Talk of Escape: Trump’s Possible Return Rattles D.C.

It has become the topic of the season at Washington dinner parties and receptions. Where would you go if it really happens?

Portugal, says a former member of Congress. Australia, says a former agency director. Canada, says a Biden administration official. France, says a liberal columnist. Poland, says a former investigator.

They’re joking. Sort of. At least in most cases. It’s a gallows humor with a dark edge. Much of official Washington is bracing for the possibility that former President Donald J. Trump really could return — this time with “retribution” as his avowed mission, the discussion is where people might go into a sort of self-imposed exile.

Whether they mean it or not, the buzz is a telling indicator of the grim mood among many in the nation’s capital these days. The “what if” goes beyond the normal prospect of a side unhappy about a lost election. It speaks to the nervousness about a would-be president who talks of being a dictator for a day, who vows to “root out” enemies he called “vermin,” who threatens to prosecute adversaries, who suggests a general he deems disloyal deserves “DEATH,” whose lawyers say he may have immunity even if he orders the assassination of political rivals.

“I feel like in the past two weeks that conversation for whatever reason has just surged,” said Miles Taylor, a former Trump administration official who became a vocal critic of the former president. “People are feeling that it’s very obvious if a second Trump terms happens, it’s going to be slash and burn.”

That’s all fine with Mr. Trump and his allies. In their view, Washington’s fear is the point. He is the disrupter of the elite. He is coming to break up their corrupt “uniparty” hold on power. If establishment Washington is upset about the possibility that he returns, that is a selling point to his base around the country that is alienated from the people in power.

Washington, of course, has never been fertile Trump territory. He won just 5 percent of the vote in the nation’s capital in 2020, and it is hardly surprising that the governing class is unsettled by attacks on “the deep state.” Even many Republicans in the capital are nervous about Mr. Trump. The District of Columbia has so far been the only place other than Vermont to support Nikki R. Haley over Mr. Trump in this year’s Republican primaries.

But Mr. Trump’s flirtation with authoritarian figures and language has raised the specter of a Washington vastly different even than during his first term, when he was at times restrained by establishment Republicans, military officers and career civil service officials who are less likely to surround him in a second. His rhetoric this time around has centered more than before on power and how he would increase it and use it if he won again.

“The rest of America may not take what he says seriously,” said former Representative Stephanie Murphy, Democrat of Florida, “but I think you’re hearing the uncomfortable chatter in Washington among Democrats and Republicans because they understand having worked with him in the past that when he says something he means it.”

Ms. Murphy, who served on the House committee that investigated the events of Jan. 6, 2021, did not hesitate when asked about her Plan B. “Portugal,” she said promptly. She has thought it through. Portugal has a lot of appeal — beautiful, charming and less expensive than elsewhere in Europe — and is on many lists in Washington.

There is a spectrum of how serious people really are. Ms. Murphy said in her case it is mostly mordant humor. “I think I’m being flippant because I would like to think I wouldn’t have to be a refugee for the second time in my life from political persecution,” said the former congresswoman, whose family escaped Vietnam when she was a child.

David Urban, a Trump ally who worked on his 2016 and 2020 campaigns, said apprehensive Washingtonians have gotten themselves into a dither because they cannot “look past the bluster to the substance” and are suffering from “Trump derangement syndrome.”

“The chattering class is freaking out,” he said. “There are plenty of people who see the dark side of the moon with Trump. And there’s a good contingency in Washington who can’t wait for him to get here.”

He added: “They really think it’s going to be the end of democracy as we know it, and I think it’s misplaced.” In fact, Mr. Urban said, a new Trump presidency would still be subject to checks and balances that would restrain any extreme impulses. “There are plenty of grown-ups, plenty of serious people who will want to roll in a second Trump administration.”

Moreover, for all the doomsday talk inside the Beltway this spring, plenty of people have made vows to flee in the past if the candidate they opposed won, whether it was George W. Bush for the left or Barack Obama for the right, without actually following through.

“Every four years, whenever it looks like a Republican might win, Democrats rev up the ‘I will leave America’ rhetoric. Yet none of them ever do,” said Douglas Heye, a Republican strategist. “This might be more of an attention-getting tactic.”

But many in Washington speculating about travel plans are not seeking publicity. Indeed, many who discussed it in recent days did so only if guaranteed that their names would not be used for fear of making themselves more of a target.

The range and seniority of people who talk about it is striking. They include current and former White House officials, cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, agency directors, intelligence and law enforcement officials, military officers, political strategists and journalists. The topic came up repeatedly at the swirl of Washington soirees surrounding the recent White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

One person high on Mr. Trump’s enemies list said that getaway planning is a regular matter of discussion among those targeted over the years on the former president’s social media accounts. Another favorite Trump target said it is raised “over and over again,” particularly among spouses of those seen at risk. A European ambassador said it comes up at least twice a week with Washington figures joking about needing asylum.

“It’s definitely been a topic of conversation,” said Steven A. Cook, a Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Cook has no personal reason to fear Mr. Trump’s “retribution” but dreads the onset of a more autocratic form of government like that he has seen in places like Egypt and Pakistan.

His possible refuge? Abu Dhabi, he said, acknowledging the irony that “a little Jewish kid from Long Island” might feel safer in the United Arab Emirates than his homeland.

“Perhaps because we’re in Washington and it’s a bubble, maybe we’re overplaying it,” Mr. Cook said. “But it’s not as hard to imagine as it once was. Until relatively recently, I shared the idea that the United States was sprinkled in fairy dust and it couldn’t happen here. But too much has happened and maybe it could.”

With Mr. Cook, leaving is just talk for now. But others are going further. They have researched family history to see if they could qualify for a passport from, say, Ireland, Poland or Germany. They have been updating passports and looking for property to buy in Europe. Some have hired lawyers to explore their options.

David A. Andelman, 79, a longtime journalist who already lives part-time in France, wrote on CNN’s website this past week that he and his wife might move there full-time if Mr. Trump wins and had “found a growing sentiment that we are hardly alone.” The day that his column posted online, he said, his real estate broker in France received 45 calls from Americans looking to do the same.

A lawyer who has clashed with Mr. Trump is among those who have been studying his European roots in case he needs to establish residency. The conversation, he said, has gone from a knowing joke to prudent contingency planning. It would be “madness to dismiss” the risk, he said.

A former government official who angered Mr. Trump said it is not a trivial conversation or purely humor. While this person expressed optimism that American institutions would prevent major injustices, anyone targeted by Mr. Trump could still be made “miserable” by investigations, grand juries, lawyer fees and career-killing publicity.

Brian Katulis, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who has worked at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon, said a friend from the Obama administration recently went to London and scoped out possible real estate and schools.

“My view is a little less hair on fire,” he said, expressing faith in the country’s resiliency. “I’m going to ride this ship if it goes down, dumping buckets overboard. I don’t think it’s sinking. But if it starts going in that direction, my attitude is not to jump off the ship. We don’t have better places to go.”

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