As he contemplates a third straight run for the presidency, Donald Trump has a multimillion-dollar political machine and a network of tax-exempt advocacy groups at his disposal. He also has a plan. The plan is to wrest control of the federal government from what he sees as a policy apparatus dominated by “radical left-wing Democrats.”
While many in Washington were arguing (or hoping) that Trump was fading, Trump himself outlined his agenda for a second term in a speech at the America First Policy Institute last week:
In the same speech, Trump announced his intention to enact legislation granting the president authority to send in the National Guard in the case of violent protests by Black Lives Matter or other groups:
Trump declared that he would remove “the homeless, the drug addicted and the dangerously deranged” from city streets and place them in “thousands and thousands of high-quality tents” on “large parcels of inexpensive land in the outer reaches of the cities.”
“Now, some people say, ‘Oh, that’s so horrible,’ Trump added. “No. What’s horrible is what’s happening now. Because now they’re in tents but most of them aren’t even tents that function.”
It’s clear that no matter what anyone else thinks, Trump is getting busy.
Theda Skocpol, a political scientist and sociologist at Harvard, emailed her reply to my query about Trump, 2024 — and 2025. Like many others, she is apprehensive:
American institutions, Skocpol continued,
The nation, Skocpol argued, “would enter a major new decades-long era of U.S. politics. We may already have done so, given the 6-3 SCOTUS majority devoted to eviscerating federal government power for many Democratic Party agenda priorities.”
Skocpol’s point remains on target whether or not Trump runs, or whether the 2024 Republican presidential nominee is a Trump clone in the mold of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida or Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, both of whom are openly campaigning to be Trump’s political heir.
The so-called Trump-in-waiting PACs and tax-exempt advocacy groups not only ensure that Trump would enter the 2024 presidential race with an immense bankroll, but, in contrast to the 2016 campaign and to his four years at the White House, he would be armed with a set of policy and personnel goals designed to institutionalize his dominance.
The architects of one of the most radical of Trump’s proposals have described it as “the constitutional option.” It would provide for the wholesale politicization of the elite levels of the civil service through the creation of a new “Schedule F” classification, allowing the president to hire and fire at will thousands of government employees “in positions of a confidential, policy-determining, policymaking, or policy-advocating character.”
This is no idle threat; Trump has taken some lessons from his first term.
The broad outlines of the emerging Trump 2025 agenda are sketched in a recent two-part Axios series by Jonathan Swan, “A radical plan for Trump’s second term” and “Trump’s revenge,” in a number of stories by Erich Wagner at Government Executive including “Trump Is Threatening the Return and Expansion of Schedule F” on March 14 and in Donald Moynihan’s article for The Public Administration Review, “Public Management for Populists: Trump’s Schedule F Executive Order and the Future of the Civil Service.”
On July 22, Swan wrote:
Swan described the creation of the “Schedule F” classification, which would eliminate civil service protection for top-level government workers as “the centerpiece” of Trump’s plans for his second term in the White House, writing that “sources close to the former president said that he will — as a matter of top priority — go after the national security apparatus, ‘clean house’ in the intelligence community and the State Department, target the ‘woke generals’ at the Defense Department, and remove the top layers of the Justice Department and F.B.I.”
An executive order gutting these civil service protections for a broad swath of the federal work force with the innocuous-seeming name, “Creating Schedule F in the Excepted Service,” was actually proposed on Oct. 21, 2020, in what turned out to be the waning days of the Trump administration. It was never implemented.
Moynihan, a professor of public policy at Georgetown and an expert on the administrative state, emailed me to say that Trump’s “Schedule F represents the biggest threat not just to the civil service since inception, but to the underlying ideal of a merit-based public service.”
The category of Schedule F, Moynihan observed, “is defined so broadly such that anyone with a policy advisory role could be reclassified as a political appointee. Most civilian government work is now white-collar work, where it’s possible to argue that almost every job has some policy role.”
In 2020, the Trump administration asked agency heads for an estimate of the extent of the proposed schedule F classification, Moynihan wrote, and “almost 9 out of 10 Office of Management and Budget officials were proposed for Schedule F reclassification.” The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to give a second example, estimated that 74 percent of its employees would be subject to Schedule F reclassification,
Max Stier, founding president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service — a nonpartisan nonprofit group committed to the revitalization of public service — argued in a phone interview that “the broad contours of the Trump proposal are profound. This is about our democracy. What is at risk is a government made up of professionals committed to the public good.”
To better understand the dangers posed by ending civil service protections and merit requirements, Stier suggested envisaging the country under a Trump administration, or a president with a similar program, in which the “IRS agents, the FBI agents and prosecutors were all there on the basis of their loyalty to the president.”
