If Donald Trump regains the presidency, he will once again become the chief law-enforcement officer of the United States. There may be no American leader less suited to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” as the Constitution directs the president. But that authority comes with the office, including command of the Justice Department and the FBI.
We know what Trump would like to do with that power, because he’s said so out loud. He is driven by self-interest and revenge, in that order. He wants to squelch the criminal charges now pending against him, and he wants to redeploy federal prosecutors against his enemies, beginning with President Joe Biden. The important question is how much of that agenda he could actually carry out in a second term.
Trump tried and failed to cross many lines during his time in the White House. He proposed, for example, that the IRS conduct punitive audits of his political antagonists and that Border Patrol officers shoot migrants in the legs. Subordinates talked the former president out of many such schemes or passively resisted them by running out the clock. The whole second volume of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which documented 10 occasions on which Trump tried to obstruct justice, can be read as a compilation of thwarted directives.
The institutional resistance Trump faced has reinforced his determination to place loyalists in key jobs should he win reelection. One example is Jeffrey Clark, who tried to help Trump overturn the 2020 election. Trump sought to appoint Clark as acting attorney general in early January 2021, but backed off after a mass-resignation threat at the DOJ. People who know him well suggest that he would not let that threat deter him a second time. Trump will also want to fire Christopher Wray, the FBI director, and replace him with someone more pliable. Only tradition, not binding law, prevents the president and his political appointees from issuing orders to the FBI about its investigations.
The top jobs at the DOJ require Senate confirmation, and even a Republican Senate might not confirm an indicted conspirator to overturn an election like Clark for attorney general. Under the Vacancies Reform Act, which regulates temporary appointments, Trump can appoint any currently serving Senate-confirmed official from anywhere in the executive branch as acting attorney general. Of course, all of the officials serving at the beginning of his new term would be holdovers from the Biden administration.
Trump’s allies are searching for loyalists among the Republicans currently serving on several dozen independent boards and commissions, such as the Federal Trade Commission, that have “party balancing” requirements for their appointees. Alternatively, Trump could choose any senior career official in the Justice Department who has served for at least 90 days in a position ranked GS-15 or higher on the federal pay scale—a cohort that includes, for example, senior trial attorneys, division counsels, and section chiefs. As Anne Joseph O’Connell, a Stanford law professor and an expert on the Vacancies Reform Act, reminded me, “This is how we got Matthew Whitaker,” the former attorney general’s chief of staff, as acting attorney general. (Whitaker was widely criticized as unqualified.)
Would some career officials, somewhere among the department’s 115,000 employees, do Trump’s bidding in exchange for an acting appointment? Trump’s team is looking.
Once Trump has installed loyalists in crucial posts, his first priority—an urgent one for a man facing 91 felony charges in four jurisdictions—would be to save himself from conviction and imprisonment.
Of the four indictments against him, two are federal: the Florida case, with charges of unlawful retention of classified documents and obstruction of justice, and the Washington case, which charges Trump with unlawful efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Those will be the easiest for him to dispose of.
To begin with, there is little to stop Trump from firing Special Counsel Jack Smith, who is overseeing both of the federal investigations. Justice Department regulations confer a measure of protection on a special counsel against arbitrary dismissal, but he may be removed for “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause.” That last clause is a catchall that Trump could readily invoke.
The regulations state that a special counsel may be fired “only by the personal action of the Attorney General,” but that would not stop Trump either. In the unlikely event that his handpicked attorney general were reluctant, he could fire the attorney general and keep on firing successors until he found one to do his bidding, as Richard Nixon did to get rid of Archibald Cox. Alternatively, Trump could claim—and probably prevail, if it came to a lawsuit—that the president is not bound by Justice Department regulations and can fire the special counsel himself.
Smith’s departure would still leave Trump’s federal criminal charges intact, but no law would prevent Trump from ordering that they be dropped. He could do so even with a trial in progress, right up to the moment before a jury returned a verdict. No legal expert I talked with expressed any doubt that he could get away with this.
Dismissing the charges would require the trial judges’ consent. But even if the judges were to object, Trump would almost certainly win on appeal: The Supreme Court is not likely to let a district judge decide whether or not the Justice Department has to prosecute a case.
Trump will be able to avoid going to prison even if he has already been convicted of federal charges before he is sworn in. Here again, a trial judge is unlikely to order Trump imprisoned, even after sentencing, before he exhausts his appeals. And there is no plausible scenario in which that happens before Inauguration Day.
