Trump’s Not ‘Bluffing’: Inside the MAGA Efforts To Make a Second Term Even More Extreme

“Of course we aren’t fucking bluffing.” That’s the message one close Trump adviser and former administration official — who requested anonymity to speak candidly — wants to get across to the press and public, when asked about Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign vows of “retribution,” unprecedented force, and militaristic action.

Indeed, this sentiment is shared widely among the upper echelon of Trumpland and the MAGAfied Republican Party, with various officials and conservatives with a direct line to the former president insisting that so-called “moderates” or alleged “establishment” types will be tamed or purged, if Trump retakes power next year.

Rolling Stone spoke with a dozen sources who are playing roles in Trump’s “government-in-waiting” or are in regular contact with the ex-president, including GOP lawmakers, Trump advisers, MAGA policy wonks, conservative attorneys, and former and current Trump aides. They universally stress that the former (and perhaps future) U.S. president and top allies are serious about following through on his extreme campaign pledges. These promises run the gamut from siccing active duty military units on not just American cities but also Mexican territory, all the way to prosecuting and potentially imprisoning Trump foes.

Several of these sources say that a wide range of litmus tests, loyalty screenings, and “guardrails” are already being implemented, or discussed with Trump, to root out so-called “RINOs” (Republicans in Name Only) and MAGA-skeptical conservatives from embedding themselves within a possible second Trump administration. These processes would be largely aimed at drastically curtailing the number of squishy Republican officials who would be able to get in Trump’s ear to, in the words of one GOP lawmaker on Capitol Hill, try to “scare Trump off of what needs to be done or should be.” This lawmaker cited former senior administration officials such as Mark Esper and John Kelly who, at times, urged the then-president to moderate his policy desires.

According to Esper, the then-defense secretary worked to talk Trump out of doing things such as ordering the actual shooting of Black Lives Matter protesters.

One idea regularly kicked around Trump’s government-in-waiting is a dramatic increase in the use of “lie detectors” across the federal apparatus, to root out or charge leakers and other subversives. These devices, called polygraphs, are frequently unreliable and inadmissible in courts of law. Then-President Trump and his then-attorney general, Jeff Sessions, mulled expanded use of polygraphs during the first term, when leaks to the media were especially copious.

Sources close to the former president and several of those counseling him on second-term policy add that one big reason they feel confident a revived Trump White House won’t be, in their minds, tamed in the ways it was during the first term is because Trump presumably won’t be running for reelection. The fact that Trump would be termed-out if he steps into the Oval Office in 2025 would, in theory, relieve pressure on Trump when it comes to enacting policies seen as political liabilities or a threat to his standing with swing voters.

Further, many of Trump’s political and policy allies feel emboldened by the federal judiciary being (thanks to Trump) significantly more right-wing than it was when he first came into office. This would allow Team Trump, in the words of one conservative attorney close to the ex-president, to “get away with a lot more” than elected Republicans used to, in the face of an expected barrage of constitutional challenges to their executive actions or policies, if Trump wins in November.

And, for as much as Trump and the MAGA elite love to rant against “the establishment” in the Republican Party and in Washington, D.C., the former president has something else playing to his advantage for a potential second term: He and his policy ideas are the Republican establishment now, and have been for years, due to his hostile takeover of the party starting in 2015 and the devotion he commands from conservative elected officials and GOP voters. Trump’s outbursts that were once shot down by fellow senior administration officials — including ones about invading and bombing Mexico — are now so thoroughly accepted as reasonable positions in the mainstream of the GOP that there are entire legislative and nonprofit apparatuses pushing the idea.

“Yes, we do really want to burn it all down,” says another Republican close to Trump, referring to the so-called GOP “establishment” remnants who may wish to shackle Trump’s hard-right impulses. When asked about potential court challenges in a Trump second term, this source simply replies: “Who cares?”

