In just over an hour, Donald J. Trump suggested the United States should default on debt for the first time in history, cast doubt on the country’s commitment to defending Ukraine against invading Russia, dangled pardons for most of the Capitol rioters convicted of crimes. , and declined to say he would respect the results of the upcoming presidential election.
The long-term vision Mr. Trump outlined at a CNN Town Hall event on Wednesday would represent a clean break from the core American values that have underpinned the nation for decades: its solvency, its credibility with international allies and its respect for the rule of law at home.
Mr. Trump’s provocations were hardly shocking. His tenure has often been defined by a rule-don’t-be-me approach to governance and a lack of interest in maintaining national security policing after World War II, and at age 76, it is not bound to change much.
But his performance nonetheless signaled an escalation in his attempt to bend the government to his wishes as he runs for the White House again, but this time with a greater grasp of Republican Party pressure points and a plan to tear down the federal bureaucracy.
The televised event crystallized that the version of Mr Trump who could return to office in 2025 – vowing to be a vehicle of “retribution” – is likely to rule as he did in 2020. year of his presidency, Mr. Trump weeded out people perceived as disloyal and promoted those who fully indulged his instincts — things he didn’t always do in the first three years of his administration, when his Establishment advisers often dissuaded him from drastic policy changes.
“From my perspective, there has been an evolution of Donald Trump over his four years, with 2020 being, I think, the most dramatic example of him – the real him,” said Mark T. Esper, who served as Mr. Trump’s Secretary of Defense. “And I suspect that would be his starting point should he become elected in 2024.”
In a statement, Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Mr. Trump, dismissed criticism of the former president, who he said “spoke directly to Americans suffering from Biden’s decline and President Trump’s desire to ‘bring security and economic prosperity on day one’. He added: “Naturally, this view is not shared by the failed warmongers, political losers and bureaucratic career hacks – many of whom have been fired or defeated – who have created all of America’s problems. .
At the town hall event, Mr. Trump almost cavalierly floated ideas that would reshape the nation’s standing in the world, vowing to end Ukraine’s war within 24 hours and refusing to commit to backing the country, a US ally that relied on billions of dollars in aid to repel the Russian attack.
“Do you want Ukraine to win this war? CNN’s Kaitlan Collins insisted.
Mr. Trump evaded.
“I don’t think in terms of winning and losing,” he replied, adding that he was focused on ending the conflict. “I think in terms of the settlement, we stop killing all these people.” He did not mention that the majority of the murders were committed by Russia.
Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a Democrat who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and is close to President Biden, said there were fears internationally over Mr Trump’s return.
“His performance last night only reinforced what so many of our allies and partners have told me have been on their minds for the past two years – that a return of Trump to the White House would be a return to chaos” , did he declare.
Some Republican lawmakers, skeptical of US aid to Ukraine, hailed Trump’s performance. Senator JD Vance of Ohio called his Ukrainian response “genuine sense of statehood.”
Mr. Miller argued that Mr. Trump had “a full term without new wars, and he’s ready to do it again.”
In New Hampshire, the Republican public swallowed Mr. Trump’s retorts and a host of insults – at Ms. Collins (a “mean person”, he quipped, echoing his former attack on Hillary Clinton) , to former President Nancy Pelosi, to E. Jean Carroll, the woman a jury this week found Mr. Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation. And the crowd expressed no dissent as he tried again to rewrite history on Jan. 6, 2021, when his supporters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn his election defeat.
“It was a beautiful day,” Mr. Trump said.
If he becomes president again, he said, he would “most likely” forgive “a large portion” of his supporters who were convicted for their actions on Jan. 6. “They were there with love in their hearts,” he said of the crowd, which he beamed with had been the “biggest” of his career.
“You see what you’re going to get, which is a presidency not tied to truth and not tied to constitutional order,” said Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, Trump’s most prominent critic. of the Republican Party remaining in the Capitol. “The idea that people who have been convicted of crimes are all going to be pardoned, or mostly pardoned, is completely contrary to the principles of the Constitution and our party.”
