Why a second Trump administration may be more radical than the first
TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. As the nation gears up for the 2024 presidential election, former President Donald Trump faces 91 felony charges across four criminal cases. He's also ahead in the polls, well ahead by the double digits against his Republican opponents and even ahead of President Biden in several polls. During a town hall on Fox News last week, commentator Sean Hannity asked Trump about concerns that if reelected, he would be a more radical and authoritarian leader this time around.
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SEAN HANNITY: The media has been focused on this and attacking you.
DONALD TRUMP: Yeah.
HANNITY: Under no circumstances - you are promising America tonight you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody.
TRUMP: Except for Day 1.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.
HANNITY: Except for...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He's going crazy.
TRUMP: Except for Day 1.
TRUMP: I want to close the border, and I want to drill. He says, you're not going to be a dictator, are you? I said, no, no, no, other than Day 1. We're closing the border, and we're drilling, drilling, drilling. After that I'm not a dictator.
HANNITY: Well, that...
MOSLEY: That was former President Trump on Fox News, speaking at a town hall with Sean Hannity. Our guest today, Charlie Savage, writes about presidential power as well as security and legal policy for The New York Times. He's written two books about presidential power. The first is "Takeover: The Return Of The Imperial Presidency And The Subversion Of American Democracy," which he wrote in 2007. It's about the Bush-Cheney administration's efforts to expand presidential power. He's also written a book called "Power Wars: The Relentless Rise Of Presidential Authority And Secrecy," which is a book about Obama's post-9/11 presidency. Charlie Savage, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thank you for having me on.
MOSLEY: OK, so Trump is running again. He has a very busy trial schedule coming up in 2024 because in addition to running a presidential campaign, he has 91 charges across four criminal cases. And they include 44 federal charges and 47 state charges, all of them felonies. And we should say that Trump has denied wrongdoing in each case. But can you lay out for us how relentless these court proceedings could turn out to be? Because, like, just looking at the docket, for instance, the Iowa caucuses begin on January 15th and then on the 16th is a federal civil trial in Manhattan.
SAVAGE: That's right. One of the ways in which this upcoming election is going to be unlike anything we've seen before is how interwoven it's going to be with proceedings in court against Mr. Trump. He is, as you said, facing four separate trials - two over his - the events leading to the January 6 riot at the Capitol and his attempts to overturn the election, one in Georgia and one in here in Washington, D.C., one in Florida over his hoarding of classified documents and refusal to turn them back into the government even after he was subpoenaed for them, and then a case in state court in Manhattan over falsifying business records in connection with hush money payments to Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election. And that's before we get to the civil cases against him.
He's going to need to be in the courtroom for those cases. If those things get to trial, that is going to intersect and collide with the campaign calendar. His ability to be holding rallies in Iowa and New Hampshire and other states is affected by his need to be in a courtroom. He cannot be in two places at once. And that's one of several ways, I think, in which, assuming he does win the Republican nomination, as he - polls certainly suggests he's on track to doing, this is going to be a very strange election.
MOSLEY: OK, let's get into some of your reporting, which has been looking at the various ways Trump wants to expand executive power should he become president. We can see, through his agenda for a second term, a lot of what he's been talking about is a promise of retribution and revenge. Most notably, he wants revenge against President Biden. What are some of the ways he's saying this retribution could look like?
SAVAGE: So what you're talking about is a series that I and two of my colleagues, Jonathan Swan and Maggie Haberman, have been working on since June. And its origin story is that, in fact, Trump's comments about vengeance and President Biden. But the series more broadly is about trying to look past the politics and the - you know, the odds of who's going to win in the moment into the policy stakes of what would happen starting in 2025 if former President Trump becomes the president again. So we had been collectively doing a ton of reporting already on the infrastructure around Trump, planning and thinking for a second term if there was one, and how he has a much more developed and sophisticated policy apparatus backing him than he ever had before. And that's when in June, Trump came out and said bombastically that he was going to appoint a real special prosecutor to go after Biden and his family.
