The Resistance to a New Trump Administration Has Already Started

Charlie SavageReid J. EpsteinMaggie Haberman and  The New York Times, June 16, 2024.

Opponents of Donald J. Trump are drafting potential lawsuits in case he is elected in November and carries out mass deportations, as he has vowed. One group has hired a new auditor to withstand any attempt by a second Trump administration to unleash the Internal Revenue Service against them. Democratic-run state governments are even stockpiling abortion medication.

A sprawling network of Democratic officials, progressive activists, watchdog groups and ex-Republicans has been taking extraordinary steps to prepare for a potential second Trump presidency, drawn together by the fear that Mr. Trump’s return to power would pose a grave threat not just to their agenda but to American democracy itself.

“Trump has made clear that he’ll disregard the law and test the limits of our system,” said Joanna Lydgate, the chief executive of States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan democracy watchdog organization that works with state officials in both parties. “What we’re staring down is extremely dark.”

While the Supreme Court on Thursday rejected an attempt to nullify federal approval of the abortion pill mifepristone, liberals fear a new Trump administration could rescind the approval or use a 19th-century morality law to criminalize sending it across state lines.

The Democratic governor of Washington State, Jay Inslee, said he had secured a large enough supply of mifepristone pills to preserve access for women in his state through a second Trump administration. The supply is locked away at a state warehouse.

“We have it physically in the state of Washington, which could stop him and his anti-choice forces from prohibiting its distribution,” Mr. Inslee said in an interview. “It has a life span of five or six years. If there was another Trump administration, it’ll get us through.”

There is always discussion in any election year of what might happen if the other side wins the White House. Such talk has been typically limited to Washington chatter and private speculation, as much of the energy has focused on helping one’s party win the election and develop wish-list policy plans.

 


Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
“I think from every measure the danger has increased from his first term.”
Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State

But the early timing, volume and scale of the planning underway to push back against a potential second Trump administration are without precedent. The loose-knit coalition is determined not to be caught flat-footed, as many were after his unexpected victory in 2016.

If Mr. Trump returns to power, he is openly planning to impose radical changes — many with authoritarian overtones. Those plans include using the Justice Department to take revenge on his adversaries, sending federal troops into Democratic cities, carrying out mass deportations, building huge camps to hold immigrant detainees, making it easier to fire civil servants and replace them with loyalists and expanding and centralizing executive power.

Ian Bassin, the executive director of Protect Democracy, said the planning for how to resist such an agenda should not be seen as an ordinary policy dispute, but as an effort to defend fundamental aspects of American self-government “from an aspiring autocrat.”

“He is no normal candidate, this is no normal election, and these are no normal preparations for merely coming out on the wrong side of a national referendum on policy choices,” Mr. Bassin said.

The leaders of many of the centrist and left-leaning groups involved insist their energies are primarily devoted to preventing Mr. Trump from regaining power in the first place. Many are also wary about discussing their contingency plans publicly, for fear of signaling a lack of confidence in President Biden’s campaign prospects. Their angst is intensified by Mr. Biden’s low approval numbers and by his persistent trailing of Mr. Trump in polls of the states that are likely to decide the election.

Interviews with more than 30 officials and leaders of organizations about their plans revealed a combination of acute exhaustion and acute anxiety. Activist groups that spent the four years of Mr. Trump’s presidency organizing mass protests and pursuing legal challenges, ultimately helping channel that energy into persuading voters to oust him from power in 2020, are now realizing with great dread they may have to resist him all over again.

The group leaders say they learned a lot from 2017 to 2021 about how to run an effective resistance campaign. At the same time, their understanding of what Mr. Trump is capable of expanded after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. They believe that the orbit around Mr. Trump has grown more sophisticated and that a second Trump White House would be both more radical and more effective, especially on core issues like immigration.

“What Trump and his acolytes are running on is an authoritarian playbook,” said Patrick Gaspard, the chief executive of the CAP Action Fund, the political arm of the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress. He added, “So now we have to democracy-proof our actual institutions and the values that we share.”

The Biden administration pushed through a flurry of regulations in the spring, meeting a deadline to ensure that those rules could not be summarily overturned next year under a 1996 law if Mr. Trump wins the election and Republicans take total control of Congress. But administration officials have generally been reluctant to engage in contingency planning, insisting they are confident Mr. Biden will win a second term.

Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesman, denounced these efforts as a way to pre-empt Mr. Trump from being able to implement a legitimate policy agenda.

“It’s not surprising Biden and his cronies are working overtime to stymie the will of the American people after they vote to elect President Trump and his America First agenda,” Mr. Cheung said. “Their devious actions are a direct threat to democracy.”

Different groups worried about what a second Trump presidency could mean are also starting to think about how to work together.

