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Trump’s possible return is shaking capital

WASHINGTON – It has become the topic of the season at dinners and receptions in Washington. Where would you go if it really happened?

Portugal, says a former member of Congress. Australia, says a former agency director. Canada, says a Biden administration official. France, says a liberal columnist. Poland, says a former researcher.

They’re joking. Kind of. At least in most cases. It’s gallows humor with a dark edge. Much of official Washington is bracing for the possibility that the former president Donald Trump could really return – this time with “retribution” as its overt mission, the discussion turns to where people might end up in a kind of self-imposed exile.

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Whether they mean it or not, the buzz is a telling indication of the grim mood among many in the nation’s capital these days. The ‘what if’ goes beyond the normal prospect of a party dissatisfied with a lost election. It speaks to the nervousness of a future president who talks of one day being a dictator, who promises to “exterminate” enemies he called “pests,” who threatens to prosecute opponents, who suggests that a general he considers disloyal ” deserves’. DEATH,” whose lawyers say he has immunity even if he orders the killings of political rivals.

“I feel like the conversation has only increased in the last two weeks for whatever reason,” said Miles Taylor, a former Trump administration official who became an outspoken critic of the former president. “People feel like it’s very clear that if there is a second Trump term, it will be a slash and burn.”

That’s all fine for Trump and his allies. According to them, Washington’s fear is the point. He is the disrupter of the elite. He comes to break their corrupt uniparty grip on power. If establishment Washington is upset about the possibility of his return, it’s a selling point for his base across the country, which is alienated from the people in power.

Washington, of course, has never been fertile Trump territory. He won just 5% of the vote in the nation’s capital in 2020, and unsurprisingly the ruling class is unsettled by attacks on “the deep state.” Even many Republicans in the capital are nervous about Trump. The District of Columbia has so far been the only place outside of Vermont to support Nikki Haley against Trump in this year’s Republican primaries.

But Trump’s flirtation with authoritarian figures and language has raised the specter of a Washington far different from his first term, when he was sometimes stymied by establishment Republicans, military officers and career civil servants who are less likely to surround him with a power struggle. second. His rhetoric this time focused more than before on power and how he would increase and use it if he won again.

“The rest of America may not take what he says seriously,” said former Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., “but I think you hear the uncomfortable talk in Washington among Democrats and Republicans because they understand that they have with him worked together. in the past that when he says something, he means it.”

Murphy, who served on the House of Representatives committee investigating the events of January 6, 2021, did not hesitate when asked about her Plan B. “Portugal,” she promptly said. She’s thought about it carefully. Portugal has a lot of appeal – beautiful, charming and cheaper than elsewhere in Europe – and is on many lists in Washington.

There is a spectrum of how serious people really are. Murphy said that in her case it is mainly biting humor. “I guess I’m being light-hearted because I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have to be a refugee for the second time in my life because of political persecution,” said the former congressman, whose family escaped Vietnam when she was a child .

David Urban, a Trump ally who worked on his 2016 and 2020 campaigns, said concerned Washingtonians have confused themselves because they “can’t see past the fuss to the substance” and are suffering from “Trump derangement syndrome ‘.

“The chattering class is in panic,” he said. “There are plenty of people who see the dark side of the moon with Trump. And there’s a good group in Washington that can’t wait for him to get here.”

He added: “They really think this will mean the end of democracy as we know it, and I think this is misguided.” In fact, Urban said, a new Trump presidency would still be subject to checks and balances that would restrain extreme impulses. “There are plenty of adults, plenty of serious people who want to bring in a second Trump administration.”

Moreover, despite all the doomsday predictions inside the Beltway this spring, many people have in the past vowed to run if the candidate they opposed won, whether it was George W. Bush for the left or Barack Obama for the right, without actually doing so. by following.

“Every four years, whenever it looks like a Republican might win, Democrats ramp up the ‘I’m leaving America’ rhetoric. Yet none of them ever do,” said Douglas Heye, a Republican strategist. “This could be more of a tactic to attract attention.”

But many in Washington speculating about travel plans are not seeking publicity. Many who have spoken about it in recent days only did so if they were assured their names would not be used, for fear of making themselves further targets.

The range and seniority of the people talking about it are striking. They include current and former White House officials, Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, agency directors, intelligence and law enforcement officials, military officers, political strategists and journalists. The subject came up repeatedly during the many Washington soirees surrounding the recent White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

One person high on Trump’s enemies list said planning an outing is a regular topic of discussion among those targeted by the former president’s social media accounts over the years. Another favorite Trump target said it is brought up “over and over again,” especially among spouses of those deemed in danger. A European ambassador said it happens at least twice a week that Washington figures joke about the need for asylum.

“It’s certainly been a topic of conversation,” said Steven A. Cook, a Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. Cook has no personal reason to fear Trump’s “retaliation,” but fears the beginning of a more autocratic form of government like he has seen in countries like Egypt and Pakistan.

His possible refuge? Abu Dhabi, he said, acknowledging the irony that “a little Jewish kid from Long Island” might feel safer in the United Arab Emirates than in his home country.

“Maybe because we’re in Washington and it’s a bubble, maybe we’re overdoing it,” Cook said. “But it’s not as hard to imagine as it once was. Until recently, I shared the idea that the United States was sprinkled with fairy dust and that this couldn’t happen here. But too much has happened and maybe that could be possible.”

With Cook, leaving is just talking for now. But others go further. They researched family history to see if they could qualify for a passport from Ireland, Poland or Germany, for example. They updated passports and started looking for property to buy in Europe. Some have hired lawyers to explore their options.

David A. Andelman, 79, a journalist who has lived in France part-time for years, wrote on CNN’s website this past week that he and his wife could move there full-time if Trump wins and had found “a growing feeling that we are barely only.” The day his column was posted online, he said, his real estate agent in France received 45 calls from Americans wanting to do the same.

A lawyer who has clashed with Trump is among those who have studied his European roots in case he needs to establish residency. The conversation, he said, has gone from knowing joke to sensible contingency planning. It would be “madness to dismiss the risk,” he said.

A former administration official who angered Trump said it is not a trivial conversation or purely humorous. Although this person expressed optimism that American institutions would prevent major injustices, anyone targeted by Trump could still be made “miserable” by investigations, grand juries, attorneys’ fees and career-killing publicity.

Brian Katulis, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who has worked at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon, said a friend of the Obama administration recently went to London to investigate possible real estate and school properties .

“My opinion is that there should be a little less hair on fire,” he said, expressing confidence in the country’s resilience. ‘If the ship goes down, I will join this ship and throw the buckets overboard. I don’t think it sinks. But if things go that way, my attitude is not to jump ship. We have no better places to go.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company