And, you know, most people sort of dismiss this as just more sort of Trump bombast. But in our notebook was a lot of material about how actually there were people in Trump's orbits, including the guy he wanted to make the next attorney general, who had been working away at developing the constitutional analysis to erase the traditional independence of the Justice Department from White House control over investigative decisions and to really lay the groundwork for there to be substance and action behind these things that Trump was saying he intended to do.
So that became our first story, about the Trump's promise to end the post-Watergate norm of Justice Department independence and the - how there was really meat behind these comments he was making. But as we got further into it, we realized that that's just one of many ways in which the things that he is saying he's going to do are worthy of attention and much more likely to happen in a second Trump term than maybe they were in the first term, in which things were much more haphazard and there were greater constraints restraining what Trump was able to do when he wanted to have some of these impulses.
MOSLEY: Let's stay on the Justice Department for a second. He is pretty focused because he believes that the department has been weaponized against him. You mentioned a person that he's eyeing for attorney general should he become president again. But what other types of people would he likely staff in the Justice Department a second go-round?
SAVAGE: Well, one of the things that we've been writing about is how the constraints that kept President Trump in his term in office from going all the way in what he was trying to do, including in the space of pushing the Justice Department to prosecute his political adversaries, which he tried over and over to do in his first term, and - but failed to do. The Justice Department opened investigations into people like John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, former FBI Director James Comey, Andy McCabe and others, but did not end up bringing charges against them, to his fury. This helped lead in 2020 to the schism between Trump and then-Attorney General William Barr. And part of the reason for that was that throughout the Trump administration, there were lawyers, who were very conservative people, members of the Federalist Society, etc., but who also were willing to raise legal objections to some of what Trump was pushing the administration to do, not just in this Justice Department context, but in immigration control and others, that were saying, that - we can do this much, but that would be illegal. We can't do that.
And the people around - who have remained in Trump's orbit, who did not break with him after the events of January 6, who have been out in think tanks, well-funded think tanks, developing this policymaking apparatus we were discussing, have also been vetting lawyers for a second Trump administration with this in mind. They are determined not to have the sort of lawyer who might resist something that Trump or his senior White House advisers want to do, who might raise legal objections, as some of these political appointees did last time, so that they can actually carry out and achieve some of these ideas. And these ideas very much include directing prosecutions out of the White House that may actually result in charges that did not happen the last cycle.
And Trump and the people around him are openly saying this. So these stories we've been writing, we've been very much trying to root them in what Trump himself has actually said, what he has put on his campaign website, what his closest advisers are saying. It's really right out there in the open. This is not the sort of airy, speculative take - at least our work has not been - where people express fears sort of based on feelings of unease. This is very much directly what Trump is saying he's going to do and intends to do.
MOSLEY: Right. You've written about how Trump's efforts are a part of a larger movement on the right to gut not only the Justice Department, but also the FBI. And you've written about this Washington-based organization called the Center for Renewing America. They're promoting a legal rationale that would fundamentally change the way presidents interact with the Justice Department. Can you tell us a little bit more about this organization and the people at the head of it?
SAVAGE: This is a think tank that is funded by backers of former President Trump and is very much aligned with him, although they would characterize their work as being for any like-minded future Republican presidents for tax reasons, essentially. And it's one of several organizations in - some of which have sprung up to support President Trump and others of which are part of the - like The Heritage Foundation - are part of the traditional firmament of Republican ideas factories but have realigned themselves into - to stay in Trump - in step with a Trumpist point of view that are developing a policy apparatus for him to use in a second term, as well as legal theories to achieve these ends, perhaps more effectively than he did in his first term.
It's - this - the one you mentioned is led by a man named Russ Vought, who was the head of the Office of Management and Budget in the first Trump White House and remains very close to former President Trump. And it employs a number of people who used to work for the Trump administration and would presumably go back in if there was a second term, including Jeffrey Clark, who was the author of a paper about how the Justice Department is not independent of the White House, should not be seen as such and, in fact, there's nothing constitutionally wrong with a president directing the Justice Department and who it opens investigations against and who it brings charges against.
