WASHINGTON — Over 36 hours this week, the former president and Republican front-runner threatened a sitting state attorney general, calling her “racist” and a “monster” and saying people should “go after” her; made wild accusations about a low-ranking staffer in a courtroom where he is being sued; and called on Republican officials to essentially snuff out the remaining competition for his party’s nomination.
And that was just Monday and Tuesday.
The events of those days are just the most recent examples of the way Donald Trump has used his third run for president to take aim at the institutions that have scrutinized him either legally or politically, alarming experts who say that rhetoric — and the ways he could act on it if elected — could endanger the very democratic institutions he is seeking to run.
“It’s attacking institutions like debates, institutions like the court system, the judiciary . . . attacks on law enforcement, the FBI,” said David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonpartisan group that has worked to debunk Trump’s false claims about election fraud. “These are all institutions that a democracy needs . . . and so naturally they are the targets.”
For months, Trump has torn into the justice system, threatening and disparaging prosecutors and some judges in his four criminal trials by name and framing the proceedings against him as evidence that a weaponized judiciary — stretching from the highest echelons of the Justice Department to a clerk in a New York City courtroom — are out to get him.
He has also disparaged the military, once seen as politically off-limits especially to Republicans, repeatedly calling it “woke” and suggesting on his social media site last week that General Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff whose concerns about Trump’s competence and motives have been aired in books and articles, deserves death.
He has taken aim at other institutions he deems critical, too, threatening to investigate Comcast, which owns the news networks NBC and MSNBC, if he is elected, and encouraging House Republicans to shut down the government if the federal investigations into him were not defunded.
More alarming still to experts in democracy is the fact that undergirding many of Trump’s institutional attacks are false claims of election interference or fraud. He has repeatedly claimed the prosecutions against him are part of a Democratic plot to keep him out of office. He faces the four criminal trials related to the removal of classified documents to his Florida estate and his failure to turn them over, his attempts to hold onto power after he lost the 2020 election, and hush money payments allegedly made to a porn star in New York.
“I’m also leading Biden by a lot. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have trials like this,” Trump said Wednesday on his way into the courtroom in New York where he is accused, in civil proceedings, of lying about the value of his real estate and other assets. “Thank you very much.”
Those claims have become something of a sequel to his lies in 2020, when Trump and his allies falsely claimed the election was stolen, baselessly alleging the existence of massive fraud and amplifying conspiracy theories about voting machines. He has kept up those claims on the stump this year — adding that the interference is now coming from the courts, too.
“He used his words to hammer at democratic institutions in ways that undermine trust and confidence, and it’s dangerous,” said Stephen Spaulding, vice president of policy at Common Cause, a nonpartisan good government group. “That is part of his playbook, which is to soften the ground to then attack the legitimate outcome of an election.”
That worries observers who believe Trump is priming his supporters to again undertake the kind of violence that overtook the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“The way the 2024 election is shaping up now is going to be a direct collision course of our political system and the rule of law,” said Amanda Carpenter, a former aide to Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who now works for the pro-democracy group Protect Democracy.
On Monday alone, Trump seemed to threaten New York Attorney General Letitia James on his way into the courtroom, telling reporters that “you ought to go after this attorney general.”
Then, that night, top Trump aides Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita called for the cancellation of the GOP candidates debate on Nov. 8 in Miami and urged the Republican National Committee to “end all future debates in order to refocus its manpower and money on preventing Democrats’ efforts to steal the 2024 election.”
On Tuesday, Trump posted so disparagingly to TruthSocial about a clerk to the judge overseeing the New York fraud case, including a photo and the false allegation that she is the “girlfriend” of Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, that he was hit with an immediate gag order.
“Personal attacks of any member of my court staff are unacceptable, inappropriate and I will not tolerate them,” Judge Arthur Engoron said from the bench, according to media reports.
While Trump’s escalating rhetoric earned him a reprimand, there is no evidence that it has hurt him with his base.
“There may be unhinged rhetoric coming out of Trump’s TruthSocial account, but at the end of the day, Republican primary voters still want that,” said Gunner Ramer, the political director of a GOP anti-Trump group called the Republican Accountability Project. “With swing voters, it’s a different story.”
President Biden’s campaign is hoping to seize on Trump’s antidemocratic rhetoric as a key general election issue. Biden excoriated Trump on the issue at an event in Arizona in late September, warning “there is something dangerous happening in America” and calling Trump’s Make America Great Again movement “extremist.”
“Our democracy is under constant threat from MAGA Republicans like Donald Trump who recklessly lie to undermine faith in our elections,” said Ammar Moussa, the director of rapid response for the Biden campaign. “It’s telling that the Trump campaign is already laying the groundwork to attack future elections.”
Trump’s campaign aides’ call to cancel the rest of the debates might seem like small potatoes compared to his attacks on the judiciary, but Carpenter said that it is part of a larger effort cut off dissent within the Republican Party.
“This really isn’t about debate,” Carpenter said. “It’s shutting down any form of interparty accountability, and the chance for someone to challenge him on these issues. . . . There’s very little intraparty resistance at this point in time, but that certainly closes off that opportunity.”
The RNC, which holds the debates, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some of Trump’s allies defended the call as a nod to reality. They argue that since incumbents usually skip primary debates, it makes sense for a former president who is leading the polls to do so as well.
“The debates are starting to look a little bit like a junior varsity competition,” said Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, a Republican who has endorsed Trump. “It’d be good for the party if we actually just ended the charade, and stop wasting money and stop wasting media attention on people who aren’t going to be the nominee.”
But candidates have lost seemingly insurmountable polling leads before, and some Republicans on Capitol Hill suggested that Trump wants to avoid future debates because he is afraid of a breakout performance that could cost him.
“He doesn’t want to be on the stage where people can see him interact with intelligent opposition,” said Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, calling Trump’s call to end debates “bad for the country.”