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Trump says he’ll be a dictator on ‘day one.’ Legal experts are concerned.

Donald Trump said Tuesday that he won’t be a dictator if he wins reelection, “other than [on] day one.”Morry Gash/Associated Press

Legal scholars, political observers, and Democratic lawmakers blasted former president Donald Trump for saying Tuesday that he won’t be a dictator if he wins reelection, “other than [on] day one.”

Laurence H. Tribe, an emeritus Harvard Law professor and a leading expert on constitutional law, said Wednesday that Trump’s comments on Fox News were “profoundly concerning.”

“I take Trump at his word that he intends to govern as a dictator, and when he says he will do so ‘only on day one,’ he shows how much contempt he has for the country he intends to rule and the people he means to control,” Tribe said by email.

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Trump made the remarks during a televised town hall in a conversation with Fox host Sean Hannity.

“Under no circumstances, you are promising America tonight, you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?” Hannity asked Trump in the interview taped in Davenport, Iowa.

“Except for day one,” Trump responded. “I want to close the border and I want to drill, drill, drill.”

Trump then doubled down.

“I love this guy,” he said of Hannity. “He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ I said: ‘No, no, no, other than day one. We’re closing the border and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.’”

Tribe said that Trump’s comments are “of a piece with Trump’s statement last December that he wouldn’t hesitate to ‘terminate’ the Constitution if that was what it took for him to get his way.”

In a December 2022 post on Truth Social, Trump had said “Do you throw the Presidential Election Results of 2020 OUT and declare the RIGHTFUL WINNER, or do you have a NEW ELECTION?” CNN reported at the time. “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”

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Trump later denied he wanted to terminate the nation’s founding document, Politico reported.

On Wednesday, Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, highlighted an article about Trump’s comments with a headline indicating it wasn’t clear if he was being serious or letting a “quip” fly.

“Trump: ‘I will be a dictator on day one,’” Caraballo wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “American media : ‘It’s unclear what he means!’”

Jeffrey M. Berry, an emeritus political science professor at Tufts University, said Trump’s comments Tuesday were standard fare but noted his apparent détente with Fox News.

“Trump says outrageous things every day and, if they become too embarrassing or problematic, he shifts effortlessly away from them and on to other topics,” Berry said by email. “To me what is significant about last night is that it represents an effort at rapprochement with Fox News. Trump has never forgiven the network for its early call on Arizona on election night in 2020 and he hasn’t been shy about criticizing Fox since. But he needs Fox for both the 2024 primary season and the general election if he’s the nominee.”

Aaron Parnas, a lawyer and Democratic activist, wrote on X that Trump’s comments about a day-one dictatorship should be taken at face value, and voters should act accordingly.

“Take him at his word,” Parnas wrote. “Donald Trump has committed to being a dictator on day one. We cannot let him anywhere near the Oval Office.”

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The Trump campaign pushed back on Wednesday, blasting out an email to reporters with the subject heading, “There’s a dictator in the White House,” referring to President Biden, whose Justice Department has brought criminal charges against Trump in connection with classified documents found at his Florida resort and his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the US Capitol.

Trump also faces separate state charges in New York and Georgia and has denied all wrongdoing, calling the various prosecutions a political witch hunt meant to keep him from regaining the White House.

“Joe Biden abuses his power to target journalists, politicians, activists, and concerned parents,” the campaign said, linking to a story about an FBI raid on the home of right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, as well as a New York Times op-ed from 2016 detailing prosecutions of journalists during the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president.

The Trump campaign also linked to Times reporting indicating Biden told confidants before Trump was charged at the federal level that he wanted Attorney General Merrick Garland to “act less like a ponderous judge and more like a prosecutor who is willing to take decisive action over the events of Jan. 6.”

Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, said Wednesday that Trump will never shed his autocratic leanings.

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“As per @realDonaldTrump in his interview with @seanhannity @SeanStations yesterday, I won’t be a dictator ‘other than day one,’ I have been saying this for 3+ years now,” Cohen wrote on X. “#Trump will be a dictator on day one and until his death. Be concerned. Democracy depends on it!”

Cohen’s remarks were echoed by Congressman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat.

“Last night, Donald Trump was asked if he would abuse his power as retribution against opponents,” Schiff wrote on X. “First he refused to respond. Then he said he’d be a dictator ‘on day one.’ He’s shown us who he is. We need to believe him.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.