SAVAGE: He - Mr. Clark famously was involved in the events of January 6 and has been indicted in Georgia. Part of what you're talking about is a sort of procedural theories that groups like this are developing and embracing that would allow the policy ideas emanating from the White House to have a greater chance of success. And one of them is picking up on a theory that has been developed over the past generation - really dates back to the Meese Justice Department in the Reagan administration - called the unitary executive theory, which holds that it is unconstitutional for Congress to set up independent decision-making authority within the government that the president cannot directly control, so that the creation of independent agencies to do things like - you know, the Federal Reserve to raise and lower interest rates or setting all kinds of regulations and telecommunications, space, food and drug, etc. - these are not permissible for these agencies to act separately from what the president wants them to do. And they have vowed that they are going to centralize greater control over the apparatus of government in the White House in line with this theory, hoping that the new look Supreme Court, which has many sort of modern-era Republican lawyers on it now as justices, would side with them and finally eliminate these internal constraints to presidential power.
MOSLEY: I was just wondering if you could explain what control that would give the Trump administration. Like, how would it impact those agencies to be under control?
SAVAGE: Over the course of the 20th century, Congress set up a number of these independent regulatory agencies and empowered them broadly to set rules and enforce them in all kinds of very technically complicated ways. And because they sort of are straddling the executive branch and the legislative branch, they have not deceded (ph) that authority to the one person who's the president but have set up these bodies of commissioners over them, usually bipartisan in their nature, who are supposed to be specialists and are making these technical decisions. And that drives presidential power, you know, unilateralists crazy. They think that all this power - if these things exist at all, the president should have that power and should be able to wield it unilaterally, make decisions as he sees fit across the entire range of regulating businesses and the economy.
And if you follow their logic to its extension, you know, as a constitutional matter, it could extend even to, you know, right before an election. Let's cut interest rates, even if that's - would be a terrible move for the economy, just to juice it in the short term to increase my chances of reelection. The whole structure of how the modern American government works, especially in the sort of administrative state that has grown up since the New Deal, is one in which some power over these specialized matters are diffused among these specialized bodies rather than being concentrated in the Oval Office and whoever happens to sit there at the moment. And this is one of the ways in which the people around former President Trump are hoping to change the United States in a way that would increase the power that a second era of President Trump...
SAVAGE: ...Would be able to wield as he sees fit.
MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest today is Charlie Savage with The New York Times. He writes about presidential power, security and legal policy. We're talking about the ways former President Donald Trump and his allies are planning a sweeping expansion of presidential power should he return to the white House in 2025. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today, we're talking to New York Times staff writer Charlie Savage about the ways former President Donald Trump is planning a sweeping expansion of political power should voters elect him in as president again. Savage has written two books about presidential power. The first is "Takeover: The Return Of The Imperial Presidency And The Subversion Of American Democracy," which is about the Bush-Cheney administration's efforts to expand presidential power, and Power Wars: The Relentless Rise Of Presidential Authority And Secrecy," which is a look inside of Obama's post-9/11 presidency.
One idea that Trump has talked about is getting rid of tens of thousands of federal employees and replacing them with Trump loyalists, and he's talked about this a lot because he refers to federal and civil employees as the deep state. When he says he will get rid of them, can you explain a little bit more how he will do that, because I'm just wondering, don't federal employees have protections?
SAVAGE: The Federal Civil Service are the ranks of professional workers in the government who are supposed to be nonpartisan experts in whatever it is they focus on and who stay on even when the presidency changes hands. The creation of civil service protection rules over the course of the 20th century was intended to prevent federal employment from being a partisan spoils system as it had been in the 19th century, where a new president comes in, everyone is fired and people who supported the new president in their election get jobs, whether or not they're actually qualified for it.
At the end of the Trump administration, President Trump issued an executive order which would have altered civil service protection rules for any employee of the government who is deemed to have some sort of influence over policy making. This could be tens of thousands of people. It would have created a new category of that employee called schedule F, and schedule F employees would have been subject to arbitrary firing, just as political appointees are today. They can - they serve - political appointees, unlike civil servants, serve at the pleasure of the president. They can be appointed and removed at will for any reason or no reason at all. Schedule F employees, these formerly protected civil servants, would also now be subject to that kind of arbitrary firing. Those rules never went into effect because President Biden was elected and rescinded that executive order.
