Trump backs off 2024 campaign theme threatening political 'retribution'

"I'm not going to have time for retribution," Trump said in an Iowa town hall.

January 11, 2024, 1:23 PM

Donald Trump has made the idea of "retribution" a centerpiece of his 2024 campaign for the White House, telling supporters at rally after rally he would use the full force of the presidency to go after his perceived political enemies.

The rhetoric has stoked alarm among critics that a second Trump term could usher in a wave of authoritarian revenge.

But on Wednesday night, in a sudden change, Trump backed off the message he's spent nearly a year touting on the stump.

"I'm not going to have time for retribution," Trump said during a town hall with Fox News in Iowa, where he sat down with the network's Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum as his Republican opponents traded attacks on stage at Drake University.

"We're going to make the country so successful again, I'm not going to have time for retribution," Trump claimed. "And remember this: Our ultimate retribution is success."

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump listens during a town hall in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 10, 2024.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

Still, he first contended that "a lot of people" would say a retribution effort is "not so bad" or even "normal."

"Look at what they did," Trump said as he reiterated complaints about past investigations into him and the 2020 election.

The former president's theme of retribution, which ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent Jonathan Karl reported has roots in old Confederate code, first emerged at last year's Conservative Political Action Conference in early March.

"In 2016, I declared I am your voice. Today I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution," he told the crowd.

A few weeks later, in an event billed as his first 2024 campaign rally, Trump repeated those words as he spent much of his 90-minute speech defending Jan. 6 rioters and airing grievances against those he believed had harmed or betrayed him. The rally was held in Waco, Texas, a location made famous by a deadly standoff between a religious sect and federal law enforcement.

"When this election is over, I will be the president of the United States. You will be vindicated and proud, and the thugs and criminals who are corrupting our justice system will be defeated, discredited and totally disgraced," he said at the March 25 event.

Former President Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the Waco Regional Airport on March 25, 2023 in Waco, Texas.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

The former president has put out proposals to decimate the so-called "deep state" by expanding presidential power and by firing career employees he says are pushing their own political agendas. He's called for defunding or dismantling the Department of Justice and FBI, or hinted at directing them to go after "radical" prosecutors around the country.

President Joe Biden, in his first campaign event of the new year, painted Trump as a threat to democracy over his rhetoric.

“Trump's not concerned about your future, I promise you,” Biden said last week in a speech to mark the three years since the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“Trump is now promising a full-scale campaign of revenge and retribution, his words, for some years to come," Biden said. "They were his words not mine. He went on to say he’d be a dictator on day one. I mean if I’m writing a book of fiction, and I said an American president said that and not in jest … It’s really kind of hard to believe."

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