Earlier this week, representatives from 50 national and local immigration rights organizations convened at a hotel outside Phoenix for a three-day retreat under the umbrella group Immigrant Movement Visioning Process. On the agenda for two days was “Scenario Planning: Post Election Readiness,” building on a four-hour exercise the group had conducted online in May, according to Kica Matos, president of the National Immigration Law Center.

And next month, the anti-Trump conservative group Principles First and Norman Eisen, who was a lawyer for House Democrats during Mr. Trump’s first impeachment and helped produce an “autocracy threat tracker” focused on Mr. Trump’s plans, are organizing a conference at New York University entitled “Autocracy in America – A Warning and Response.” They are inviting dozens of practitioners and scholars to discuss how to resist leaders with authoritarian leanings around the world, Mr. Eisen said.

Maurice Mitchell, the head of the Working Families Party and a co-anchor of Fight Back Table, a progressive coalition that formed in 2017, said activists opposed to Mr. Trump’s agenda were primarily trying to prevent him from winning. But he said they were also determined to be prepared if he does retake power and to stay out of each other’s lanes.

 


Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times
“I don’t want to feel flat-footed again.”
Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party

“A lot of folks are in the mind frame of, What can we learn from the past?” Mr. Mitchell said. “How can we apply those lessons going forward? And how can we think through the various scenarios that might present themselves, and how might we leverage everything that we have?”

A new litigation wave

A common tactic to push back against the first Trump administration was through litigation that tied up his policies in court. Sometimes that work succeeded in blocking actions entirely, and in other cases it delayed those policies from taking effect.

The American Civil Liberties Union, one of the chief litigants against the first Trump administration, is planning to assume a similar role if he regains the White House. In anticipation of that role, the A.C.L.U. has hired a new auditing firm to do a top-to-bottom scrub of the organization’s finances to ensure it can withstand scrutiny if a Trump administration were to sic the I.R.S. on it.

The A.C.L.U.’s director, Anthony Romero, said his group had mapped out 63 scenarios in which a new Trump administration could pose a threat to individual rights and the rule of law. The A.C.L.U. team cataloged the threats by their severity, timing and other factors.

That exercise, he said in an interview, led the group to focus on four areas, for which it is drafting potential legal filings. Those areas are Mr. Trump’s plans for an unprecedented crackdown on unauthorized immigrants, the potential to further curtail access to abortion, firing civil servants for political reasons and the possibility that he would use troops to suppress protests.

In 2020, as racial justice protests sometimes descended into riots, Mr. Trump had an order drafted to invoke the Insurrection Act — a law that grants presidents emergency power to use federal troops on domestic soil to restore order — but never signed it. He has since suggested that next time, he will deploy troops in Democratic-run cities even if the local authorities have not asked for assistance.

The A.C.L.U. is preparing litigation that would challenge the Insurrection Act, arguing that it was never intended to be used to shut down protest and debate. In parallel, Mr. Romero said, the group would be prepared to bring First Amendment challenges to specific deployments in specific cities.

“You’re going to have to go retail, protest by protest,” Mr. Romero said.

A large part of the pushback to Mr. Trump in his first term centered on immigration policy, from protests against his ban on travel to the United States by citizens of several Muslim-majority countries to outrage at his administration’s policy of separating children from their parents in immigration detention.

Since Mr. Trump left office, the political environment on immigration has shifted amid the post-Covid surge of migrants arriving at the border and claiming asylum, overwhelming the system. Mr. Biden recently issued an executive order requiring summary rejection of asylum claims when the numbers are too high.

Several immigrant rights groups, assisted by the A.C.L.U., are challenging that order in court. But immigrant rights leaders say they believe Mr. Trump’s policy plans, from mass deportations to giant detention camps, would be vastly more draconian.

A memo circulated by the immigration group FWD.us is warning of a range of restrictive immigration policies that could come in the future. The intention of the memo, a person familiar with its contents said, was to prompt a discussion about finding lessons on how Mr. Trump had responded during his first term to public pressure on his most controversial immigration actions.

 


Credit…Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times
“We’re going to be the David to the government’s Goliath.”
Anthony Romero, the director of A.C.L.U.

At the National Immigration Law Center, scenario planning and preparations for a second Trump term have been underway since last fall — particularly after a New York Times article detailed Mr. Trump’s plans for a vast deportation effort, Ms. Matos said. The group convened planning meetings in response to the article and has been working both internally and in coordination with other groups, she said.

For example, during Mr. Trump’s presidency, a network of volunteers convened in New Haven, Conn., to be a rapid response unit when there was chatter about immigration raids. The volunteers recorded the raids on video and were prepared to intervene if they saw any legal rights violations; her center is exploring how to replicate that model nationally, she said.

The center’s scenario planning has also focused on the possibility of “much more intense attacks” and harassment targeting immigration rights advocates, from death threats to the possibility of actual violence. “And so what else can we anticipate under Trump 2.0 that we didn’t see under Trump 1.0, and how do we prepare for that?” Ms. Matos said.