There were proposals in Congress to tighten up civil service protections as a matter of law, but that was one of many, many ways in which this Congress has failed to enact proposed reforms to solve problems that came to light as a result of controversies during the Trump presidency. Trump has said he would, on day one, reissue the schedule F executive order. So the impact of that would be that as many as 50,000 civil servants who have any degree of influence over policy making roles would be subject to arbitrary firing, and it would be easier to fire them, essentially, and replace them with people who are deemed loyal to President Trump and his agenda.
One of the many ways, procedurally, in which the people around Trump are thinking about ways to remove potential internal constraints to - that he experienced during his first term, concentrate greater authority in the White House in order to better achieve the sometimes extreme things that he's also saying he would do if he's returned to office.
MOSLEY: Has he spoken about how he would measure whether these new folks who applied for these federal jobs would be loyal to him? It's a large number of people to get rid of and then hire new people for. What would be the measure to determine whether they're loyal? And that does sound very authoritarian.
SAVAGE: Well, he has been openly vengeful in his discussions of the government, and he has boasted that he would purge the federal bureaucracy, which he disparages as a deep state that's filled with villains like globalists, Marxists, a, quote, "sick political class that hates our country," close quote. So that's the attitude he would bring towards the use of such authority, apparently.
MOSLEY: Our guest today is New York Times staff writer Charlie Savage. We'll be right back after a break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.
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MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And if you're just joining us, I'm talking to New York Times staff writer Charlie Savage about the ways former President Donald Trump is planning a sweeping expansion of presidential power should voters elect him in as president again. Savage writes about presidential power, security and legal policy. His latest piece for The Times is about the growing concerns of a NATO withdrawal should Trump get elected a second time. In 2007, Savage wrote a book titled "Takeover: The Return Of The Imperial Presidency And The Subversion Of American Democracy," which is about the Bush-Cheney administration's efforts to expand presidential power. He's also written a book about Obama's post-9/11 presidency called "Power Wars: The Relentless Rise Of Presidential Authority And Secrecy," which is now in paperback.
Let's talk a little bit about Trump's plans for immigration for a moment. He says on Day 1, he will start a massive deportation effort, and he's being pretty explicit in what that would look like. Can you tick through some of how he says he would do that?
SAVAGE: So President Trump, of course, got elected in the first instance and was able to take over the Republican Party in 2016 in part because of his opposition to immigration. And he tried in various ways in his first term to crack down on immigration and, in fact, by 2020 had been quite - they think, quite successful in putting in ways of closing the border, even before COVID came and they were able to use public health law to shut down asylum entirely. And of course, as the jobs were drying up in 2020, people stopped coming anyway.
But they have been vowing far more radical steps to stop immigration to the United States, but also to purge millions and millions of people who are in the United States without documentation, increasing the amount of removals per year even if they were able to achieve by an order of magnitude. And so some of their ideas include - will essentially add up, as we wrote, to, you know, sweeping and indiscriminate raids, huge detention camps and mass deportations. So they want to revive their first term border policies, which include banning entry from people - from certain Muslim-majority nations, re-invoking public health law to flatly refuse asylum claims. COVID-19, of course, the pandemic, has subsided, but they would assert other public health problems, such as a notion that migrants carry diseases like tuberculosis.
He would attempt, as he tried to do in the first term but was blocked in courts, to expand a form of removal that does not permit people due process hearings, to increase the personnel available to carry out raids. He plans to reassign federal agents from other agencies, like the FBI and ATF, to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to deputize local police officers and National Guard soldiers that would - at least in Republican-controlled states.
SAVAGE: He wants to build huge camps to detain people near the border, probably in Texas, while their cases are being processed and they're awaiting deportation flights. And to build these camps, the plan is to redirect money in the military budget, as Trump did famously by invoking emergency power in his first term to spend more on his border wall project than Congress had authorized. All of these plans are centered around things that could be done under current law, they believe, although they will also ask Congress to overhaul law. The point of this set of plans is to do things that even if Congress does not act, they would be able to go forward with and they think have a good chance of being sustained by the Supreme Court as it currently looks.
