What if he’s president again? Who will be around for that, inside a second Trump administration, when he asks why the military can’t shoot protesters in the legs, or when he wants to withdraw all military dependents from South Korea and throw Asia into an economic crisis?
Nobody, outside his supporters, wants to talk about the eventuality — not probable but definitely not impossible — that Donald Trump will be re-elected. His former cabinet secretaries don’t. The people — the foreign ministers and former national security officials — at the Aspen Security Forum don’t.
And the closer you get to presidential campaign events, elections can become a kind of dreamscape, a contained universe where meta attacks are signaled yet nothing seems that weird about Mr. Trump’s dominance. After Friday night’s Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines — a fund-raiser for the Iowa Republican Party, held in the city’s convention center — the candidates hosted after- parties off a long hallway, producing an animatronicesque gallery effect.
In one room, for about an hour, Mr. Trump stood grinning and shaking hands and posing for photos, with an ever-replenishing line of dozens waiting to get in, and dozens wandering out, ice cream in hand and wearing “TRUMP COUNTRY” stickers. In the next room, Senator Tim Scott, a putting green and cornhole game. In the next, Mayor Francis Suarez of Miami and a live band, with a foursome playing dominoes, red wine on the table. Through another door, at a more subdued valence, you could see Mike Pence talking to little groups of people, mostly older couples, a father and son, a nod, a hand on a shoulder, a photo. Nikki Haley signed books and posters in the hall, and 20-something aides holding red “DESANTIS 2024” signs roamed, directing people to his room, where Republicans threw baseballs at pyramids of Bud Light cans. Step, repeat.
This looked fun and vaguely normal — like something from the past. In reality, Mr. Pence is disappearing, politically, before our eyes. Mr. Scott says he can only hold the rioters who were violent, and not Mr. Trump, responsible for the events of Jan. 6. The physical distance between all three of them on Friday night was roughly the distance that separated that mob from Mr. Pence, or the mob from the Senate chamber, that day.
That wasn’t that long ago. You can read all about it, across 45 pages in the federal indictment against Mr. Trump for events some of which unfolded in public. We know what happens to people around Mr. Trump. To preserve influence, those hired by him either exist on a total MAGA wavelength, or else have to dodge or lie sometimes to beat back chaos. And in the indictment, the frayed and unnerving interpersonal dynamics abound: Consider the case of Co-conspirator 4, whose description matches Jeffrey Clark, and who prosecutors say kept pressing to send a letter claiming the Justice Department had concerns — or had even found — “significant irregularities” in the 2020 election.
It’s hard not to flash back and then forward, to that surreal period when politicians joined the first administration and to think about the even more uncertain future. Recall the photo of Mitt Romney and Mr. Trump eating dinner after the 2016 election; despite having opposed Mr. Trump’s nomination, there was Mr. Romney, offering himself as secretary of state.
Mr. Romney’s expression captured a strong public sentiment toward people who joined the Trump administration: at best, it was seen as a slightly embarrassing exposure of the pursuit of power and personal ambition.
The last year of the Trump administration concentrated how bad and complex this situation was: The government transformed into a body that had to handle crisis, but also one in which officials’ intentions could not be always known by the public, and one in which the act of joining government service came with deep personal repercussions. The pandemic required, for instance, a massive collaboration across departments and the private sector to produce a vaccine. Things had to stop, or start, with government employees at moments of intense crisis.
And, in books, committee depositions and now in this latest indictment, the months after the 2020 election sound especially abysmal — a White House ghost town deserted by people tired of dealing with Mr. Trump and his break with reality about election’s outcome. They left behind a few panicked people who remained grounded in reality like former White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Mr. Pence, and then Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell and the rest. Again and again, people describe desperate circumstances, arguments about doing things like seizing the voting machines, or trying to persuade Mr. Trump to call off the riot. According to prosecutors, at 7:01 p.m. on Jan. 6, Mr. Cipollone called Mr. Trump and asked him to withdraw his objections to certification; Mr. Trump refused. Would there be more Clarks or Cipollones in a future administration?
The idea for many around Mr. Trump is to use a second administration as a path to clearing out parts of the government and reorganizing it around a stronger executive, with true believers underneath him. Jonathan Swan has written extensively about those plans, most recently in an article about the expansive efforts Trump allies want to undertake, like placing the Federal Trade Commission under presidential control, or using Schedule F to fire federal employees. The idea for the next term, in Mr. Trump’s telling, is also retribution.
This only ups the anxiety around, basically, who might be involved in such an administration and what the broader American public would tolerate from them. In his book, “Why We Did It,” Tim Miller debates this question with Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former White House communications official. “Governing is happening under him whether we want it to be or not,” she argues, citing the prospect of whatever goon would serve instead of her, which Mr. Miller concedes is true. But, he counters: “This logic is circular. It justifies anything! Alyssa was a flack; she wasn’t securing loose nukes.” She counters again, ticking off different things people had talked Mr. Trump out of: invoking the Insurrection Act during the George Floyd protests or firing Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
In these circumstances, the line between “responsible influence, working to contain the worst impulses in private” and “passive bystander” and “amoral chump” is difficult to discern.
Mr. Pence’s experience highlights the dangers for the individual and the public. In his book, Mr. Esper describes the way Mr. Pence represented a sane, normal presence in meetings. But, Mr. Esper writes, he could never discern how much their boss even considered the vice president’s views: “He was part cheerleader and part sounding board, though I could never tell how much influence he really had with Trump. He often didn’t say much in meetings that the president attended, and he rarely disagreed with Trump in front of us.”
Mr. Trump’s first vice president ended up trapped inside the Capitol with a mob calling for his death by hanging. Now people talk about the other Republican presidential candidates as though they might be his running mate this time around, as though all this didn’t just happen. And now, as Mr. Pence runs for president himself, the reward for coming through in a central moment of American history is a kind of surround-sound aversion.
At first, at that dinner in Iowa last week, Mr. Pence talked brightly, in the expectation of applause, which came, sort of, at muted levels, muted even for the kinds of things — like his abortion politics — that resulted in applause for others.
This was tepid, indifferent clapping, a kind of subtle hell worse than booing, where people who knew you have forgotten you. Mr. Pence kept talking, the delivery staying even and polished, the brightness fading, talking about restoring civility. “So I thank you for hearing me out tonight,” he said, almost somber.
On Tuesday evening, Mr. Pence was one of few Republican candidates to put the situation plainly: “Anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be president of the United States.” At the moment, Mr. Pence has not yet qualified for the debates, and is polling badly.
As Mr. Trump told him when he balked at the idea of returning votes to the states, according to the indictment, “You’re too honest.”
Katherine Miller is a staff writer and editor in Opinion.
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