Still, Trump and his inner orbit are now promising a MAGA laundry list of extreme measures that will invariably face significant resistance, should he take power again. The list runs profusely long, but it includes criminally probing and possibly imprisoning political enemies and the prosecutors who’ve gone after him; unleashing troops on Democratic-controlled cities whenever he wants; cracking down on legal and illegal immigration on a draconian, unprecedented scale; further solidifying his anti-democratic lies about the 2020 election into policy and party dogma; insulating himself from his own array of indictments; and turning the Department of Justice and other nominally independent organs of the U.S. government into his own personal protection racket.

Those involved with diligently crafting these legal and policy blueprints — including at an array of conservative think tanks aligned with Trump — will often brief the former president and provide regular updates and ideas for his campaign. They also frequently insist that if Trump is reelected, the policy rollouts won’t be slapdash the way they were circa 2017, given that Trump now has so much institutional backing for his agenda. For instance, various lawyers in the upper ranks of Trumpland have long been mapping out how to achieve the former president’s dreams of imprisoning prosecutors like Jack Smith, Letitia James, and Alvin Bragg, to the point that they’ve already identified specific parts of the U.S. criminal code that they can exploit in increasingly convoluted ways, if only to provide Trump and the Justice Department with a road map for terrorizing those who’ve crossed him.

Sources with direct knowledge of the matter say Trump has not just been having discussions and briefings with government-in-waiting types and former senior administration officials — Trump has been actively soliciting new ideas for how they can do things that didn’t work the first time around, including demanding novel legal theories for eliminating birthright citizenship. Numerous legal scholars argue that Trump cannot do that via executive order, which is why the former president is eager for MAGA-friendly lawyers to concoct outlandish work-arounds.

Moreover, according to three sources who’ve spoken to him about it, Trump has repeatedly told confidants since leaving office that one of the biggest regrets of his presidency was allowing then-Secretary of Defense Esper to push back on Trump’s furious demands for a bigger show of force against racial-justice protests that occurred in 2020, including in front of the White House.

“Using the military more is something [Donald Trump] sounds very committed to doing … when he talks about it [nowadays],” a source with direct knowledge of the matter tells Rolling Stone. “It is possible he doesn’t, but I wouldn’t place a bet on him not … He says he’d have the authority to do it, and that as president sometimes you need to be really ‘tough.’ He talks about using the military for all types [of things] including gang violence in major [U.S.] cities.”

There are some Republicans who worked in Trump’s White House who now warn that his return to the West Wing would be a grave threat to the republic.

“During the first Trump term, some of the policies he was dissuaded from — wanting to pull the U.S. out of NATO, family separation, things like that — he was able to be dissuaded from those things, because of some of the personnel around him,” says Sarah Matthews, who served as one of Trump’s deputy White House press secretaries. “In a second Trump term, he is not going to have any of those people around him ,and he’s going to go ahead and move forward with these kinds of controversial policies he wanted to pursue during his first term … He has nothing to lose if he wins a second term, because he wouldn’t be able to run for another term.”

Matthews endorsed Nikki Haley in the 2024 GOP presidential primary, but says she is planning on voting for President Joe Biden in the 2024 general election because “Trump is someone who has shown he won’t uphold the constitution and I can’t in good faith support the first American president to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power. And also, he hasn’t shown any remorse whatsoever.”

Matthews adds, “When he first came into office, Trump didn’t know what he was doing. But now, he understands the levers of government in ways that he can manipulate it and game the system. I take him and his people at their word when they say they’re not bluffing … The personnel he’s going to surround himself with now, it’s going be a bunch of Yes Men who will not push back on some of his more radical ideas. That’s something that is super concerning to me about what a second term would look like.”

A similar process is already playing out on the campaign trail. Under the leadership of Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, the Republican National Committee has reportedly been asking job applicants if they adhere to Trump’s “big lie” conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was “stolen” through fraud.

Numerous sources with direct knowledge of the situation say it is widely expected in Trumpworld that if the ex-president wins back the White House, hard-right conservatives in the vein of Stephen Miller and Mike Davis will be handed positions of considerable power and influence. And these Trumpists are very open and explicit about their intentions, and often dismiss allegations that they are just trolling.

