On serving more than two terms, Trump's tone turns serious

Trump used to joke about serving three or more terms to get a rise out of critics. Now he apparently feels entitled to ignore the Constitution's limits.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump during a campaign rally at Wittman Airport, on Aug. 17, 2020, in Oshkosh, Wis.Evan Vucci / AP
By Steve Benen

At a campaign stop in Arizona yesterday, Donald Trump was greeted by supporters chanting, "Four more years." Before the president could even begin his remarks in earnest, he endorsed the chant and added some related thoughts:

"Thank you very much. And you know, considering that we caught President Obama and sleepy Joe Biden, spying on our campaign -- treason -- we'll probably be entitled to another four more years after that."

You can listen to the tone he used to deliver these unscripted comments. It didn't sound like he was simply joking around.

What's more, if it seems like the president has been peddling this line with increasing frequency, it's not your imagination. The day before his event in Arizona, Trump suggested to a Minnesota audience that he intends to serve more than two terms, adding in Wisconsin, "We are going to win four more years. And then after that we'll go for another four years, because they spied on my campaign. We should get a re-do of four years."

CNN's Daniel Dale highlighted the Republican's shift in tone: "Trump has modified how he talks about staying in office beyond two terms. He used to frame it as a pure media-trolling, libs-triggering joke; this week, he's been offering an actual reason why he should get more time in office."

Quite right. I can think of many instances in which the president would headline a rally, and when there was a bit of a lull, he'd start making random comments about serving three or more terms, the Constitution be damned. It was obvious that Trump was trying to generate criticisms -- he'd even point at journalists and tell the crowd something like, "That line drives them crazy."

But lately, Trump has sounded more serious, as if he feels entitled to more than two terms.

His reasoning, of course, is hopelessly bonkers. In reality, no one "spied on" his campaign. Neither Barack Obama nor Joe Biden committed "treason." Presidents who go through scandals don't get additional time added to their tenures as some kind of reparation.

To be sure, this hasn't come out of nowhere. In May 2019, Trump retweeted Jerry Falwell Jr. -- before his ignominious fall from grace -- arguing that the president deserves a six-year first term "as payback for time stolen" by the investigation into the Russia scandal, which the tweet described as a "corrupt failed coup."

Trump echoed Falwell's sentiment in a pair of tweets an hour later, writing that nefarious forces "have stolen two years of my (our) Presidency (Collusion Delusion) that we will never be able to get back."

More than a year later, the president has begun peddling a related line with increasing frequency.

The fear isn't that Trump will actually succeed on this front. The Constitution's 22nd Amendment prevents a president from seeking a third term, and there's nothing he can do about it.

The concern, rather, is two-fold. First, Trump is starting to run on a re-election message that emphasizes his indifference toward legal limits -- as if this were a sensible line that will resonate with far-right voters who won't notice the contradiction with his "law and order" soundbites.

And second, if the president loses, he may push this garbage as some kind of justification for rejecting the results.