Trump’s Battle to Win the First 100 DaysApril 29, 2021
There’s not just one 100-day clock that’s reached its peak this week—there are two.
First, of course, is Joe Biden’s—the collective assessment of what he’s said and done since his inauguration as the 46th president on January 20.
Then, though, there is Trump’s—the 45th president’s first 100 days as the antipope of Mar-a-Lago. On full display has been his guiding, lifelong, zero-sum belief: For there to be a winner, there must also be a loser—and if Biden is the one, then Trump is the other. And as this arbitrary but important and traditional mile-marker has gotten closer and closer—as Biden’s ambitious agenda has continued to elicit higher favorability ratings and polling numbers and early comparisons to some of history’s most effective presidents—Trump’s agitation has gotten only more palpable and pronounced.
From the Florida perch he has turned into the unofficial capital of the GOP and the most important address in American politics not in Washington, D.C., Trump’s delivered a crescendoing, double-barreled barrage from his Save America PAC and his post-presidential office in Palm Beach. The statements bear his telltale mix of strange punctuation and catchphrases along with an equally characteristic clamoring for credit and angling for attention by attacking the man who beat him last fall.
“We will WIN, and we will WIN BIG!”
“Our country is being destroyed by the Democrats!”
“Except for massive voter fraud, this was a campaign that was easily won by your favorite Republican President, me!”
Trump has hosted at his private club some of the most powerful Republicans plus a spate of aspiring elected officials vying for his approval. He’s deployed his emailed blasts to zero in on targets for vengeance while offering up to loyalists across the country his imprimatur. He’s welcomed well-heeled would-be donors.
And it’s not just what he’s doing—it’s what he’s not. He’s not working on a memoir, and he’s not putting into motion a presidential library, after-the-Oval activities that are nothing if not conventional but also acknowledgements of a change in status—to more was than is. Trump, on the other hand, isn’t acting like a has-been—he’s acting like a still-here. Indeed, ramping up of late the volume and frenzy of his declarations, he is trying not only to not fade like any other former leader of the free world but to stoke his considerable remaining political sway—his first 100 days out of office a brazen continuation of his lack of a concession in the wake of his defeat.
“Trump is an autobot of predictable behaviors,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told me. “He’s moving through his post-presidential days so far the way he’s moved through everything in his life.”
“He was an angry insurgent when he campaigned for the presidency. He was an angry insurgent as president. And as a former president, he continues to be an angry insurgent,” presidential historian Mark Updegrove told me.
No sentient soul, obviously, expected Trump to quietly recede from the scene.
In the course of my reporting during his waning days in the White House, people predicted “something remarkably new,” “a post-presidency like we’ve never seen,” and a “shadow ex-president.” At times, though, Trump hasn’t been as constant and as omnipresent as many were expecting. Without the use of Air Force One, and his signature 757, too, he’s mostly stayed put, making limited public appearances, staging not a single rally, traveling almost not at all. He’s plainly been hampered by his bans from Facebook and Twitter. He’s at odds with some key leaders of the party he seeks to control. He’s also been stymied, it’s often seemed, by a disciplined successor determined to pay him next to no heed. Even so, Trump stands, stubbornly and sneeringly, as the GOP’s preeminent persona and donor draw. “All Republican roads,” as senior adviser Jason Miller put it this month, “lead to Mar-a-Lago.”
“It’s really amazing to me that a one-term president can be the kingmaker in a political party,” Slater Bayliss, a Tallahassee-based Republican strategist who describes himself as “no fan” of Trump, told me.
“I’m in awe,” said Alan Marcus, a former Trump publicist and another Trump critic. “I don’t know of any other candidate—any loser—who could have done this.”
“It’s just been really skillful the way that he has pulled this off. I mean, I tip my hat to the guy,” Bayliss said. “Other one-term presidents … they were done.”
