By Kristen Holmes and Gabby Orr, CNN
Allies of Donald Trump are distancing themselves from his latest business venture, hours after the former president debuted a series of digital trading cards that befuddled and exasperated his own campaign aides and were roundly mocked by some of his most ardent supporters.
The out-of-the-blue announcement comes on the heels of several high-profile blunders since Trump launched his 2024 presidential bid last month, leaving those around him concerned that he is not prepared for another campaign.
Multiple sources familiar with the matter said Trump was pitched on launching a digital trading card collection by entrepreneur Bill Zanker, with whom he has done business in the past, including co-authoring a 2008 self-help book on Trump’s business dealings. Sources said the discussions between Zanker and Trump preceded his entry into the 2024 GOP presidential primary, leaving many of Trump’s aides and advisers in the dark.
Those who were notified of the project several weeks ago were nevertheless caught off guard by the ridicule it attracted among Trump loyalists on Thursday.
Among those perplexed by the move was former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who suggested during an episode of his “War Room” podcast this week that whoever convinced Trump to enter the digital token business “ought to be fired.” While Bannon declined to directly ridicule Trump, he appeared mystified by the former president’s decision.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Bannon said, reacting to a video released by Trump on Thursday that contained images of some of the digital collectibles, depicting Trump as a cowboy, an astronaut and a superhero.
Multiple current and former advisers to Trump said that the seemingly random business venture was a mistake and beneath the 45th president.
As Trump took the stage Friday morning to deliver remarks to an Orthodox Jewish group at his Miami golf course, his political aides were still fielding questions and calls from donors about his puzzling new enterprise, sources familiar with the matter said.
An outside adviser told CNN that a senior Trump aide expressed confusion and annoyance about the venture during a conversation when the adviser asked why the former president was getting involved with digital collectibles — or non-fungible tokens (NFTs) — at the outset of his 2024 presidential campaign. The adviser recounted the conversation on the condition of anonymity.
Trump’s teasing of a “major announcement” in a post to his Truth Social site on Wednesday, which was later revealed to be the launch of his digital trading card collection, was “boy-who-cries-wolf status,” this person added.
According to a website where the $99 trading cards are available for purchase, they are neither a project of his 2024 bid nor a campaign merchandise offering. Instead, the NFTs appear to be a new extension of Trump’s business portfolio.
A second person close to Trump suggested the former president may be attempting to “defend his brand” as he faces mounting questions about the strength of his third presidential campaign.
Trump’s slow campaign launch, coupled with two recent scandals involving a Mar-a-Lago dinner with White supremacist Nick Fuentes and his suggestion that the US Constitution be terminated so he can be reinstalled as president, appear to have weakened his position as the presumptive front-runner even before potential GOP rivals join him in the primary field next year. A spate of polls this week underscored a growing appetite among Republican voters for an alternative presidential nominee in 2024, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis drawing notable support as he mulls a possible campaign.
But instead of adding juice to his flagging campaign, Trump’s NFT announcement appears to have sowed more doubt about his overall strategy.
“I know this will anger some in Trump world but come on! Can we all just admit this is not great for Donald Trump’s first major announcement since announcing he’s running again?” tweeted Michael Biundo, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist and former senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
“I kind of feel like we’re being punked,” Biundo added.
Trump’s announcement came the same day his campaign released the first of a series of policy videos focused on “free speech” and aimed to refocus Trump’s lagging campaign. In the video, a serious and on-message Trump appealed to conservative voters by vowing to take on Big Tech if he wins election in 2024. But the attempt at recalibrating Trump was overshadowed by the NFT video release, portraying the former president as a cartoon superman shooting lasers out of his eyes.
One source who spoke with Trump after the launch said that Trump was shown the online criticism of his allies and supporters and understood their response. Another source close to Trump indicated that the former president was happy he did it.
“This was a decision he made with his business hat on, not his political hat,” the source said. “And in that sense — it was successful.”
Some allies who were alerted to the NFT project before it went live tried to convince Trump to hold off, believing the move would distract from his 2024 campaign. But the former president ultimately proceeded with the announcement, launching it just hours before his campaign made its first policy-related announcement where Trump, in a taped video, outlined “free speech” reforms he would pursue if elected to a nonconsecutive second term.
Sources said the former president considers the venture a success so far, already pulling in seven figures within the first 24 hours of his debut NFT launch. However, none of that will go toward his political campaign, according to the website where Trump’s digital trading cards are being marketed.
Trump hasn’t responded to the criticism of his NFT launch, and his campaign has been silent on the matter.
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