Davis, a prolific tweeter, has threatened to indict, detain, denaturalize, and deport a handful of Trump critics with whom he argues on Twitter, including former MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan and Tim Miller, a former GOP operative and now a journalist at The Bulwark.

As Trump has faced criminal prosecution in a number of cases, Stephen Miller, a former senior policy adviser in the Trump White House, has called for Republicans to “return lawfare in kind” against their Democratic opponents. Casting Democratic policies as criminal conspiracies, he told Fox News in April 2023 that Republicans in Congress should “begin crafting criminal referrals to the Department of Justice which can then be taken up in 2025 under an honest DOJ.”

Miller has also tried to brush away claims that Trump’s apocalyptic talk on immigration is mere bluster.  “Any activists who doubt President Trump’s resolve in the slightest are making a drastic error: Trump will unleash the vast arsenal of federal powers to implement the most spectacular migration crackdown,” he told The New York Times in late 2023.

Many activist groups and civil rights organizations do not doubt Trump’s resolve on these issues. In fact, they are already actively wargaming and planning for taking on a second Trump presidency, should Biden lose in November. (Much of the high-quality 2024 polling  currently shows a dead heat between Trump and Biden.)

“We are taking very seriously his claim that he will enact even more extreme policies in a second term, including the use of the military,” says Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s national Immigrants’ Rights Project, who served as the group’s lead counsel in challenging various Trump policies like family separation. “As we did in the first term, we are prepared to use every tool we have to combat that, including litigation. We are very concerned about the use of the military for domestic law enforcement, as we are his claim that there will be a massive round-up of immigrants in the interior, and an end to asylum, and all the racial and religious screenings.”

Despite the rhetoric, there are some signs that aides are still able to stifle the former president’s urges every once in a while.

Earlier this year, Trump offered far-right conservative activist Laura Loomer a job on his campaign, but the campaign quickly rescinded the offer after some senior staff bristled at the idea of bringing her on board.

“Take it from me, President Trump’s campaign is the only place in the political world where you can be hired for a job by the man himself in his office and then find out later that you actually won’t be hired due to intervention or sabotage from staff. It’s a situation that is unique to Trumpworld,” Loomer tells Rolling Stone.

Still, that moment did little to quell Trump’s yearning to stack the federal government with absolute MAGA zealots.

Since the incident first leaked to The New York Times in April, Trump has on multiple occasions expressed his desire to have Loomer in a second administration, according to two sources familiar with the situation. Still, decidedly mixed feelings among his campaign officials persist.

But as the campaign season has heated up — and as Trump’s myriad criminal cases move through the courts — Trump’s rhetoric has turned darker and more explicitly authoritarian. When friendly interviewers have tried to offer the former president off-ramps to explain away his vengeful promises as rhetorical flourishes, he has explicitly rebuffed them.

That was the case in a December 2023 Trump appearance on Hannity’s Fox News show. When Hannity suggested that Trump was “promising America” that he “would never abuse power as retribution against anybody” and that the media unfairly “want to call you a dictator.” Trump disagreed. “Except for Day One,” adding later that he would only be a “dictator” that day.

Trump and his campaign spent a subsequent news cycle pushing back on the suggestion that the candidate who vows to voters that “I am your retribution” was not bent on revenge, with Trump telling another Fox host that the comment was only made “in jest.”

Multiple sources in and close to Trump’s presidential campaign tell Rolling Stone that there is fear among several of the ex-president’s top advisers that him talking too much publicly about “autocrat-sounding shit” — as a GOP operative close to Trump 2024 phrases it — damages him with crucial independent voters.

More recently, TV personality Dr. Phil tried to get Trump to walk away from the idea of “revenge” against his political adversaries. During an interview earlier this month, Dr. Phil prompted the former president with suggestions that, as president, he wouldn’t have the time for vengeance and that a “race to the bottom” is “too much.”

Trump wasn’t persuaded.

“Sometimes revenge can be justified, Phil,” the former president countered. “I have to be honest. Sometimes it can.”

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