During an event on Fox News billed as a town hall on Tuesday, host Sean Hannity gave him a chance to clarify that “under no circumstances, you are promising America tonight, you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody.”
“Except for day one,” Mr Trump replied.
His supporters and campaign have framed his comments as a joke to attack his critics, a defence that has tried to rewrite and undermine his own words and actions over the last several months, including his explicit promises of a campaign of retribution and political vengeance against his rivals.
Hours before the town hall, his allies Steve Bannon and Kash Patel promised that another Trump administration would “come after” his political opponents and the media.
“We will go out and find the conspirators, not just in government but in the media,” said Mr Patel, a former Trump-era intelligence official who is reportedly considered for another high-level role in a potential Trump White House. “We’re going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens, who helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections. We’re going to come after you.”
In an interview with Univision last month, Mr Trump threatened to do exactly what Hannity suggested the former president wouldn’t.
Mr Trump – facing four grand jury indictments and several lawsuits for fraud, incitement of violence, sexual abuse and defamation – has accused the FBI and US Department of Justice under President Joe Biden of weaponising the federal government against him. He says they’ve opened “Pandora’s Box,” and Mr Biden should stop them “before it’s too late.”
Hannity even tried to brush away his antidemocratic threats during his 2024 campaign moments before Mr Trump stepped on the stage on Tuesday night, saying that we “already know what would happen under a Trump presidency” because “he’s already been president” and “there was no dictatorship.”
The defence from right-wing media and Mr Trump’s campaign follows Robert Kagan’s analysis in The Washington Post, warnings from former Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney, and a series of reports collecting Mr Trump’s own statements about his proposed second term in office – end-of-year captures of his year on the campaign trial, his authoritarian rhetoric, and proposals from his allies and special interest groups and Mr Trump himself about what he will do if elected.
His allies and his supporters across far-right social media are framing the coverage of the former president’s own words and actions as an attempt to smear him or an endorsement of his death.
Florida congressman Matt Gaetz claimed the media is “green lighting” his assassination. On far-right pro-Trump forum The Donald, users write that “this evil can only be extinguished through blood” and that media outlets will “incite one of their lunatic constituents to do it.”
“[I]t would be terrible if a journalist’s head was found in a dumpster,” one user wrote. “[I] mean, what is this world coming to?”
At his town hall, the crowd cheered with Mr Trump’s comments.
Asked what a “day one” dictatorship looks like, Mr Trump said he wants to close the US-Mexico border and “drill, drill, drill.”
“That’s not retribution,” Hannity replied.
“I love this guy,” Mr Trump continued. “He says, ‘You’re not gonna be a dictator are you?’ I say, no, no, no – other than day one. We’re closing the border. And we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that I’m not a dictator, OK?”
His oldest son Donald Trump Jr called it a “perfect answer”.
“This response takes all of their hysteria out of the leftists ‘dictator’ hysteria/projection [and] throws it back in their face,” he said. “This is the kind of fast witted on your feet ability that no one else in the Republican party has.”
US Senator JD Vance of Ohio claimed that Mr Trump’s “super power” is “that he’s the most quick witted leader in a generation.”
“Every grown man hyperventilating about this clip needs to find a sense of humor,” he said.
His supporters heard his comments loud and clear.
“‘Dictator Trump’ is nothing more than a MEME. But, I was thinking about it, and ‘Dictator Trump’ doesn’t sound so bad. I honestly wouldn’t mind. Sounds like a good way to Make America American again,” wrote far-right activist and failed congressional candidate Laura Loomer, whose social media posts routinely appear on Mr Trump’s Truth Social account.
“One day is all he needs,” added far-right influencer Jack Posobiec.
On The Donald forum, users called for “brutal iron fist Trump” and a Trump “that will give us the blood of the corrupt.”
“One day is all he needs, then the left will be totally wiped off the planet like scum to bleach,” another user wrote.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a scholar of authoritarianism and author of Strongmen: Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, has argued that Mr Trump’s rhetoric gives his supporters permission to dehumanise and degrade his political opponents and rivals just as he does, while absolving them of responsibility for the actions that could follow.
“Autocrats always tell us who they are and what they are going to do to us. We just don’t want to hear it until it is too late,” she wrote. “Trump is telling us he is going to be a dictator (when asked by Hannity he does not disagree).”
Jennifer Mercieca, an historian of American political rhetoric and professor at Texas A&M University who wrote 2020’s Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump, said that “no one who follows the rule of law would joke about being a dictator.”
“And he’s not joking. What would you do if you were in the audience? Would you cheer and clap? That’s normalised fascism,” she added. “By repeating it [and] joking about it he’s normalizing it, getting people used to hearing it so that it’s not so shocking.”
A statement from Mr Biden’s campaign manager Chavez Rodriquez said that “Donald Trump has been telling us exactly what he will do if he’s re-elected” and “Americans should believe him.”
Republican US Senator Mitt Romney, among only a handful of GOP senators who voted to convict the former president after he was impeached for his attempts to overturn 2020 election results, told CBS News on Wednesday that Mr Trump “says so many absurd things that I don’t even know how to respond to them.”
“I think he’s trying to entertain his base. It’s a dangerous course to go down of course, but that’s what he does on a regular basis,” he said. “At some point, you realize you don’t have to take him literally, and you don’t have to take him seriously, either.”