By Gabby Orr, CNN
Staffers were making regular trips to Staples, trying to create a functional office for themselves and the former commander in chief at his Mar-a-Lago club. Allies were doling out conflicting advice — telling Trump to lie low until his impeachment trial concluded in the Senate or get out and aggressively defend himself. Aides who had been by his side for years suddenly disappeared as they weighed their next moves.
“It was a chaotic period,” recalled a person close to Trump when asked recently to describe the 45th President’s first few weeks of ostensible retirement. “What you see today — in terms of the political machine he is building — is a night and day difference from where we were 12 months ago.”
A lot has changed in the year since Trump left Washington. Though his presidency ended in disgrace, his endorsement remains one of the most coveted prizes in Republican primaries. His political apparatus, after sending cease-and-desist letters to three of the largest GOP fundraising outfits last March, has now amassed more than $100 million in cash and convinced the Republican National Committee — one of the letter recipients — to partially cover some of his personal legal bills. And Trump’s once-dysfunctional operation, which nearly blew up the Ohio US Senate primary with a premature and unvetted endorsement last spring, has become noticeably more organized in its assessment of candidates under the command of GOP campaign veteran Susie Wiles, who has ensured that Trump is briefed on the latest polling and field research before meeting with endorsement-seekers.
“Susie has helped give him a real sense of direction and order. The whole Trump family really respects her,” said Trump-aligned pollster Jim McLaughlin.
This account of Trump’s first year out of office and his plans for the midterm elections and beyond is based on interviews with more than 20 former and current aides, advisers and close friends of the 45th President, many of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about Trump or their interactions with him. With few exceptions, they described a former President who feels increasingly emboldened to remain in politics after watching top Republicans bend to his will despite his role in the January 6 insurrection and because of the myriad challenges President Joe Biden has faced during his first term so far.
One current Trump adviser said the former President was “still pretty dejected up until a few months ago, when his whole demeanor started changing the worse things became for Biden.” Only then, the adviser said, did Trump begin “seriously thinking about 2024 and what he needs to do this year so that he’s in a solid position for another campaign.”
Because of the changes to his post-presidential operation over the last year, many Republicans now view Trump as a crucial component to their midterm strategy — an exceedingly popular figure with the party’s base who can help drive turnout in November and launch certain candidates to front-runner status with his endorsement in crowded primaries. However, there is also a contingent of Republican figures who wish Trump would disappear into retirement, concerned that his outsized influence and meddling in primaries threatens both democracy and the GOP’s midterm chances.
Putting his 2022 strategy to the test
Trump has virtually no plans to pursue a real retirement anytime soon.
His aides say the former President views 2022 as an opportunity to further tighten his grip on the Republican Party by working to usher in a new class of “America First” officials at local, state and national levels. With this mission in mind, he is expected to maintain a steady stream of public appearances in the coming months.
Trump is slated to huddle with several of his political aides on January 26 to discuss where, when and how he can dominate the 2022 midterms as a so-called kingmaker inside the GOP. Two people familiar with the meeting said invitees range from Iowa-based operatives Eric Branstad and Alex Latchman, who joined Trump’s Save America leadership PAC last summer, to his spokesman Taylor Budowich and GOP strategist Andy Surabian.
“This is where he will decide where to go and how to spend his money,” said one of the people briefed on the meeting.
While some of these decisions have been in the works for a while, Trump’s team is still considering which races are most fertile for him to energize Republican voters without alienating other critical constituencies. In Georgia, for example, several Trump allies said they believe the former President can have a positive impact in the Senate race, which is likely to pit Trump-backed Republican and former NFL star Herschel Walker against incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. But given that Trump narrowly lost the state in 2020, his campaign appearances could also have the opposite effect if his message fails to resonate with voters or depresses voter turnout by focusing too heavily on the past presidential election and his disproven claims of widespread voter fraud in the state, allies warned.
“He has all the right enemies when he focuses on Big Tech, establishment Democrats and Republicans, and the progressive left. It’s when he starts talking about 2020 that he gets himself into trouble with voters that Republicans need,” said a person close to Trump.