Far from done, Trump’s activity is mounting markedly, as if he’s aware of this looming deadline. Over the past couple of weeks, he’s said more and more about more and more, sat for his first on-camera, hourlong interview and increasingly strayed from the squarely political to fire at fecund, culture-war cracks, lambasting LeBron James and even the Academy Awards.
Lurking, though, in Trump’s spiking Florida fever chart, in his intensifying efforts to reestablish himself, to re-insert himself, to reemphasize what he sees as his record of achievement, is an implicit recognition. That his legacy is uncertain. That the scope of his ongoing influence is an open question.
Those close to him scoff. “Let me tell you something,” said a former senior administration official who recently met with Trump in his office above the ballroom at Mar-a-Lago. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Trump was tired.
“He was exhausted,” the former senior administration official said of the immediate aftermath of his tenure as president. “And he just did something he hadn’t done in five years. He just relaxed.”
People who’ve watched him closely over the years and even for decades? They noticed. And they were, they told me, surprised. “Quieter than I would have expected,” Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio said. “A slower pace than I had anticipated,” presidential historian Doug Brinkley said.
There were, of course, reasons beyond mere overwork. In his last few months in office, Trump fanned the flames of the toxic fiction that November’s election was illegitimate and therefore so, too, was his loss. Supporters of his stormed the Capitol, wanting to reverse the results, leaving five dead. He was impeached for a second time. All of this was in addition to Trump’s already pending legal peril. Regardless of the cause, however, he got off to a sluggish, almost subdued start as a former president, lying low (for him) for weeks after Air Force One dropped him off at PBI.
In January, near the end of the month, he “opened the Office of the Former President,” according to a “Statement from the Office of the Former President.” It was the first time he used in that context that word—“former.” Notably, it also was the last. Thereafter, he did away with the moniker evocative of the past and shifted to the number that will always be his—“Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States of America.” Trump loves comebacks. Former’s for losers.
Beyond practically obligatory, mostly pro forma communications concerning the impeachment proceedings and the trial in the Senate, at the end of which he again was acquitted, Trump endorsed former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in her Arkansas gubernatorial bid, highlighted numbers from a friendly pollster saying House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming was “extremely vulnerable” to a primary on account of her anti-Trump impeachment vote and crowed about his “very good and cordial” meeting with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy at Mar-a-Lago. Trump took the opportunity as well to suggest his “endorsement means more than perhaps any endorsement at any time.”
In February? Largely similarly languid. He endorsed Kansas Senator Jerry Moran. Ditto Max Miller, a former aide, in his Ohio congressional primary effort against Anthony Gonzalez, another one of the 10 House GOP impeachment dissidents. He hosted Lindsey Graham and Steve Scalise. He did a trio of cable-news phone-ins the day of Rush Limbaugh’s death. He seemed to snap to with a lengthy statement excoriating Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, calling him “a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack.” He went to Orlando to speak at the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Committee. “Miss me yet?” he said. He listed the names of those who’ve crossed him. He promised retribution. He dropped a tease. “I will be actively working to elect strong, tough and smart Republican leaders,” he said. “We will take back the House. We will win the Senate. And then a Republican president will make a triumphant return to the White House—and I wonder who that will be.”
In March, though, Trump showed more oomph—much more.
Hunkered down at Mar-a-Lago, he rolled out endorsements—Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Mike Crapo of Idaho, John Boozman of Montana, Jody Hice in his run for Secretary of State in Georgia against Trump nemesis Brad Raffensperger, others including a pair of Trump-supporting state party chairs. Never just an endorsement—“my Complete and Total Endorsement!” In an appreciation of sorts of Roy Blunt, the retiring Missouri senator, he introduced a new phrase—“the Impeachment Hoax #2 (IH-2).”
He blasted Karl Rove, the former top adviser to George W. Bush. A “pompous fool,” he called him. “If it weren’t for me,” he said in what he said about Rove, “the House would have lost 25 seats instead of gaining 15”—adding characteristic ranting about ratings (“31 million people listened to my CPAC speech online, and it had among the largest television audience of the week”) and working in some old standby epithets (“Liddle’ Bob Corker,” Jeff ‘Flakey’ Flake,” “Sleepy Joe”).