Stier pointed out that the federal government
“already has an extraordinary number of political appointees — 4,000 of them — that every president gets to make. No other democracy has anything remotely close to that number, and our government would be much, much more effective with fewer of them and not lose out on accountability. The last thing we need is an even larger cadre of patronage appointments, which is what in effect Schedule F would do.”
While Trump gears up for a possible 2024 bid, he has some clear vulnerabilities as a general election candidate. Not only have the Jan. 6 Committee hearings damaged his reputation, especially with independent voters who are key in general elections, but those hearings appear to have threatened a prime source of Trump support: Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, including the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal and, most important, Fox News. Fox News has been a central pillar of the Trump machine; if it were to turn against him, it would put the viability of the machine at risk.
If Fox break its ties to Trump, the network would be likely to seek out another candidate as the conservative standard-bearer — with DeSantis a front-runner, although the competition for the Fox imprimatur would be intense.
Trump is the subject of a wide array of lawsuits and of a host of criminal and civil investigations. The Washington Post reported on July 30 that:
The filing of formal criminal charges against Trump, much less a conviction, would have a major impact on his prospects as a candidate.
At the same time, it would be a fundamental mistake to underestimate Trump’s prospects. In a Wall Street Journal column last week, Karl Rove described the amount of money awaiting Trump should he decide to run for a second term:
Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, a campaign-finance reform advocacy group, wrote in an email responding to my inquiry that Trump cannot directly transfer this money into a Trump for President 2024 committee,
In addition to the political action committees cited above, the network of fund-raising organizations and tax-exempt advocacy groups at Trump’s disposal include the America First Policy Institute, The Conservative Partnership Institute, America First Legal, American Moment, the Center for Renewing America and the Claremont Institute, Save America JFC joint fund-raising committee, Save America leadership PAC, Trump Victory, and Make America Great Again Policies Inc.
Tracking the flow of money to and from these organizations is exceptionally difficult because the organizations continuously transfer money between themselves. For example, in the 2019-2020 election cycle, America First Action, a SuperPAC, reported contributions of just over $20 million from America First Policies, Inc., a nonprofit charitable organization categorized as a 501c4 under IRS rules, according to the Federal Election Commission. During the same period, America First Action, the SuperPAC, gave America First Policies $2.04 million to cover the cost of “in-kind payroll/offices expenses.”
Trump has a vast array of 501c3 and 501c4 nonprofit tax-exempt advocacy groups that serve multiple purposes. They perform what Peter Singer, a senior fellow at New America, describes as a “shadow government” function, “filled with people who either have been or want to be in government — or both,” a way station for prospective political appointees. These advocacy groups, Singer continued, can “set a political party’s agenda,” giving a 2025 Trump administration a “jump-start.”
I asked several political scholars about Trump’s 2025 agenda. Some were less alarmed than others at the threat posed by the former president.
Gregory Wawro, a professor of political science at Columbia University, replied by email to my questions: “My bet is that 2025 Trump would look a whole lot like 2017 Trump. He would try to play the ‘hits’ again (immigration ban, wall building, tariffs, tax cuts, etc.), because he doesn’t seem like the kind of person who evolves or is going to come up with innovative policy ideas.”
It’s hard, Wawro continued, “to see how a second Trump administration would be more effective and purposeful — and less chaotic — than the first. Chaos has long been Trump’s modus operandi and it’s difficult to believe that he would or could change at this point.
Wawro did agree, however, that Trump’s civil service proposals could be significant:
David Brady, a political scientist at Stanford, wrote me that he and two colleagues, Morris Fiorina and Bruce Cain, “think the odds of Trump getting the nomination are decreasing daily. The combination of the Jan. 6 hearings, his insistence on making the 2020 election an issue, moves Republican voters to say it is time to push on.”
Brady believes that DeSantis “is running for sure and he is not crazy. People who know him and whom I trust say he does his homework and politically he is good at playing off Democratic liberal excesses — Defund, L.G.B.T.Q. and other issues where Democrats give up their advantage by pushing too far left.”
Alison Dagnes, a professor of political science at Shippensburg University, argued that
A DeSantis agenda, Dagnes continued, “would be a mega-MAGA agenda, but without the 2020 grievance and without the Trump swagger. DeSantis’s agenda, which he has made clear from his re-election campaign, is to stoke the fires of the culture wars and lead the G.O.P. to a post-Trump presidency.”
Skocpol, in her email, emphasized the idea that with or without Trump, “the Trumpism takeover of the G.O.P. is real and likely to persist.”
To prove her point, she cited DeSantis:
Trump has catalyzed racism and racial resentment, misogyny, white status decline, identity threat, economic anxiety, hatred of liberal elites and rage at globalization. Now this incendiary mix is at hand for any willing politician to capitalize on. There is no shortage of takers. But Trump is not just going to walk away and let other candidates stir his toxic political brew.
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