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Fight or flight: Fearful Trump critics weigh the risk of retribution if he's re-elected

Some are considering leaving the country if Trump returns to the White House or saving money to handle the expected legal costs.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump during the civil fraud trial against the Trump Organization, in New York City on Jan. 11, 2024. Peter Foley / AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — If Donald Trump stood no chance of becoming president again, the Vindman family would be planning a milestone birthday celebration right now.

Alexander Vindman’s wife, Rachel, turns 50 next month. But rather than spend money on a party, she wants to save it in case Trump returns to the White House and tries to retaliate against her husband for being a key witness in Trump’s first impeachment, Alexander Vindman said in an interview. The family might need the money in case they have to flee the country.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Vindman, a national security official in Trump’s White House who was ousted in 2020 after Trump’s acquittal, but “that’s an indicator of the level of concern that she’s had.”

Ret. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman
Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman on March 9, 2022, in Dale City, Va.Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images file

The Vindmans aren’t alone. Interviews with more than a dozen people who’ve run afoul of Trump for various reasons reveal deep worry among many that he will seek revenge if he wins another term. They are considering ways to protect themselves should he use the office’s vast powers to punish them over grievances that he’s been nursing.

Fearful of being hounded by investigators, prosecuted or stripped of their livelihoods, some are planning to leave the country if Trump is sworn in. Others are consulting attorneys or setting aside money to fight back in case they’re targeted either by Trump’s administration or by his Republican allies in Congress.

A natural assumption would be that the targets of Trump’s ire are Democrats or political rivals who tried to beat him at the ballot box. But it’s not quite so simple. History shows there are all sorts of ways to leave Trump aggrieved, and some who feel they’re in jeopardy worked directly with him or believed in his agenda. Once snugly inside Trump’s orbit, they may have provoked him by doing their jobs as they understood them or speaking candidly about what they considered his failings.

Now they’re outside and largely on their own.

Stephanie Grisham, a former press secretary in Trump’s White House, wrote a book about her experience and has become a sharp critic of the former president’s.

Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham listens to U.S. President Trump as he departs for travel to Georgia at the White House in Washington
Then-White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham listens to President Donald Trump talk to reporters from the South Lawn of the White House on Nov. 8, 2019.Leah Millis / Reuters file

She said that she and some of her former colleagues are part of a text chain in which, in a bit of gallows humor, they’ve discussed moving to countries without extradition treaties in the event Trump comes back.

“It’s terrifying,” she said.

Speaking privately to her mother once about her fears, Grisham said her mother tried to reassure her that Trump wouldn’t have time for vengeance if he returns. “I’m like, ‘OK, Mom. You don’t know him,’” Grisham recounted in an interview.

“I’ve been saving money and making other arrangements” should Trump regain power, she said.

‘Indict them’

Vengeance has been an undercurrent of Trump’s latest campaign. He told conservative activists last year that “for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

He claims that President Joe Biden and fellow Democrats have plotted to undermine his candidacy through a string of court cases. He is livid at assorted judges, prosecutors and witnesses. He’s annoyed by former aides who’ve questioned his competence. And if he returns to office, Trump has suggested that he’d have payback in mind.

He gave an interview with Univision in November in which he said the “weaponization” of justice “could certainly happen in reverse.”

“If I happen to be president and I see somebody who’s doing well and beating me very badly, I say, ‘Go down and indict them.’ Mostly, they would be out of business,” he said.

Trump has a habit of saying things and then backtracking. At a Fox News town hall last month, he said that as president, he wouldn’t have time for retribution.

Trump’s administration’s actions are sufficient grounds for concern, his critics say. Trump didn’t need to order retaliatory measures; his staff would infer what he wanted done.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry was among those who wound up in Trump’s crosshairs.

Image: John Kerry
John Kerry speaks during a press conference during the COP28 climate conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Dec. 6.Sean Gallup / Getty Images file

In April 2019, Trump called for Kerry to be prosecuted over conversations he’d had with Iranian officials, under an 18th-century law called the Logan Act, which bars private citizens from negotiating with other countries.

Kerry countered that it was commonplace for ex-foreign policy officials to talk to counterparts and that he had not interfered with Trump’s foreign policy. The U.S. attorney in New York’s Southern District, Geoffrey Berman, agreed that Kerry had broken no laws.

In his book “Holding the Line,” Berman wrote that the Justice Department headquarters pressured his office to pursue an investigation into Kerry. In April 2019, Justice Department officials leaned on Berman’s staff within hours of Trump tweeting about Kerry and the Logan Act, he wrote.

“No one needed to talk to Trump to know what he wanted,” Berman wrote. “You could read his tweets.”

‘Emboldened, vindictive and lawless’

Berman stood fast and Kerry was never charged. But in a second term, having learned lessons from the first, Trump may stock the government with more pliable officials eager to do his bidding, detractors say.

Mark Zaid is an attorney who represented the whistleblower — who remains anonymous to this day — in Trump’s first impeachment. Trump was ultimately acquitted by the Senate over accusations that he had pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate Biden ahead of the 2020 election. At a rally in 2019, Trump called Zaid a “sleazeball,” citing some anti-Trump tweets he had posted two years earlier.

National security lawyer Mark Zaid
National security lawyer Mark Zaid at his home in the Washington, D.C., area, on July 20, 2016.Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

In his law practice, Zaid represents government employees along with intelligence and military officers. He worries that government agencies under Trump might go out of their way to target his clients.