For the most part, the former President has continued to bounce his ideas about messaging and candidates off familiar faces inside his orbit. He speaks regularly to former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, former Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell, South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham, former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and longtime aides like Dan Scavino and Stephen Miller. But he has also welcomed new faces into his inner circle, such as Carlos Trujillo, who served as ambassador to the Organization of American States during his administration and has developed “a strong relationship” with the former President since he relocated to Florida, according to a person familiar with the matter. Trujillo did not respond to a request for comment.
People close to Trump say he hopes to schedule at least two rallies every month leading up to August, when most primary outcomes will have been determined, and will then increase his appearances as needed until the November 8 midterms. So far this year, the former President has rallied voters in Arizona, where several Trump-aligned candidates are vying for his endorsement in the Senate primary and gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, a veteran news anchor and MAGA devotee, is hoping to succeed Trump foe Doug Ducey as governor. Trump announced his support of Lake’s campaign last September. Other states that Trump is said to be eyeing for rallies in 2022 include Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Missouri, Nevada and possibly New Hampshire, depending on who Republicans recruit to challenge Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan in the Senate race, according to two Trump aides familiar with his midterm strategy.
“It’s clear to Republicans that it’s likely to be a good year and President Trump wants to be one of the leading indicators of why the GOP had a good year at the ballot box. So we will see more engagement from him in the coming months,” said Trump adviser Bryan Lanza.
Trump’s rallies have also become hot spots for candidates looking to score face time with the former President in order to nab his endorsement. One former Trump campaign official said two New Jersey candidates had flown to Arizona last weekend with their Trump-aligned consultants “to ask for his endorsement because they couldn’t get a Mar-a-Lago meeting.”
In the campaign appearances Trump does make, his political advisers are urging him to spend less time complaining about the past presidential election and more time outlining perceived failures of the Biden administration and Democrats on the pandemic, economic growth, the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan and parental choice in education — albeit with some attention paid to what Trump and some Republicans refer to as “election integrity.”
Of course, that strategy is easier said than done for a notoriously undisciplined messenger like Trump. At his rally in Florence, Arizona, on Saturday, the former President ticked off a number of complaints about the 2020 election and bemoaned the “appalling” treatment of rioters who were taken into custody after storming the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
“The jails are filthy, dirty. They are living in hell. They are being hounded like you hound the worst animal. … If we think they’re innocent we should help them defend themselves,” Trump told the crowd.
The 2024 question
If Trump’s midterm involvement pays dividends in November, people in his orbit say, it is increasingly likely that he will mount a comeback presidential bid in 2024.
Three Trump advisers said his behavior in public and private over the past four months has left them with the impression that he does plan to run again as long as he thinks he can win. One of those indicators is Trump’s increased outreach to pollster Tony Fabrizio, who compiled a 27-page autopsy after the 2020 election that detailed which demographics had drifted away from Trump and sought to explain the reasons for those shifts.
“He started bugging Tony once Biden got under 50% approval. Trump sees him as an honest broker,” said one Trump adviser. Fabrizio did not return multiple requests for comment.
The theory among Trump’s allies is that the former President will run in 2024 if Biden’s approval rating is still hovering in the low 40s next spring because, Trump and his team believe, that would indicate a loss of support for Biden among independent voters. Biden’s approval rating stood at 42%, compared with 53% disapproval, among all adults in the latest CNN Poll of Polls last week, which is the average of the four most recent nonpartisan national surveys.
“But if Biden is back up to 46% approval or above, everyone is universally in agreement that Trump is out,” said the Trump adviser.
There are many other potential roadblocks to a successful 2024 White House bid by the former President. New York Attorney General Letitia James is still investigating Trump as part of a civil fraud probe related to his business dealings, while the former President also remains under criminal investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Then there is the House select committee investigating Trump’s role in the January 6 riot, which could eventually make a criminal referral to the Justice Department if the committee discovers evidence of wrongdoing on Trump’s behalf.
Should Trump proceed with a presidential campaign anyway, his team would be able to activate a significant fundraising operation that the former President and his allies have created since he left office. Trump has already amassed a nine-figure war chest, according to his most recent federal filings. He is also working to develop a new social media outlet — Truth Social — that could further increase his reach heading into a presidential contest, though a website about the venture provides few details about its launch and some of his aides fret about its impact.
“The past year has proven he does not need Twitter or Facebook to maintain his influence, and he’s arguably better off without access to social media,” said one of the people close to Trump.
