Trump was supposed to be a political Godzilla in exile. Instead, he’s adrift.March 14, 2021
He backed away from creating a third party and has soured on the costly prospect of launching his own TV empire or social media startup.
His vow to target disloyal Republicans with personally-recruited primary challengers has taken a backseat to conventional endorsements of senators who refused to indulge his quest to overturn the 2020 election.
And though he was supposed to build a massive political apparatus to keep his MAGA movement afloat, it’s unclear to Republicans what his PAC is actually doing, beyond entangling itself in disputes with Republican icons and the party’s fundraising arms.
Ex-president Donald Trump finds himself adrift while in political exile. And Republicans, and even some allies, say he is disorganized, torn between playing the role of antagonist and party leader.
“There is no apparatus, no structure and part of that is due to a lack of political understanding on Trump’s behalf,” said a person close to the former president, noting that Trump has struggled to learn the ropes of post-presidential politicking.
“It’s like political phantom limbs. He doesn’t have the same political infrastructure he did three months ago as president,” added GOP strategist Matt Gorman, who previously served as communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The version of Trump that has emerged in the month and a half since he left office is far from the political godzilla many expected him to be. He was supposed to unleash hell on a party apparatus that recoiled when his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and declined to fiercely defend him during his second impeachment. Instead, Trump has maintained close ties to GOP officials who have committed to supporting incumbents, stayed almost entirely out of the spotlight, delivered fairly anodyne remarks the one time he emerged, and offered only sparse criticism of his successor, Joe Biden.
The cumulative result is political whiplash, as the former president shifts from wanting to support the GOP with his resources and grassroots appeal one day to refocusing on his own brand and thirst for vengeance the next. In the past week alone, Trump has gone from threatening party bodies for using his name and likeness in their fundraising efforts to offering up his Mar-a-Lago estate as a host site for part of the Republican National Committee’s spring donor retreat. He savagely attacked veteran GOP operative Karl Rove for criticizing his first post-presidency speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee, and endorsed Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who repeatedly scrutinized Trump’s own trade practices while in office.
And in the span of 24 hours this week, Trump went from encouraging NFL running back Herschel Walker to mount a primary bid against Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to hosting a vocal opponent of insurgent primary challenges, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., for dinner at Mar-a-Lago. In his role as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Scott has promised to stick by GOP incumbents — including Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who voted to convict Trump in his Senate trial last month on charges of inciting an insurrection. The Florida Republican said he had a “great meeting” with Trump in a tweet he shared Friday.
“For any normal politician, it would look like he’s trying to have it both ways but really he’s trying to have it his way,” said a former Trump White House official. “He only cares about maintaining his power and his stranglehold over the Republican Party and it doesn’t matter to him how any of the moves he makes affect the long-term success of institutions or individuals other than himself.”
Trump has always been an impulsive figure who demanded loyalty from those around him. But those traits have come with positions of power: whether atop a real estate empire, as a media celebrity, or — in his last iteration — as president of the United States.
No longer occupying a powerful office, the task has been made more complicated. The former president has appeared to settle into life outside the confines of the West Wing, and even made his first trip to New York earlier this week. He continues to hold court on the patio of his Mar-a-Lago resort where he is greeted by a standing ovation from members when he and the former first lady walk by. He spends his days monitoring the news, making calls and playing golf at his eponymous club just a few miles away.
He has assembled a barebones staff of paid and unpaid advisers who say they are working to vet primary candidates seeking his support and get his fundraising operation off the ground. But the factions that have already formed among those surrounding him suggest potential turbulence ahead. Three veterans of Trump’s 2020 campaign — Brad Parscale, Bill Stepien and Justin Clark — have been screening primary recruitments and brainstorming ways to reestablish his online presence, while Dave Bossie and Corey Lewandowski are in talks with the ex-president to launch a new fundraising entity on his behalf, according to people briefed on the recent discussions.
At the same time, Trump has continued to phone pals from his real estate days and former White House officials — soliciting their counsel on which Republicans he should try to unseat and whether they approve of the primary challengers he’s considering. One former administration official who has been in contact with Trump described him as a “pinball,” noting that his tendency to abruptly change directions or seize on a new idea after speaking with a friend or outside adviser — a habit that often frustrated aides during his time in office — has carried into his post-presidency life.
“You’ve got Trump making endorsements of people without going through the process he agreed to three days ago,” said the former White House official. “It’s really disorganized.”
The fear among Republicans is that Trump’s indecisiveness will extend to his personal political future as well. Trump has continued to dangle a 2024 run over the party, and the will-he-won’t-he guessing game has held presidential hopefuls in limbo.
“Politics is his hobby and he’s having fun with his hobby in between his rounds of golf,” said a former Trump adviser. “His big test is does he run again? Because if he doesn’t, you’ll see people lose interest in the guy in the next hour. As long as he plays the theatrics he’s going to run again, he still garners attention and creates headlines.”
But stripped of a social media platform like Twitter, the former president has had to rely on issuing statements — some mimicking the tone and length of his past tweets — via his post-presidency office or political PAC press lists. So far, he’s issued more than two dozen endorsements and statements since leaving the White House. The more recent ones have bashed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and sought credit for the current Covid-19 vaccine distribution.
And while Trump, an avid cable news consumer, has avoided publicly responding to TV segments that are critical of him or the wave of recent “cancel culture” headlines, he’s been tempted. Before a Wednesday appearance by his senior adviser Jason Miller on the “War Room” podcast hosted by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, Trump told Miller he could “make a little news” by relaying the ex-president’s thoughts on last Sunday’s bombshell Oprah interview of Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle.
“When I was talking to the president this morning… he’s like, ‘Yeah, she’s no good. I said that and now everybody’s seeing it. But you realize if you say anything negative about Meghan Markle you get canceled. Look at Piers,’” Miller said, recounting his conversation with Trump, who had been referring to Piers Morgan, the polarizing “Good Morning Britain” host who parted ways with the show this week after dismissing Markle’s revelations as lies.
Some close aides have described Trump’s hiatus from Twitter as a welcome break that allows his rare statements to carry more weight than the thought bubbles he would release on the internet.
But so far, many of his recent political maneuverings have been met with a shrug by the GOP. Trump’s public tussle with the Republican Party over fundraising and the use of his name and likeness in appeals for money appeared to fizzle out after attorneys for the Republican National Committee denied Trump’s cease-and-desist demands. By week’s end, the RNC was not only still using Trump’s name in fundraising solicitations, it was offering him up as an enticement.
“Want to meet President Trump?” a fundraising appeal read, touting the opportunity to dine with the former president at an upcoming spring retreat and even “take a photo” with him too.