He urged former football star Herschel Walker to run for Senate in Georgia. He urged his supporters to give money to him and not to other Republican coffers. “Send your donation to Save America PAC at DonaldJTrump.com,” he said. “If you donate to our Save America PAC at DonaldJTrump.com, you are helping the America First movement and doing it right,” he said.
He went back to announcing his pending appearances on TV the way he did when he was tweeting from the residence in the White House.
He went on Newsmax. He went on Fox News. He talked on the podcast of a Fox News host.
He kept calling the election rigged. “Rigged,” he said. “Illegitimate,” he said. “Fraud,” he said. “You saw what happened, 10:30 in the evening, all of a sudden, I said, ‘That’s a strange thing, why are they closing up certain places, right?’” he said in an impromptu speech at a wedding he dropped in on at his club. “It’s an honor to be here. It’s an honor to have you at Mar-a-Lago. You are a great and beautiful couple.”
He sent out a statement that read like a late-night tweet: “Where’s Durham? Is he a living, breathing human being? Will there ever be a Durham report?” He flagged Fox flattery from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. He met with Marjorie Taylor Greene. He castigated public health professionals Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. He called them “self-promoters trying to reinvent history.” He called Fauci “the king of ‘flip-flops’” and said he was “moving the goalposts to make himself look as good as possible.” He called Birx “a proven liar with very little credibility left” and “a very negative voice who didn’t have the right answers.”
“I was the one to get it done,” he said.
“Time has proven me correct,” he said.
Most importantly, though, Trump started in earnest, and in utterly unprecedented fashion, to aim his ire at Biden—from the situation at the border with Mexico to changes in tax plans to matters of pandemic response, endeavoring to retrain the spotlight on his legacy while repurposing lines of criticism he once endured as cudgels against his successor.
“Our border is now totally out of control thanks to the disastrous leadership of Joe Biden. … He has violated his oath of office to uphold our Constitution and enforce our laws,” he said in a statement on March 5. “All they had to do was keep this smooth-running system on autopilot. Instead, in the span of a just [sic] few weeks, the Biden Administration has turned a national triumph into a national disaster. They are in way over their heads,” he said on March 21. “Joe Biden’s radical plan to implement the largest tax hike in American history is a massive giveaway to China,” he said on March 31, describing it as a “classic globalist betrayal” and a “cruel and heartless attack on the American Dream.”
In April, the onslaught only intensified.
Along with more endorsements of allies and call-outs of antagonists, an expression of mourning of the passing of Prince Philip of the British royal family and the passing along of links to pro-Trump opinion pieces in the New York Post and the Palm Beach Daily News—“Wow, so nice!”—Trump’s missives this month got particularly manic, beginning around Easter.
“Why is it that every time the 2020 ELECTION FRAUD is discussed, the Fake News Media consistently states that such charges are baseless, unfounded, unwarranted, etc.? Sadly, there was massive fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election, and many very angry people understand that. With each passing day, and unfortunately for the Radical Left CRAZIES, more and more facts are coming out,” he said the Friday of the holiday weekend. “Other than that, Happy Easter!”
That Saturday, he decried “WOKE CANCEL CULTURE” and then (with no apparent irony) called for boycotts of baseball, Coke, Delta and other major companies after Georgia passed restrictive voting laws Republicans insisted were necessary reforms. “We will not become a Socialist Nation,” he said. “Happy Easter!”
“Happy Easter to ALL,” Trump added on actual Easter Sunday, “including the Radical Left CRAZIES who rigged our Presidential Election, and want to destroy our Country!”