A year of causing headaches and gaining influence
Of course, Trump’s first year out of office has done far more than raise questions about a potential upside to his social media banishment.
Following a period of uncertainty about his political future in the immediate aftermath of January 6, during which the former President was briefly seen as a pariah among most Republican leaders, GOP movers and shakers began trickling back into Mar-a-Lago’s gilded hallways. Top voices in the party like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California huddled with the former President in Florida less than a month after the deadly Capitol insurrection. Graham was spotted golfing with Trump last April, three months after he had claimed “enough is enough” on the evening of January 6.
Meanwhile, Republicans who have refused to embrace Trump once again have faced his repeated condemnations and active attempts to recruit primary challengers against them this fall. Of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last January, three have said they aren’t running again this November, four are facing Trump-backed primary opponents and the remaining three are plowing ahead in their quests for reelection.
One of those Republicans facing a primary threat, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, has perhaps become the top target of Trump’s attacks. The former President’s contempt for Cheney, who serves as the vice chair of the January 6 panel, is second only to his dislike of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who has not spoken to Trump in more than a year and is now the subject of an unofficial litmus test for all GOP candidates seeking the former President’s endorsement. In the coming months, Trump is expected to campaign for Wyoming attorney Harriet Hageman, whose primary challenge to Cheney he endorsed in September.
Trump’s crusade against Cheney is one of many intraparty feuds he has stoked over the last year. His push to oust the Wyoming Republican from her House leadership post last spring created friction between some conservative lawmakers and McCarthy over the rush to replace her with Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who was endorsed by Trump for the leadership slot. Similarly, his increasingly hostile attacks on McConnell have pitted Republican senators and candidates against one another. In a Fox appearance last week, for instance, Graham delivered an ultimatum to McConnell despite being a longtime ally of the GOP leader.
“Here’s the question: Can Sen. McConnell effectively work with the leader of the Republican Party, Donald Trump?” the South Carolina Republican told host Sean Hannity. “I’m not going to vote for anybody that can’t have a working relationship with President Trump, to be a team, to come up with an America First agenda … because if you can’t do that, you will fail.”
Furthermore, Trump’s relentless focus on the 2020 election has forced many Republicans to walk a fine line while campaigning for reelection. On one hand, they must navigate the reality that GOP voters have overwhelmingly accepted Trump’s falsehoods about the election. In September, a CNN poll found that 78% of Republicans don’t believe Biden earned enough legitimate votes to defeat Trump. But candidates in more purple states and districts need to also draw support from moderate Republicans and independents to secure reelection.
“A lot of these guys are damned if they do, damned if they don’t,” said a person close to Trump, claiming that most Republican candidates who want to be successful “must find ways to please both Trump and voters who could give a rat’s ass about 2020.”
“It’s doable but tricky,” this person said.
Some Trump aides are hopeful that his days of relitigating the 2020 election are numbered, or that at the very least he is gravitating toward a more forward-looking message. They grasp onto recent appearances where he has said an election like 2020 cannot “happen again,” suggesting that such language is his way of putting his loss in the past.
Part of the reason for this, according to one Trump aide, is that his exposure to 2022 polling has increased since aides implemented a new structure to his endorsement process. Whereas the former President used to back whichever candidate was first to request his support — either directly during a visit to Mar-a-Lago or indirectly through a Trump ally — he now reviews a packet of up-to-date polls and field research curated by his team before meeting with most candidates, the aide said.
“He’s literally seeing what works and what doesn’t, and usually the polls show that voters are more interested in what a candidate is going to do about the economy, inflation (and) vaccine mandates than they are hung up about 2020,” said a Republican strategist who has briefed Trump in the past couple of months.
The evolution of Trump’s political machine from a hamstrung operation to one that is influencing candidates’ messaging and raking in significant cash each month will be put to the ultimate test in November. If the midterms result in the Republican Party’s return to power on Capitol Hill, Trump allies say, it will help ease the pain of his 2020 defeat and could allow him to retire from politics on a positive note.
But it could also be the tipping point for a 2024 bid that rebuilds or irreversibly damages Trump’s legacy, depending on the outcome.
“Whether the president decides to run, he will either be the king or he will be the kingmaker,” said McLaughlin, the Trump-aligned pollster.
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