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What Would Trump Do in a Second Term? Even He Has No Clue.

Seriously. He was asked this question by Time magazine, and responded with waffling, gibberish, and not a single mention of legislation.

Trump outside of the courtroom during his trial in Manhattan
Curtis Means/Pool/Getty Images
Trump outside the courtroom during his trial in Manhattan on April 30

Time magazine has just published a cover story about what Donald Trump will do if he wins the presidency. It’s an important question, and staff writer Eric Cortellessa, with whom I’ve worked in the past, is as smart, tough, and hardworking a reporter as any you’ll find. But Cortellessa doesn’t get the goods here, because there are no goods to get. We have very little idea what Trump will do as president because Trump himself has very little idea.

Don’t get me wrong. I fear a Trump presidency as much as the next person, and the few things we do know are pretty ghastly. Trump intends to direct Justice Department prosecutions from the Oval Office, and he won’t rule out firing any U.S. attorney who refuses to comply. (“It depends on the situation, honestly,” he told Cortellessa.) Trump intends to use the National Guard and the military to round up undocumented immigrants en masse, in the latter case in violation of the Posse Comitatus Act. (“These aren’t civilians,” he said. “These are people that aren’t legally in our country.” He probably meant “citizens,” but the statute makes no distinction between citizens and noncitizens.) Trump intends to slap a 10 percent tariff on all foreign imports. (“It may be more than that. It may be a derivative of that.”) Trump was coy with Cortellessa about whether he’ll gut the civil service by reimposing his Schedule F executive order (“Civil service is both very good and very bad”), but it seems pretty clear he’ll fire any civil servants he doesn’t like. Did you go to jail for your part in the insurrection of January 6, 2020? Then January 20 could be your lucky day, because when Cortellessa asked Trump whether he’s considering a blanket pardon, Trump answered, “Yes, absolutely.”

But Trump doesn’t have a program in any conventional sense of the word. In the interview, he failed to describe a single piece of legislation he’ll ask Congress to pass, presumably because he finds distasteful the idea of asking Congress (or anyone) for anything. (Trump’s “team,” Cortellessa notes, has mentioned two bills: an immigration bill and an extension the 2017 tax cut.) Campaign aides told Cortellessa that Trump will contest the 1974 Impoundment Control Act so that Trump can withhold appropriated funds, but we have no idea what funds Trump will choose to impound illegally. We know Trump intends to expand executive power, but to what end we don’t know. There’s an “issues” tab on Trump’s campaign website, but it’s mostly there to puff what Trump did as president and to crap on what Joe Biden has done as president, with only the vaguest discussion of what Trump will do in a second term. I doubt Trump has read it.

None of this should surprise anybody. Trump has never demonstrated much relish for being president; to him, it’s merely the heavy price one pays for the narcissistic thrill of holding Nuremberg-style political rallies. Trump never expected to win in 2016. In 2020 he couldn’t accept that he’d lost, and even at this late date Trump told Cortellessa he “wouldn’t feel good about” hiring someone to his campaign staff who thinks Biden won. The only reason Trump is running for president again is to show that he can win, and if he doesn’t win he will once again refuse to acknowledge losing.

This is a man who was incapable, during the 2020 election, of articulating what he intended to do if granted a second term. Asked that question by Peter Baker of The New York Times, Trump said:

But so I think, I think it would be, I think it would be very, very, I think we’d have a very, very solid, we would continue what we’re doing, we’d solidify what we’ve done, and we have other things on our plate that we want to get done.

The GOP, you may recall, didn’t bother to produce a party platform in 2020, quite obviously because Trump and his handlers had no clue what it should say. Instead, the Republican National Committee produced a vaguely Stalinist statement saying its positions would be whatever Trump decided them to be at some future date. Trump has now had four years to think about it and he still doesn’t know what he wants to do if reelected president. Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara, who is now co-chair of the Republican National Committee, was asked last month whether there will be a party platform in 2024. Her reply was a vague, “Yeah, I think so.” That sounds to me like a soft “no.”

I’m not saying Trump will do nothing if elected. The Heritage Foundation, among others, has stepped in to fill the void with its Project 2025 Mandate for Leadership, which delivers to Heritage’s corporate and other wealthy donors the promise of tax cuts and stymied regulation. Mandate calls for a regressive tax code with two marginal rates at 15 and 30 percent, a reduction of the corporate tax from 21 percent to 18 percent, and a reduction of the top capital gains rate from 20 percent to 15 percent. As for regulation, Mandate (echoing Steve Bannon) calls for “deconstructing the centralized administrative state,” code for “gum up the regulatory gears.” Trump will do everything he can to enact these policies, because (except on trade) he always does the business lobby’s bidding.

But even with his highly ideological staff and the Heritage Foundation pulling the marionette strings, Trump won’t likely get much done—not if his first administration is any guide. The Washington Monthly has posted a highly detailed series of essays (and a “presidential accomplishments index”) comparing Trump and Biden based entirely on the quantity of things they got done, setting aside the question of whether they were good or bad. It isn’t even close. In 14 out of 22 categories Biden accomplished more than Trump. Trump accomplished more than Biden in only three categories—taxes, courts, and social issues—all very much to the bad, of course. (The prospect that with a second term Trump may end up appointing more than half the Supreme Court is reason enough to race to the polls to vote Democratic.) Trump tied Biden in five categories—immigration, veterans, work and family, crime, and cannabis—but except for immigration, none of these represents a policy Trump is running on in 2024.

It’s been noted that Trump, if elected, will enter the White House with more yes-men (and yes-women), a more compliant Republican caucus in Congress, and greater experience at navigating Washington. That’s all true. He will also enter the White House with more of a taste for retribution. He will do his best to undermine democracy, but to what end (apart from personal aggrandizement) is mostly unknown. Trump will improvise, contemptibly, because his instincts are contemptible. But there won’t be much of a plan. That would be good news were it not the case that it’s bound to be worse than we imagine. Trump doesn’t do pleasant surprises. He wouldn’t know how.