“I know of many prominent ‘never Trump’ advocates, including many Republicans, who are considering their options to leave the country were Trump to win in November,” Zaid said.

One complication is that unless these people possess dual citizenship, they need to worry that the State Department would invalidate their passports, leaving them “stranded overseas and stateless,” Zaid added.

“It would be foolish of me, and others similarly situated, not to be concerned of what a second, more emboldened, vindictive and lawless Trump administration would look like,” Zaid added.

Sarah Matthews is a former White House press aide who in the early going credited Trump with championing everyday Americans who felt ignored by Washington. She resigned on Jan. 6, 2021 — the day Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol
Sarah Matthews, former deputy press secretary, testifies during a House Jan. 6 committee hearing on July 21, 2022.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

Matthews testified before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. In December, she and two of her former colleagues gave a TV interview to warn of the dangers of a second Trump term. In response, the Trump campaign put out a statement calling them “ungrateful grifters.”

“The idea of Donald Trump coming after you is a scary thought,” Matthews told NBC News in an interview. “But I knew that this whole situation that our country faces is bigger than just me.”

Michael Cohen is a former lawyer for Trump who broke with him over alleged hush-money payments to an adult film star during the 2016 campaign. He is slated to serve as a key witness in the Manhattan district attorney’s prosecution of Trump, which is scheduled for trial next month.

Cohen said that he would leave the U.S. if Trump wins the election. The first term, he said, “was a practice run for him.”

Former Donald Trump lawyer Michael Cohen walks out of a Manhattan courthouse after testifying before a grand jury on March 13, 2023 in New York City.
Michael Cohen walks out of a Manhattan courthouse after testifying before a grand jury on March 13, 2023, in New York.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

“The next round, hard to imagine, would be much worse” and more “far-reaching,” he added. “No joke, man.”

John Bolton, a former White House national security adviser, angered the former president by publishing a book that cast Trump in unflattering terms. Trump tweeted in 2020 that the book was “nasty & untrue.”

In a new preface to the book, Bolton called Trump “unfit to be president.”

Bolton lays out in the preface how Trump appointees intervened to try to impede the book’s publication. Having lived through that, Bolton said he would not at all be surprised if Trump were to target him in a second term. He said he has been talking to his attorney, Chuck Cooper, so that they are prepared in case Trump’s comeback succeeds.

As a Justice Department alumnus, Bolton said that both he and Cooper “are as ready as anybody for Trump.”

“If we don’t stay and fight, it’s only going to get worse,” he said.

National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks during his a press-conference in Kiev, Ukraine, on Aug. 28, 2019.
Then-national security adviser John Bolton speaks in Kiev, Ukraine, on Aug. 28, 2019.NurPhoto via Getty Images file

“But a lot depends on who his political appointees are and whether they can get confirmed and what outside groups may arise that might be helpful,” Bolton added.

One such outside group, Protect Democracy, has been monitoring Trump’s statements and issued a report last month recommending ways to stymie a president bent on upending America’s democratic norms. The organization is prepared to represent people who are “targets of authoritarian threats,” said Conor Gaffney, counsel at the organization.

‘The greatest danger’

Anyone facing a prosecution driven by retribution would be able to mount a viable defense, legal experts say. They could argue that they’ve been wrongly accused and that First Amendment or due process rights protect them from any reprisal.

It’s also possible that rank-and-file prosecutors working in government might resign rather than carry out what they’ve concluded is a meritless investigation.

Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, recently assigned her students a speech given by Robert H. Jackson in 1940, when he was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attorney general.

“It is in this realm — in which the prosecutor picks some person whom he dislikes or desires to embarrass, or selects some group of unpopular persons and then looks for an offense, that the greatest danger of abuse of prosecuting power lies,” Jackson said.

Still, fending off an investigation creates expense and stress that can prove ruinous. One person whom Trump has publicly disparaged mentioned the substantial costs involved.

“An investigation is a huge problem,” this person said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely. “It’s all the disruption to your life, the personal financial expenditure, the impact on your family and the impact on your job. If you want someone to competently guide and prep you for congressional testimony or to deal with a criminal subpoena, you’re talking about attorneys who charge $1,000 an hour and up.”

‘Prepared to have the fight’

Not everyone who has irked Trump is personally worried.

Bill Barr, the former attorney general whom Trump has called “a loser” and worse, told NBC News he has “zero worries.”

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Attorney General William Barr on Oct. 28, 2019, in Chicago.
Then-President Donald Trump shakes hands with Attorney General William Barr on Oct. 28, 2019, in Chicago.Charles Rex Arbogast / AP file

A person close to Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia elections official who defied Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 defeat in the state, said that “considering how long Trump’s enemies list is, how would he actually accomplish anything if he gets in office again?”

As for Vindman, he wants to stay in the U.S. no matter what comes. He arrived as a child when his family fled the Soviet Union. He joined the military, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and was given a Purple Heart for an injury he suffered in the Iraq War.

Vindman was among the U.S. officials listening in when Trump called upon Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate Biden. He deemed Trump’s request “improper” and reported his concerns to a White House attorney.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman appeasr before the House Intelligence Committee during the House impeachment inquiry concerning President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill on Nov. 19, 2019.
Vindman appears before the House Intelligence Committee during the House impeachment inquiry into Trump on Nov. 19, 2019.Melina Mara/The Washington Post / Getty Images file

“I’m prepared to have the fight and stand for the rule of law,” Vindman told NBC News.

Trump, he said, “never intimidated me. That’s just not going to happen.”