At any time while Trump’s appeals are pending, his Justice Department may notify the appellate court that the prosecution no longer wishes to support his conviction. This is known as a confession of error on the government’s part; the effect, if the court grants the request, is to vacate a conviction. Under Attorney General Bill Barr, the Trump administration did something to similar effect in a false-statements case against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, moving to dismiss the charges after Flynn had pleaded guilty but before his sentencing. (Trump later pardoned Flynn.) According to the relevant rule of criminal procedure, dismissal during prosecution—including on appeal from a conviction—requires “leave of the court,” but it’s highly unlikely that an appellate court would refuse to grant such a motion to dismiss.
Trump might also invoke the pardon power on his own behalf. He has already asserted, as far back as 2018, that “I have the absolute right to PARDON myself.” No president has ever tried this, and whether he can is a contested question among legal scholars. Experts who agree with Trump say the Constitution frames the pardon power as total but for one exception, implicitly blessing all other uses. (The exception is that the president may not pardon an impeachment.) Those who disagree include the Justice Department itself, through its Office of Legal Counsel, which concluded in 1974 that a self-pardon would be invalid under “the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case.”
But the debate over self-pardons wouldn’t matter much to Trump in practice. If he pardoned himself of all criminal charges, there would be no one with standing to challenge the pardon in court—other than, perhaps, the Justice Department, which would be under Trump’s control.
Unlike the federal charges, Trump’s state criminal cases—for alleged racketeering and election interference in Georgia and hush-money payments to a porn star in New York—would not fall under his authority as president. Even so, the presidency would very likely protect him for at least the duration of his second term.
The Office of Legal Counsel, which makes authoritative interpretations of the law for the executive branch, has twice opined, in 1973 and again in 2000, that “the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would unconstitutionally undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions.” That conclusion is binding for federal prosecutors, but state prosecutors are not obliged to follow it.
No one knows what would happen if Fani Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, or Alvin Bragg, the DA in New York, decided to press ahead with their cases against Trump should he regain the presidency. Like so many outlandish questions pertaining to Trump, this one has no judicial precedent, because no sitting president has ever been charged with felony crimes. But legal scholars told me that Trump would have strong arguments, at least, to defer state criminal proceedings against him until he left the White House in 2029. By then, new prosecutors, with new priorities, may have replaced Willis and Bragg.
Trump has named a long list of people as deserving of criminal charges, or execution. Among them are Joe Biden, Mark Milley, James Comey, Andrew McCabe, John Brennan, James Clapper, and Arthur Engoron, the judge in his New York civil fraud case.
If he returns to office, Trump may not even have to order their prosecutions himself. He will be surrounded by allies who know what he wants. One likely DOJ appointee is Mike Davis, a Republican who has substantial government credentials: He was a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and chief counsel for nominations to Senator Charles Grassley when Grassley chaired the Judiciary Committee.
If Davis were acting attorney general, he said on a right-wing YouTube show, he would “rain hell on Washington.” First, “we’re gonna fire a lot of people in the executive branch, in the deep state.” He would also “indict Joe Biden and Hunter Biden and James Biden and every other scumball, sleazeball Biden.” And “every January 6 defendant is gonna get a pardon.” Trump could not immediately appoint an outsider like Davis attorney general. But he could make him a Justice Department section chief, and then appoint him as acting attorney general after 90 days.
Trump could also appoint—or direct his attorney general to appoint—any lawyer, at any time, as special counsel to the Justice Department, with the authority to bring charges and prosecute a case. Trump might not be able to convict his political enemies of spurious charges, but he could immiserate them with years of investigations and require them to run up millions of dollars in legal fees.
Likewise, if he managed to place sufficiently zealous allies in the Office of Legal Counsel, Trump could obtain legal authority for any number of otherwise lawless transgressions. Vice President Dick Cheney did that in the George W. Bush administration, inducing the OLC to issue opinions that authorized torture and warrantless domestic surveillance. Those opinions were later repudiated, but they guided policy for years. Trump’s history suggests that he might seek comparable legal blessing for the use of lethal force at the southern border, deployment of federal troops against political demonstrators, federal seizure of state voting machines, or deferral of the next election in order to stay in power. He would be limited only by the willingness of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the career civil service to say no.
It occurred to me, as I interviewed government veterans and legal scholars, that they might be blinkered by their own expertise when they try to anticipate what Trump would do. All of the abuses they foresee are based on the ostensibly lawful powers of the president, even if they amount to gross ruptures of legal norms and boundaries. What transgressions could he commit, that is, within the law?
But Trump himself isn’t thinking that way. On Truth Social, in December 2022, he posted that righting a wrong of sufficient “magnitude” (in this case, his fictitious claim of election fraud) “allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”
The “take Care” clause of the Constitution calls for the president to see that laws are carried out faithfully. But what if a court rules against Trump and he simply refuses to comply? It’s not obvious who would—or could—enforce the ruling.
This article appears in the January/February 2024 print edition with the headline “Trump Will Get Away With It.”