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Trump initially sidesteps ‘dictator’ question before adoring Iowa crowd

Biden says he's running; Trump predicts he won't finish 2024 campaign

Former President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a rally held in Ankeny, Iowa, on Dec. 2.
Former President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a rally held in Ankeny, Iowa, on Dec. 2. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — Former President Donald Trump initially sidestepped a question about whether he intends to govern as a “dictator” or “abuse power” during a possible second term as friendly Iowa voters repeatedly drowned him in cheers Tuesday at a town hall.

The 2024 Republican front-runner did not immediately and directly answer that question when pressed by Fox News commentator Sean Hannity during a pre-taped town hall from Davenport. Instead, Trump contended that the Biden administration is currently abusing its power and appeared to praise mobster Al Capone, whose penchant for brutality made him an infamous American crime figure.

Trump said he has been indicted four times on “made-up charges” before pivoting to the Chicago mob boss. “I often say Al Capone, he was one of the greatest of all time, if you like criminals. He was a mob boss, the likes of which — ‘Scarface,’ they call him. And he got indicted once. I got indicted four times.”

Hannity appeared to sense potential trouble for Trump and asked him again about being a dictator before the event’s first commercial break. Trump falsely claimed he had said “no, no, no” in his first answer, before saying he would only act that way “on Day One.” That is when he vowed he would be focused on “closing the [southern] border” and “drilling, drilling, drilling.”

The initial exchange was reminiscent of Trump declining late in his term during a White House briefing to promise to accept a peaceful transfer of power if he lost in 2020. His efforts to overturn his eventual loss culminated first in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot and has him facing felony charges in Washington, D.C., and Georgia.

Trump is running away with the 2024 Republican nomination race, with one new poll giving him a 51 percentage point lead. Despite the 91 felony charges Trump is facing, that made what he proposed to do in a second term more pressing than what the other GOP candidates say at their next debate, slated for Wednesday night.

Even some GOP lawmakers and strategists have suggested that Trump’s 2024 campaign message is disjointed. At one point during the town hall, he summed up his goals this way: “Who doesn’t want strong borders and a strong military and low taxes and low interest rates, and go out and buy a house?” But he was, as always, short on specifics and how he would navigate a Congress that is likely to remain closely divided. Here are three other takeaways from Trump’s return to prime time.

Candid Biden

President Joe Biden and Democrats have warned for months that the former president was setting up a potential revenge tour during a second term, with some warning of creeping authoritarianism that could threaten American democracy.

Earlier Tuesday, a traveling Biden made a striking acknowledgement after cracking jokes at an event in Massachusetts about his own age — he turned 81 last month.

“If Trump wasn’t running, I’m not sure I’d be running,” he told Democratic donors, then delivered what amounted to a warning: “We cannot let him win.”

Asked about the remark, Trump replied: “I think someone gave him a talking point.” After saying he “was saving” it for “this big town hall,” he then pivoted to accusing Democrats of rigging elections and contending that they don’t “want to run against me.” But Biden said the opposite several times on Tuesday, leaving the 2020 foes on a collision course for a general election rematch.

‘Don’t think he makes it’

Hannity played a series of video clips showing Biden pausing while speaking or changing course mid-sentence, with the words “cognitive decline” on the screen.

Hannity and Trump also used the top of the second segment to ding Biden over Republican charges that he and his son Hunter Biden used the father’s stint as vice president to help the family rake in large sums of money via global business deals.

“Somebody said, ‘You must be the most honest guy in the world,” the 77-year-old Trump said of Biden. “He is the No. 1 who’s cognitively … not good. … Twenty-five years ago, he was never one of the brightest light bulbs.”

Trump meandered through a rant about the threat of nuclear war before saying “if I had done” what prosecutors have accused him of, “they would bring back the death penalty.”

Asked if he thinks Biden would be the Democrats’ 2024 presidential nominee, Trump replied: “I personally don’t think he makes it, physically. Mentally, I’d say he’s equally bad, and maybe worse.” For his part, Biden has told voters to “watch me” and decide if he is too old for a second term. When asked if he would end his 2024 bid if Trump dropped out, the sitting president told reporters as he returned to the White House Tuesday night: “No, not now.”

As possible Democratic nominees instead of Biden, Trump named Vice President Kamala Harris and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who he described as being “slick” when Newsom debated on Fox News with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination.

Trump suggested, should Biden drop out and Harris not receive the party’s nod, that he would secure enough of the Black vote to win a second term. Biden has lost some support from that key voting bloc, according to multiple polls.

‘Wealth and power’

The former president brought up still-high gasoline prices when asked about other issues, suggesting he sees it as an effective attack line against Biden.

He vowed, if elected, to again open more of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and natural gas extraction. During his first few days in office, Biden rolled back Trump’s decision to allow drilling after years of worries that energy projects in the region would harm the environment.

He hit Biden for his move, saying the United States has vast “wealth and power under our feet” that would help pay for domestic entitlement programs and give America an economic edge over rivals like China.

Notably, Trump used his response to hit DeSantis and his other top GOP primary rival, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, for proposing to reform Social Security, including calls to raise the eligibility age. They have said their proposals would help make the program more financially sustainable, but the former president said doing so was reckless and unnecessary.

“We have money laying in the ground,” he said. “That will take care of everything.”

It would take years and billions of dollars to get the drilling projects underway, meaning any revenue for the federal government would come even further down the road.

Each time Hannity threw the program to break, the crowd rose in unison and gave Trump standing ovations.

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