The next week, donors descended on Palm Beach—“Mecca,” a top GOP operative called it when we talked—shuttle-busing from the Four Seasons to listen to the former president speak at Mar-a-Lago. Immediately leaked were the more incendiary snippets. He railed at the “rigged” election. He called McConnell “a dumb son of a bitch.” He indicated he’s bothered by Biden’s overall popularity relative to his lack thereof. “Saintly Joe Biden,” Trump said.
It spurred a renewed round of strikes at Biden—the type of bombardment that (maybe) wouldn’t be out of place in the thick of the stretch of a presidential campaign.
“The Biden Administration did a terrible disservice to people throughout the world by allowing the FDA and CDC to call a ‘pause’ in the use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine,” Trump said on April 13. “They didn’t like me very much because I pushed them extremely hard,” Trump said of Pfizer. “But if I didn’t, you wouldn’t have a vaccine for 3-5 years, or maybe not at all.”
On April 18, he commented on Biden’s stated date of September 11 to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Trump made it “possible,” he said. “I planned to withdraw on May 1st.”
“If Joe Biden wants to keep our Country safe from Radical Islamic Terrorism,” he said before his sitdown with Sean Hannity, “he should reinstitute the foreign country Travel Ban.”
Trump’s “nothing without Twitter,” a Florida Democratic operative told me earlier this month, but I don’t know if that’s true. Trump’s nothing without enemies.
“He so needs to have an enemy,” biographer Gwenda Blair told me. “If there’s not an enemy, he turns to the shark next to him and says, ‘You’re the enemy.’”
Foes are his fuel—it’s a lifelong through line—but Biden’s been a resolutely unwilling combatant.
“Trump is a person who thrives on attention and conflict,” said O’Brien, “and he must feel like he’s wallowing in a tar pit when Biden pays him no mind.”
It’s hard to keep hammering at somebody who simply doesn’t respond—the strategy in the Biden White House to “never” engage with (as Biden dubbed Trump back in February during a CNN town hall) “the former guy.”
Instead of Biden, in the past couple weeks, Trump has targeted Cheney (“polling sooo low”), or Doug Ducey, the Republican governor of Arizona, for what Trump considers his insufficient support for the audit of the 2020 election in the state. LeBron James, too: The NBA superstar, Trump said, “should focus on basketball rather than presiding over the destruction of the NBA, which has just recorded the lowest television RATINGS …” Ratings, ratings, ratings—always with the ratings. “What used to be called The Academy Awards, and now is called the ‘Oscars’—a far less important and elegant name—had the lowest Television Ratings in recorded history,” Trump said earlier this week, pivoting to the semblance of a political point: “These television people spend all their time thinking about how to promote the Democrat Party, which is destroying our Country, and cancel Conservatives and Republicans.”
Past this milepost of these “first 100 days,” Biden’s as president, Trump’s as ex-, such statements are certain not to stop—for the rest of this year, into the midterms in 2022 on which the congressional balance of power so precariously teeters, then toward 2024 as Trump works to retain his GOP supremacy with the specter of another candidacy of his own. The most important question in politics is that of the endurance and the extent of his power.
“He has less rhetorical power than any ex-president since William Howard Taft,” posited rhetoric expert Jen Mercieca, citing Trump’s social-media de-platforming and referring to Taft’s place as essentially the last pre-mass media president.
“In the very red states, his name still means something,” former Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen told me. “Everywhere else? Irrelevant.”
Perhaps. But irrelevant is a very relative term when there are 74 million people out there who voted for him.
“The Republicans are just letting him get away with it,” former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res told me. “I thought, after he left, they would say, ‘OK, good riddance.’”
“He’ll never wither away,” said Updegrove, the presidential historian. “In some respects, Donald Trump gains strength by being marginalized, by being underestimated. That’s what gets him up in the morning. That’s what gets his heartbeat going. He is going to fight every battle and ultimately lose every war. That’s just the nature of who he is. And it’s going to happen again in his post-presidency. It’s the one thing you can count on with Donald Trump. He can’t let anything go. He’s going to fight everything to the fullest extent that he’s able. And ultimately he’s going to lose.”