MOSLEY: OK. So, I mean, for those who are anti-immigration, this all probably sounds like - it sounds like a rallying cry. But, I mean, more practically, what could a plan like this do to our country, to our economy, to the social stability of communities in our country?
SAVAGE: Well, it would clearly be hugely disruptive to remove people by the millions per year. Usually, under Trump and other presidents alike, removals have been several hundred thousand a year. So they plan to take that up by a factor of 10, and they think they can do that through some of these steps we've been talking about. So this would be a recipe for social and economic turmoil. It would disrupt the housing market. And major industries, including agriculture and the service sector, would face an immediate - labor shortages. And so that's just objectively true.
When we were talking to Stephen Miller, who was Trump's most important immigration adviser in his first term, would clearly play that or an even more senior role in a second term - the campaign asked us to talk to him about the immigration plans. He did not deny that this would cause disruption, but he cast it in a favorable light. He said this would be celebrated because American workers would be offered higher wages to fill these jobs, which to some extent is true. And to other extent, probably some of those jobs would simply go unfilled. And, you know, to what extent are jobs like picking crops and...
SAVAGE: ...And, you know, child care at a small scale things that Americans are not willing to do at all? And so it simply would not happen.
MOSLEY: So just to clarify, the last time Trump was president, some of his efforts on immigration were blocked by the courts. How would this work this time around if he were successful?
SAVAGE: Well, the people around former President Trump are fully aware that all of the aggressive actions that they're planning to curb immigration and to purge the country of undocumented people would be challenged in court, just as they were last time. And you're right that a number of the things Trump tried to do last time were gummed up in the courts or even blocked. But there's various reasons to believe that he would have more success next time. One reason is that his - the people around him got better over time at crafting these policies in ways that courts would sustain. For example, in 2017, when he came into office, he issued, famously, the first version of his travel ban banning people - travel from countries, mostly Muslim countries. And the courts blocked it.
But it was badly written. It caused chaos. It was an instrument that was not ready for prime time. They went back and wrote two other versions of the travel ban, and by the third time, they had figured out how to get it into a form that the Supreme Court eventually allowed to take effect, and so they would not be starting over from that sort of 2017 mindset. They have become much more sophisticated and better understanding in how to manipulate the levers of government and legal power to get things through that hurdle. And the second insight is that the courts that exist today are different than the courts that prevailed...
MOSLEY: Right. Yeah.
SAVAGE: ...For the most part during his administration, because they were transformed by the appointments that he made over the course of those four years. And by the end, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in late 2020 and they shoved through the confirmation of Justice Barrett just before the election, he was able to create a new six-justice supermajority of conservative Republican appointees on the Supreme Court that did not exist when most of his immigration and other policies were being challenged earlier in his presidency. And as a result, it would take the defection of two rather than one Republican appointee to block something that he wanted to do, and cases that he lost as president last time, he would probably win as president next time.
MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest today is Charlie Savage with The New York Times. He writes about presidential power, security and legal policy. We're talking about the ways former President Donald Trump and his allies are planning a sweeping expansion of presidential power, should he return to the White House in 2025. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today, we're talking to New York Times staff writer Charlie Savage about the ways former President Donald Trump is planning a sweeping expansion of political power, should voters elect him in as president again. Savage has written two books about presidential power. The first is "Takeover: The Return Of The Imperial Presidency And The Subversion Of American Democracy," which is about the Bush-Cheney administration's efforts to expand presidential power, and "Power Wars: The Relentless Rise Of Presidential Authority And Secrecy," which is a look inside of Obama's post-9/11 presidency.
Trump has talked a lot about using the Insurrection Act, which essentially would let him deploy the military domestically and use it for civilian law enforcement. But can you briefly tell us how he said he would use it?
SAVAGE: So there's a strong norm in this country that the government does not use federal troops inside the United States for domestic policing purposes. There's a law called the Posse Comitatus Act that generally makes that illegal. But this other law you mentioned, the Insurrection Act, creates an exception. And under certain circumstances, a president can use federal troops against Americans to enforce order. Trump very much wanted to use the Insurrection Act against Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington, D.C., in 2020 and even went so far as to have an order doing so drawn up in the White House. But there was internal resistance, and he never signed that order. He has made clear that he would be more willing to go down that route in a second term.
