to another part of Trump’s speech: “This is it. Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.”

“I think that’s also a signal that he’s not going to accept a second defeat, the same way he didn’t accept the first defeat,” Bolton said of Trump’s election lies. Bolton suggested Trump’s efforts to stay in power were not a well-oiled plan, but a series of day-to-day impulses he was acting on. But what Trump is saying now, Bolton said, is different.

In essence, Bolton said, the former president is “pretty much calling for something close to civil insurrection.”

Mick Mulvaney, who served as Trump’s acting chief of staff, saw the speech in terms of its potential to turn off general-election voters who rejected the former president in 2020.

“It’s a great line for his hard-core supporters,” said Mulvaney, who attended a recent donor retreat hosted by DeSantis. “But he just lost another two points with suburban women in the Midwest.”

Planning is already underway for 2025 should Trump win the White House again. Advisers have discussed reimposing a Trump-era executive order, known as Schedule F, that would give the president vast power to replace what have traditionally been civil service workers embedded across the federal bureaucracy.

Trump alluded to those efforts on Saturday.

“I will totally obliterate the deep state,” he said, “I will fire …” he went on, before being interrupted by applause and “USA! USA!” chants. “I will fire the unelected bureaucrats and shadow forces who have weaponized our justice system like it has never been weaponized before.”

Trump has for decades sought to play the role of victim and vowed vengeance on those who cross him, beginning in 1973 with the first Justice Department investigation into what it said were his family business’ racially discriminatory housing practices, a case he eventually settled. He cried foul in August when the FBI searched his private club, Mar-a-Lago, for classified documents that he had not turned over despite a grand jury subpoena. And he has railed against that investigation and the state inquiries in New York and Georgia, denouncing both prosecutors in those states — who are Black — as “racist” for looking into him.

Jason Stanley, a Yale University professor who wrote the book “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them,” said the danger in undermining trust in the rule of law was that it left little alternative to overthrowing or overturning the system itself.

“This is the final battle,” Trump said Saturday. “They know it, I know it, you know it, everybody knows it.”

Stanley said that such language was all the more notable given the context of Jan. 6. “He’s saying it’s a war,” he said. “There is not law versus chaos, there is just him versus his enemies, your enemies.”

He added bluntly, “Trump engages in fascist rhetoric.”

Last month, Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host, asked Trump directly if he would “use the powers of the presidency to punish people who punished you.”

“No, I wouldn’t do that,” Trump said, before indulging the topic further. “I would be entitled to a revenge tour, if you want to know the truth,” he said, “but I wouldn’t do that.”

Demanding unconditional loyalty — and promising retaliation if he doesn’t get it — has been so much a fixture of his career that former employees at his company often say the public still doesn’t fully understand what he is capable of.

“If given the opportunity, I will get even with some people that were disloyal to me,” Trump told Charlie Rose in a November 1992 interview about those who had crossed him during his recent financial struggles.

One dissident member of a board he dealt with, Trump said, was finally removed “after being hit over the head with a cannon.”

“What was the cannon?” Rose asked.

“The cannon,” Trump replied, “was me.”

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