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‘Grifters and sycophants’: the radicals who would fill key posts if Trump is re-elected

<span>Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

As Donald Trump and his allies start plotting another presidency, an emerging priority is to find hard-right lawyers who display total fealty to Trump, as a way to enhance his power and seek “retribution” against political foes.

Related: Trump says ‘I’m not a dictator’ but top figures warn of authoritarian takeover

Stocking a future administration with more ideological lawyers loyal to Trump in key posts at the justice department, other agencies and the White House is alarming to former DoJ officials and analysts who say such plans endanger the rule of law.

Trump’s former senior adviser Stephen Miller, president of the Maga-allied legal group America First Legal, is playing a key role in seeking lawyers fully in sync with Trump’s radical agenda to expand his power and curb some major agencies. His search is for those with unswerving loyalty to Trump, who could back Trump’s increasingly authoritarian talk about plans to “weaponize” the DoJ against critics, including some he has labeled as “vermin”.

Miller is well known in Maga circles for his loyalty to Trump and the hard-line anti-immigration policies he helped craft for Trump’s presidency. Notably, Trump has vowed to make those policies even more draconian if he is the GOP nominee and wins again.

Such an advisory role for Miller squares with Trump’s desire for a tougher brand of lawyer who will not try to obstruct him, as some top administration lawyers did in late 2020 over his false claims about election fraud.

Trump doesn’t care about the rule of law or the quality of the criminal justice system. He only cares about fealty to him

Former Trump White House lawyer Ty Cobb

“They’re looking for lawyers who worship Trump and will do his bidding,” Ty Cobb, a former White House lawyer during the Trump years and former justice department official, said. “Trump is looking to Miller to pick people who will be more loyal to Trump than the rule of law.”

Cobb added that “Trump trusts Miller greatly”, although Miller is not a lawyer.

“Trump doesn’t care about the rule of law or the quality of the criminal justice system,” Cobb said. “He only cares about fealty to him.”

Miller’s legal group, which raked in a hefty $44m dollars in 2022, also has a board seat with Project 2025, a sprawling effort led by the Heritage Foundation and dozens of other conservative groups to map policy plans for a second Trump term – or another GOP presidency if Trump is not the nominee.

Project 2025 includes schemes to curb the justice department, the FBI and other agencies, giving Trump more power to seek revenge – as he has pledged to do in campaign speeches and Truth Social posts – against critics in both parties, which could benefit from conservative lawyers’ sign-offs, but which justice department veterans warn would undermine the legal system.

It seems that they are looking for lawyers who will do whatever Trump wants them to do, and that is the antithesis of implementing the rule of law,” Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general under George HW Bush, said.

“When you consider the number of lawyers who became Trump’s severe critics after joining the first Trump administration and participating in a lot of questionable actions, selection for a new administration will have to exclude pretty much anyone who has any inclination to defend our legal system or question the president asserting absolute authority.”

Ayer’s analysis is underscored by Trump’s 2020 anger at top lawyers such as the then attorney general William Barr, the then White House counsel Pat Cipollone and others, who pushed back on Trump for his false claims that he lost to Biden due to fraud.

Trump has cited Barr – one of several former top lawyers and officials who later became critics – as someone he would press the justice department to launch inquiries against, according to the Washington Post.

The former president, who faces 91 criminal charges in four jurisdictions including 17 involving his aggressive efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat, has also threatened to appoint a special prosecutor to “go after” Biden and his family.

Trump has attacked the prosecutions against him as political witch-hunts, arguing they give him the right if he wins the presidency again to use the justice department and FBI as tools to attack his opponents.

Trump’s retribution agenda was partly revealed on Tuesday at a Fox News town hall, when he slyly said if he was elected again he would not be a dictator “except for day one”.

To help facilitate Trump’s agenda, Miller plus the former Trump aide John McEntee, who started as Trump’s personal aide and then became a key adviser in 2020, have reportedly been working with others at Project 2025 to identify tougher pro-Trump lawyers.

Besides Miller’s group, numerous conservative groups have board seats on Project 2025 including the Center for Renewing America, a thinktank run by the former Trump budget director Russ Vought. The center employs Jeffrey Clark, a former justice department official who pushed false information about voting fraud in 2020 as part of Trump’s efforts to overturn his election loss. Clark has written a paper that Vought’s center published titled The US Justice Department Is Not Independent.

However, Clark and several other former Trump lawyers are now facing major legal headaches after aiding Trump’s efforts to block Biden’s victory, which could complicate Miller’s hunt for new diehard Trump lawyers.

This is a search for people with situational ethics

Timothy Naftali of Columbia University

Clark and other key conservative lawyers including Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman have been charged by the Fulton county, Georgia, district attorney, Fani Willis, in a sprawling racketeering case against Trump and 18 others for seeking to thwart Biden’s Georgia victory. Other Trump legal advisers who were charged, including Kenneth Chesebro, Sidney Powell and Jenna Ellis, have struck plea deals with Willis.

Some experts foresee real dangers to democracy in Miller’s search for lawyers who would back Trump’s emerging far-right agenda.

“This is a search for people with situational ethics,” Timothy Naftali, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said.

“They’re trying to screen out people who have higher loyalties to the US constitution. It’s likely they’re looking for people whose higher loyalty is to Donald Trump,” he said. “They’re trying to find lawyers who believe in dictatorship. You have to wonder what kind of people in good conscience could sign up for a Trump revenge tour. This appears to be a casting call for an American political horror movie.”

If Trump wins, some of the lawyers who may be candidates for key posts according to the New York Times include a few who work at either Miller’s group or have worked for Texas’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, a close Trump and Miller ally who has faced several ethics and criminal inquiries.

Miller and his legal center did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Miller’s lawyer search could benefit from his group’s contacts in Maga circles and rapid growth. When America First Legal was launched in 2021, it soon garnered $1.3m from the Maga-allied Conservative Partnership Institute, where Trump’s ex-chief of staff Mark Meadows is a senior official. Meadows and Vought have both served on the board of Miller’s group.

America First Legal’s deep pockets have helped fund an array of lawsuits against the Biden administration, states targeting immigration policies and what Miller has labeled “the equity cult”. Just last month, America First Legal filed a brief opposing the limited gag order placed on Trump by a federal judge overseeing special counsel Jack Smith’s four-count criminal indictment of Trump for election subversion.

More broadly, the mission statement of Miller’s America First Legal reveals its ideological compatibility with Trump’s authoritarian-leaning agenda, of which hard-right lawyers would be assets in implementing should Trump get another term.

“Our security, our liberty, our sovereignty, and our most fundamental rights and values are being systematically dismantled by an unholy alliance of corrupt special interests, big tech titans, the fake news media, and liberal Washington politicians,” the mission statement reads.

Given Miller’s strong ties to Trump, some GOP congressional veterans are alarmed by his search for more ideological lawyers who would not question Trump’s emerging authoritarian agenda.

“They’re looking for grifters and sycophants like Jeffrey Clark and Ken Paxton,” said the former House member Charlie Dent.

In Dent’s eyes, these kinds of lawyers would “do whatever they’re told. This is absolutely dangerous.”