Talk of Escape: Trump’s Possible Return Rattles D.C.

Talk of Escape: Trump’s Possible Return Rattles D.C.

It has become the theme of the season at dinner parties 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, a Biden administration official says. France, says a liberal columnist. Poland, says a former investigator.

You’re joking. Somehow. At least in most cases. It’s gallows humor with a dark edge. Much of official Washington is preparing for the possibility that former President Donald J. Trump might actually return – this time with “retaliation” as his stated mission; There is debate about whether people could go into a kind of self-imposed exile.

Whether they are serious or not, the sentiment is a clear indication of the somber mood prevailing in the nation’s capital these days. The “what if” goes beyond the normal outlook of a side unhappy about a lost election. It speaks to the nervousness of a would-be president who talks about being dictator for a day, who vows to “exterminate” enemies he calls “vermin,” who threatens to prosecute opponents, who proposes a general , whom he considers disloyal, who deserves it. TOD,” whose lawyers say he may enjoy immunity even if he orders the killings of political rivals.

“I feel like this discussion, for whatever reason, has grown more and more over the last two weeks,” said Miles Taylor, a former Trump administration official who became a vocal critic of the former president. “People feel like it’s very clear that a second Trump term is going to be about slash-and-burn.”

That’s all fine with Mr. Trump and his allies. From their perspective, it’s about Washington’s fear. He is the disruptor of the elite. He comes to break their corrupt “one-party” rule. If the Washington establishment is upset about the possibility of his return, it is a selling point to his base across the country, which is alienated from those in power.

Of course, Washington was never fertile Trump territory. He won just 5 percent of the vote in the nation’s capital in 2020, and it is hardly surprising that the ruling class is unsettled by attacks on the “deep state.” Even many Republicans in the capital are nervous about Mr. Trump. The District of Columbia was so far the only place other than Vermont to support Nikki R. Haley over Mr. Trump in this year’s Republican primary.

But Mr. Trump’s flirtation with authoritarian figures and his language has raised the specter of a very different Washington than during his first term, when he was at times held back by establishment Republicans, military officers and career civil servants who are unlikely to surround him in a second . His rhetoric this time focused more than ever on power and how he would expand and use it if he won again.

“The rest of America may not take what he says seriously,” said former Rep. Stephanie Murphy, Democrat of Florida, “but I think you hear the unpleasant talk in Washington among Democrats and Republicans because they understand that “They worked with him during the crisis.” Furthermore, he means it when he says something.”

Ms. Murphy, who served on the House committee that investigated the events of January 6, 2021, did not hesitate when asked about her Plan B. “Portugal,” she said promptly. She’s thought it through. Portugal is very attractive – beautiful, charming and cheaper than anywhere else in Europe – and is on many lists in Washington.

There is a spectrum of how serious people really are. Ms Murphy said in her case it was mostly biting humor. “I think I’m being flippant because I would like to think that I wouldn’t have to be on the run from political persecution for the second time in my life,” said the former congresswoman, whose family fled Vietnam when she was a child.

David Urban, a Trump ally who worked on his 2016 and 2020 campaigns, said worried Washingtonians are reeling because they can’t “see past the bluster to the substance” and are suffering from “Trump confusion syndrome.” .

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

He added: “They really believe it will be the end of democracy as we know it, and I think that is misplaced.” In fact, Mr. Urban said, a new Trump presidency would still be one Subject to control that would curb any extreme impulses. “There are a lot of adults, a lot of serious people, who want to bring in a second Trump administration.”

Furthermore, despite all the doomsday talk in the Beltway this spring, many people have vowed in the past to flee if the candidate they were fighting won, be it George W. Bush on the left or Barack Obama on the right, without to actually do this follow through.

“Every four years, when it looks like a Republican might win, Democrats step up their ‘I’m leaving America’ rhetoric. But none of them ever do,” said Douglas Heye, a Republican strategist. “This could be more of an attention-grabbing tactic.”

But many in Washington who speculate about travel plans are not seeking publicity. In fact, many who have discussed it in recent days did so only on the condition that their names not be used for fear of becoming even more targeted.

What is striking is the diversity and seniority of the people who talk about it. They include current and former White House officials, Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, agency heads, intelligence and law enforcement officials, military officers, political strategists and journalists. The topic came up repeatedly at the numerous soirées in Washington surrounding the recent White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

A person high on Mr. Trump’s enemies list said escape planning was a regular topic of discussion among those targeted on the former president’s social media accounts over the years . Another popular Trump target said it is brought up “again and again,” particularly among the spouses of people considered at risk. A European ambassador said it happened at least twice a week that Washington officials joked about needing asylum.

“It was definitely a topic of conversation,” said Steven A. Cook, Middle East researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Cook has no personal reason to fear “retaliation” from Mr. Trump, but he fears the onset 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 homeland.

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

For Mr. Cook, leaving is just talk for now. But others go even further. They have researched their family history to find out whether they are eligible for a passport from, for example, Ireland, Poland or Germany. They updated passports and looked for properties to buy in Europe. Some have hired lawyers to consider their options.

David A. Andelman, 79, a veteran journalist who already lives part-time in France, wrote on CNN’s website last week that he and his wife might move there full-time if Mr. Trump wins and have “a growing opinion about it.” “We’re hardly alone.” The day his column was posted online, his real estate agent in France received 45 calls from Americans wanting to do the same, he said.

A lawyer who has clashed with Mr. Trump is among those who have investigated his European roots in case he needs to apply for residency. The conversation, he said, evolved from a knowing joke to thoughtful contingency planning. It would be “madness to dismiss the risk,” he said.

A former administration official who excoriated Mr. Trump said it was not a trivial conversation or pure humor. While this person expressed optimism that American institutions would prevent greater injustices, anyone targeted by Mr. Trump could still be made “miserable” by investigations, grand juries, legal fees and career-damaging 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 from the Obama administration recently traveled to London looking for possible properties and schools.

“In my opinion, the problems are a little less,” he said, expressing his belief in the country’s resilience. “I will take this ship with me when it goes down, throwing buckets overboard. I don’t think it’s sinking. But if things go that way, I won’t jump ship. We don’t have any better places to go.”

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2024-05-06 03:37:14