Mr. Trump has also embraced the possibility of defaulting in the debt ceiling standoff between President Biden and congressional Republicans, a move that economists say could spell disaster for the global economy.
“You might as well do it now because you will do it later, because we have to save this country,” Trump said. “Our country is dying.”
Former Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican who is running a long presidential campaign in 2024, said Mr Trump’s potential return to the White House posed a “tremendous” risk to the nation.
“He showed such disrespect for our institutions of government that are essential to our democracy,” Mr Hutchinson said, adding that he was particularly unnerved by the rhetoric about the default. “He spoke as if it was OK for the United States to default on debt. And it’s like putting his past business practices of using bankruptcy as a tool and applying it to the government..”
Despite those warnings from old-line Republicans, the cheers of the New Hampshire conservative crowd at the CNN event were an audible reminder of Mr. Trump’s huge lead in the Republican primary polls.
Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush’s two presidential victories, said in an interview that “to true believers and ardent supporters, this was a boffo performance” by Mr. Trump. But he said other Republicans would now be forced to answer “for a big pile of harmful material on their doorstep.”
“Do other Republicans think the rioters who attacked police, broke into the Capitol on January 6, and in some cases tried to overthrow the government should be pardoned?” Mr. Rove asked. “Do other Republicans agree that it doesn’t matter if the United States government defaults on its debt? Don’t other Republicans care who wins in Ukraine?
One of the most controversial policies of Mr. Trump’s presidency has been the forced separation of migrant parents from their children at the southern border, which Mr. Trump reversed in June 2018 after a huge backlash.
But at Wednesday’s town hall, Mr Trump hinted he would revive it. “Well, when you have this policy, people don’t come,” he said. “If a family finds out they’re going to be separated, they love their family, they don’t come.”
Casual observers might be inclined, as some did in 2016, to take seriously, but not literally, Mr. Trump’s more extreme statements, such as his flippant acceptance of allowing the nation to default.
But beneath Mr. Trump’s vague words lie detailed plans to raze the federal public service. These proposals have been incubating for more than two years within a network of well-funded outside groups connected to Trump.
In the chaotic final weeks of the 2020 election, Mr. Trump’s lawyers, after crafting a new legal theory in strict secrecy, issued an executive order known as Schedule F that sought to eliminate most layoff protections for tens of thousands of federal workers. workers.
Mr. Trump ran out of time to carry out this plan. But a constellation of conservative groups are preparing to revive the effort if he regains the presidency in 2025.
Pressed by Ms Collins, Mr Trump did not say he was ready to accept the 2024 results.
Former Rep. Liz Cheney, who lost her Republican primary bid for re-election after helping lead the House Jan. 6 inquiry, said of Trump’s town hall: “Virtually everything Donald says Trump strengthens the case against him.”
“Donald Trump has once again made it clear that he fully intends to bribe the official process of Congress to count electoral votes in order to nullify the 2020 election,” said Ms Cheney, who has made opposing Mr. Trump’s return to power his top political priority since his defeat last year. “He says what happened on Jan. 6 was justified, and he celebrates those who attacked our Capitol.”
On Wednesday, Mr Trump also denounced his former Vice President, Mike Pence, for confirming the results of the 2020 election and rejected the suggestion that Mr Pence had been in danger on January 6, even though the Secret Service has attempted to evacuate him from the Capitol.
“I don’t think he was in any danger,” Mr Trump said.
Marc Short, who was with Mr Pence that day as his chief of staff, denounced Mr Trump’s double standards in defending violence from his supporters while claiming to broadly defend law and order.
“Many of us have called for BLM rioters to be prosecuted when they destroyed private businesses,” Mr Short said, referring to Black Lives Matter supporters. “It’s hard to see how there is a different threshold when rioters hurt law enforcement, threaten officials and loot the Capitol.”