Another hub of liberal resistance plans for a second Trump administration is Democracy Forward, an organization that formed after Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory that filed scores of legal challenges to policies during his first term in the White House. The organization has developed a 15-page threat matrix that covers issues including abortion, health care, climate, civil rights, environmental protections, immigration and the “weaponization of government.”

In addition to drafting potential lawsuits to file against expected Trump administration actions, Democracy Forward’s chief executive, Skye Perryman, said the organization had also begun recruiting sympathetic plaintiffs who would have legal standing in court.

“We are ensuring that people and communities that would be affected by a range of policies that we see with respect to Project 2025 know their legal rights and remedies and are able to access legal representation, should that be necessary,” Ms. Perryman said, referring to a policy planning project developed by conservative think tanks for a second Trump administration.

But there is also a widely held view among Democrats that many types of legal actions may be less effective during a second Trump term than they were during his first. A Supreme Court remade by Mr. Trump is far more conservative and likely to be more sympathetic to his administration’s actions.

A Blue-State Bulwark

That legal reality has left those planning for a Trump return to power to focus on state-level actions that can be locked in before the 2024 election.

Lawyers working for Democratic state attorneys general have been quietly studying the playbooks of their Republican counterparts in Texas and Florida, whom they view as being most successful at attacking and obstructing the Biden administration.

A person with knowledge of these conversations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said one of their goals was to see what aspects of the red-state anti-Biden playbook could be appropriated to ensure that Democrats can play offense as well as defense against a potential Trump administration.

The Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade also forced a sense of urgency upon liberal groups and governors. Immediately after the decision, Democratic governors and state attorneys general began arranging calls and meetings to figure out how to counter the new threat to abortion access in their states.

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, founded a group called the Reproductive Freedom Alliance as a hub for governors to coordinate their strategies. Though nonpartisan, it now comprises 23 governors, all Democrats.

The governors in the alliance have worked together to plan litigation, pass shield laws to protect abortion providers and patients from penalties in other states and secure the emergency stockpiles of abortion pills in case they become unavailable or severely restricted. It could be the seeds of a broader collaboration to resist Mr. Trump’s agenda.

“The Reproductive Freedom Alliance has pioneered a model of coordination across states to defend, and expand, access to reproductive health care — enabling governors and key staff to develop relationships and a structure for collaboration that could be replicated on other issues, like immigration and gun safety,” said Julia Spiegel, a lawyer who helped start the Reproductive Freedom Alliance from Mr. Newsom’s office.

 


Credit…Tom Jamieson for The New York Times
“Governors, working together, are essential force multipliers and firewalls against threats to our democracy.”
Julia Spiegel, who helped Gov. Gavin Newsom of California found the Reproductive Freedom Alliance

Mr. Inslee, in Washington State, is one of at least five Democratic governors who have established stockpiles of mifepristone to guard against the possibility of any Trump administration using federal power to stop its interstate distribution. The others are the governors of California, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon.

The Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit challenging the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone on technical grounds, finding that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to bring the case. But that would not prevent the agency itself from rescinding its approval of the pills. If that happened, Mr. Inslee’s aides said, they would argue that the F.D.A. lacked authority to restrict use of the existing stockpiles if the pills did not cross state lines.

The blue-state governors who served during Mr. Trump’s first term developed a template in dealing with him that was tested during the peak of the Covid pandemic, when Mr. Newsom, Mr. Inslee and others found themselves issuing public praise for the president if they hoped for basic federal assistance. That experience has left the governors with little room for imagination about what a worst-case scenario would look like in a second Trump term.

At the Brennan Center for Justice, the bulk of the immediate work has been around voting-rights issues for the 2024 campaign.

The group hired the journalist Barton Gellman from The Atlantic to help with scenario planning and tabletop exercises focused on what could unfurl during a Trump presidency, with a report likely to be made public this summer. Other work has included a focus on the Insurrection Act and the National Emergencies Act.

“We are doing scenario planning for a Biden victory and for a Trump victory,” said Michael Waldman, the Brennan Center president. “For Biden, we are preparing for the chance to pass significant legislation strengthening the freedom to vote, and for Trump we are mapping out how to limit the damage from an epic era of abuse of power.”

Charlie Savage writes about national security and legal policy. More about Charlie Savage

Reid J. Epstein covers campaigns and elections from Washington. Before joining The Times in 2019, he worked at The Wall Street Journal, Politico, Newsday and The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. More about Reid J. Epstein

Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent reporting on the 2024 presidential campaign, down ballot races across the country and the investigations into former President Donald J. Trump. More about Maggie Haberman

Jonathan Swan is a political reporter covering the 2024 presidential election and Donald Trump’s campaign. More about Jonathan Swan

 

Image Credits: Lauren Petracca For The New York Times

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