For one thing, his immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, told us that Trump intends to invoke the Insurrection Act at the Southern border to use federal troops essentially as ICE agents along the border in apprehending - arresting people suspected of being undocumented immigrants. More broadly, earlier this year at a campaign rally, Trump suggested that he would use federal troops to enforce order in Democratic-run cities, which he described as crime dens. He mentioned New York, San Francisco, several others and said that although the structures of these things are that you're supposed to wait until the governor or the mayor asks the federal government for help - think about the, you know, riot situation when local authorities are just simply overwhelmed - next time, he said, he won't wait, he'll just send them in. And so this desire to use federal troops inside the United States, which he very much had, but did not act on in his first term, appears to be one of the ways in which he is thinking about how he would do things differently and more aggressively if he gets a second chance at power.
MOSLEY: Well, so many people who have worked with or supported him during his first term are essentially speaking out and saying that Trump's plans are dangerous for democracy. We just heard Liz Cheney on the show the other week sounding the alarm. She warns that many voters are basically thinking, well, we have these systems of checks and balances, so there's no way that he'll be able to do all that he says he'll do. But she's warning that, yes, he can. Based on your reporting and based on what you see on what he has laid out on his website, what he has spoken directly about, it seems that there is a multilevel plan for each of these talking points that he has been talking about over the last few weeks. People are saying that the presidential election is essentially a democracy on the ballot. How do you assess that?
SAVAGE: I do think it is correct that Trump, if he is returned to office, will have a much better chance of acting on his clear, lifelong display of autocratic impulses than he was in his first term. And there are reasons for that. There are reasons to believe that various obstacles and bulwarks that limited him in his first term would be absent in his second one. For example, some of what he tried to do was thwarted by incompetence and dysfunction among his initial team. As we've discussed, over those four years in office, the people who stayed with him learned to wield power more effectively. Courts blocked some of his first stuff but, as we've discussed, the Supreme Court looks very different now than it did for most of his presidency, and he would probably win some cases that he lost.
He was also subject to some check by Republicans in Congress. While they were often partners and enablers of him - they worked with him on cutting taxes and confirming judges, for example - there were also key congressional Republicans who were occasionally willing to push back against him, denounce his rhetoric, check his most disruptive proposals - Liz Cheney herself being among those who tried to impeach him for the January 6 events and led the investigation after he left office. But those checks in Congress will not be there next time because Trump has worn down, outlasted, intimidated into submission and driven out Republican lawmakers who had independent standing and demonstrated occasional willingness to oppose him. And there's fear of violence by Republicans in Congress if they go against Trump, even when they disagree with him privately.
And the most important check on Trump's presidency last time was probably internal administration resistance to some of his more extreme demands by high-level appointees he made who saw, clearly, as part of their job, restraining some of the more radical things he wanted to do. And we can see this in the parade of people who he put in office who have since come out and told the United States he's unfit to be president. So the people who have stuck with him, even after January 6, saw that and are determined that if he wins another term, there will not be the appointment of officials who intentionally stymie his agenda. And so in addition to developing policy papers and so forth that we've talked about in this sort of coalition of think tanks run by people who are aligned with Trump, they have been compiling a database of thousands of potential recruits to hand to his transition team who are pre-vetted to be people who share his sort of Make America Great Again, America First ideological view.
And it's not just the lawyers who are going to be more likely to say yes, but across the executive branch. I think we're not going to see that sort of internal constraint that sometimes held things in check in the first term. For all of these reasons, the policy plans that Trump is talking about when it comes to matters like immigration, using military force in Mexico, things he's flirted with without quite being clear about, like whether he would try to unilaterally pull the country out of NATO - which he almost did a couple times when he was president but his advisers talked him out of it - or even using the Justice Department to order the prosecution of people he sees as adversaries. These are the sorts of things that there is reason to believe he would have a greater chance of achieving in a second term than he did in his first.
MOSLEY: Charlie Savage, thank you so much for this conversation.
SAVAGE: Thank you.
MOSLEY: Charlie Savage writes about presidential power as well as security and legal policy for The New York Times. This is FRESH AIR.
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