After lying low for nearly a month after leaving office, Donald Trump is ramping up a return to relevancy that will involve renewed fundraising and continuing attacks on a new nemesis: the highest-ranking Republican in Washington, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.
Trump has not been collecting money for his Save America leadership committee since January 6, the day a mob he incited attacked the U.S. Capitol, but a website that will permit him to tap into his lucrative small-donor list will be up and running within days, said a Republican familiar with his plans.
And while the Republican Party focuses on winning back one or both chambers of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections, Trump is fixated on pressuring Senate Republicans to replace McConnell, who, after engineering Trump’s second impeachment acquittal in a year, excoriated him in a Senate floor speech immediately afterward and then in a Wall Street Journal column.
“Because it’s smart,” the Republican source said on condition of anonymity. “It shows that Trump is still the leader of the new party and is pushing out the leaders of the old party.”
Recent polls show that Trump is deeply unpopular with Americans as a whole but still has the approval of most Republicans. One survey showed him the hands-down favourite, about 40 percentage points above the next name, for the 2024 Republican nomination, which Trump has said he is considering seeking.
Longtime Republican consultants, though, said Trump’s attacks on McConnell and others who criticised him for inciting the January 6 attack may help Trump but would be a nightmare for the party.
“His congenital need for attention and affirmation is going to do lasting damage to the GOP,” said David Kochel, who most recently helped Iowa Republican senator Joni Ernst win a comfortable reelection.
“Trump has always been a brilliant tactician and a terrible strategist,” said Terry Sullivan, who ran Florida senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 bid for the GOP nomination. “He has no master plan on what he wants to do, only that he wants to react to McConnell.”
Republicans hoping to retain the favour of Trump’s hard-core followers have started making pilgrimages to the for-profit Palm Beach social club where he lives. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and whip Steve Scalise have both visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago in recent days, while Trump’s United Nations ambassador and potential 2024 presidential candidate Nikki Haley reportedly tried to arrange a meeting but was rejected.
Trump is the first one-term president to lose an election in modern times to nevertheless try to remain a force in national politics. He was able to raise nearly $80 million for Save America in the weeks between the November 3 election he lost and January 6 by claiming, in hundreds of fundraising texts and emails, that the money would let him pursue challenges to the election results and help Republicans hold two Georgia Senate seats. In the end, though, he spent none of that money for either purpose and has it available for virtually anything he wants ― from picking up personal expenses to paying himself an eight-figure salary ― thanks to the permissive rules regulating such “leadership” committees.
Trump retains access to an email and cellphone number list totalling over 40 million names, including several million actual donors, that was jointly built by his campaign and the Republican National Committee. Some GOP consultants believe that a significant fraction of his campaign donors could be persuaded to give him $5 a month, allowing him to take in tens of millions of dollars each year.
Two coming events, though, could test Trump’s hold on the party.
Next week, the American Conservative Union, which for decades hosted its Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, is holding it instead in Orlando, just two hours by car up the Florida Turnpike from Trump’s new home. Some half dozen potential GOP 2024 presidential hopefuls are slated to attend, including senator Rick Scott and governor Ron DeSantis, both of Florida. It is unclear whether Trump, who headlined the event each of his four years in office, will make an appearance.
And six weeks later, the RNC is scheduled to host a conference for its major donors in Palm Beach, an annual event that in recent years has funnelled many hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago to host luncheons and dinners there.
The RNC did not respond to HuffPost’s queries about whether that would happen again. The meeting itself is likely to take place, as it has in previous years, at the Four Seasons hotel, four miles up the road, because Trump’s club has only 10 guest suites.
One RNC member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it would be a mistake for the party to patronize Trump’s property right now.
“That would be a bad idea. The party can’t be controlled by any one candidate,” the member said, calling it a “recipe for losing.”
Trump left the White House exactly two weeks after his failed, last-gasp attempt to encourage a mob of his violent supporters to intimidate his own vice president and Congress into discarding the election results and installing him as ruler. The ensuing impeachment won the support of 10 House Republicans and seven GOP senators, but Trump nevertheless has continued lying that the election had been “stolen” from him, the underlying falsehood that drove his supporters into rioting. He repeated it again Wednesday in the first batch of interviews he has given since his presidency ended.
On Thursday, senator Mitt Romney ― who voted to convict Trump in his impeachment both this time as well as in early 2020, for his attempted extortion of Ukraine’s leader into smearing presidential rival Joe Biden ― entered into the Congressional Record a statement explicitly describing Trump’s actions as a move toward authoritarianism.
“There is a thin line that separates our democratic republic from an autocracy: It is a free and fair election and the peaceful transfer of power that follows it. President Trump attempted to breach that line, again,” Romney wrote. “What he attempted is what was most feared by the Founders. It is the reason they invested Congress with the power to impeach.”