At a fairground in Conroe, Texas, last Saturday night, Donald Trump seemed as riled up as ever.
The “fake news” was under-reporting the crowd, the “raving lunatics” on the left, including Joe Biden, were running the country into a ditch — and “everyone in Washington” was obsessed with protecting Ukraine’s borders instead of America’s.
But one claim stood out from the former president’s familiar, acerbic ramblings. Not only would he make a triumphant return to the White House in 2024 — but he would use his reclaimed presidential power to exonerate hundreds of rioters who had stormed the US Capitol on January 6.
“If I run and I win, we will treat those people from January 6 fairly,” Trump said. “And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons, because they are being treated so unfairly.”
For the former president’s loyalists, this was vintage Trump — occupying centre stage, rousing a big crowd and still dominating the political conversation.
Fundraising figures released this week underline the continuing political potency of the Trump brand. According to the filings, Trump’s political operation and affiliated political action committees, or super-PACs which raise money for political causes, now have more than $143mn of cash in hand after hauling in $64mn in the second half of last year. While the opening shots of the next presidential election are still far off, this is the sort of strong financial base that will give other potential Republican candidates pause for thought.
But Trump’s comments about pardoning the rioters have triggered a frenzy this week for other reasons. They were a reminder of his willingness to stoke new tensions in a nation that is still reeling from the dysfunction, divisions and disdain for America’s democratic institutions that marked his single term in office.
For some Republicans, Trump’s fixation on the previous election is also a potential trap. They believe the party could make big gains in this year’s midterm elections by campaigning on issues such as high inflation, instead of the former president’s personal gripes.
“Republicans keep saying ‘we want to move on’, they keep saying ‘we want to focus on the issues’. And by the way, they’re doing very well,” says Charlie Sykes, editor-in-chief of the Bulwark, a conservative newsletter. “And here’s Trump out there constantly airing his own personal grievances and re-litigating 2020. And I think that there’s some frustration, some irritation out there”.
After the rally, Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said he could not support shorter sentences for rioters who had taken part in an “effort to prevent the peaceful transfer of power”.
Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina who has often been a cheerleader for the former president, called Trump’s comments “inappropriate”, adding: “Those who actively engage in violence for whatever political cause must be held accountable and not be forgiven”.
Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas, weighed in, declaring: “I do not believe Trump is the one to lead our party and our country again, as president.”
In addition to vowing pardons for the January 6 mob, Trump has urged supporters to assemble in the “largest protests we have ever had” if prosecutors in Georgia or New York — where he faces criminal probes — take further action against him.
He also insisted Mike Pence could have overturned the election result, prompting his former vice-president on Friday to say Trump was “wrong”, in a rare public rebuke.
“I had no right to overturn the election,” Pence said. “The presidency belongs to the American people, and the American people alone. And frankly there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American President.”
Liz Cheney, one of just 10 elected Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last year, warned on Twitter. “Trump uses language he knows caused the Jan 6 violence; suggests he’d pardon the Jan 6 defendants, some of whom have been charged with seditious conspiracy; threatens prosecutors; and admits he was attempting to overturn the election. He’d do it all again if given the chance.”
Trump, the sequel
With more than two years still to go until America’s next presidential elections, many Washington operatives say it is too soon to say whether Trump will launch another White House bid. But he is still the odds-on favourite to win his party’s presidential nomination in 2024.
A Quinnipiac survey last autumn found that while a majority of Americans — 58 per cent — said they did not want to see Trump run for president again, more than three quarters — 78 per cent — of Republicans said they wanted him to launch another White House bid.
For his part, the former president, while stopping short of formally declaring a White House bid — a move that would trigger a range of regulatory requirements and restrictions — has done little to damp speculation that he will run again.
In a video that went viral on social media last week, an unnamed golf partner introduced Trump as “first on the tee, the 45th president of the United States”. Wearing a red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap, Trump turned to the camera and replied: “45th and 47th.”
“If you talk to him for five minutes, you realise he is pretty passionate about what is going on . . . right now both inflation and what is going on in Ukraine, it really irks him,” says Jason Miller, a former senior adviser to Trump who is now chief executive of the conservative social media platform GETTR. “I stand by my very aggressive prediction of him running.”
But other people close to Trump say they would not count on him re-entering the political arena — and risking another public defeat.
“We all know that Trump can be a kingmaker in politics in the United States. The question is: can he ever be king again?” says one person who advised the former president in both his 2016 and 2020 campaigns. “He can always say . . . ‘I lost in a framed, mock-up election, it was a joke’. But if he loses a second time, that is pretty bad,” the person added.
There are some indications Trump’s dominance of the party could be drooping. Recent NBC News polls have found a steady reduction in the share of Republicans who pledge primary loyalty to Trump. The latest NBC survey last month found 36 per cent of Republicans said they identified principally as Trump supporters, compared to 56 per cent who said they identified more as “GOP supporters”. When the same question was asked last October, 54 per cent of Republicans primarily identified as Trump supporters, compared to 38 per cent who said they were more closely aligned with the GOP.
“The ice cube has been melting. There is still a thirst for Trumpism and Trump’s thoughts . . . but his relevance has faded slightly from where it was,” says Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican donor and the chief executive of Canary, LLC, a Denver-based drilling company.
The former president still exerts an enduring grip on the party machinery. On Friday, its leadership body — the Republican National Committee — passed a resolution censuring Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois lawmaker, for their anti-Trump views and for sitting on a congressional probe into the January 6 attack. The RNC said the rioters were engaged in “legitimate political discourse”. Nonetheless, the most radical option pushed by some close Trump allies — for the RNC to expel Cheney and Kinzinger from the party — floundered.
For now, Trump’s public toying with a third presidential run has dissuaded many of his allies who purportedly harbour their own White House ambitions — including Florida governor Ron DeSantis, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and one-time UN ambassador Nikki Haley — from openly declaring their intent to run for president. But some rifts have been emerging, suggesting potential rivals may be starting to stick their necks out. Recently, DeSantis criticised Trump for his handling of the pandemic, while Trump dismissed DeSantis as boring.
“Is there some pushback, back and forth, behind the scenes? Yes. Is there a tremendous amount of pushback where men are going scorched earth and you are picking camps like Gangs of New York? That is not what is happening,” says one person close to both Trump and DeSantis.
Sensing a bit of weakness, some Trump critics have become even more vocal in their attempts to carve out an alternative path for the GOP — including Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, and Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who helped coach Trump during the 2020 presidential debates. They believe that voters will be turning to moderate Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms — including the Republican primaries — and that will turn the political winds against Trump.
“The Republican nominee will be a non-Trumper. I don’t think Trump can make it,” says Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s former communications director who has become a fierce critic. But many are still very sceptical that anyone else can break out.
“No one . . . is declaring before the midterm elections that they are going to run for president. That is not going to happen. Because if they do, Trump is going to mow them down,” says Doug Heye, a Republican strategist.
Larry Sabato, the director of the non-partisan University of Virginia Center for Politics, adds: “They are not going to put themselves through it. They know every time they deviate from his strongly held views, they are inundated with calls and personal insults and all the rest of it.”
Money can buy me love
Trump’s ability to raise money is also a big deterrent to any challengers and dissenters. Trump has formally endorsed nearly 100 candidates for House and Senate, as well as governors and other statewide races, with more endorsements expected in the weeks to come.
For now, the latest campaign finance filings show Trump transferred the maximum allowed $5,000 to 41 congressional candidates’ campaigns in the second half of last year, including both incumbents such as US senators Tim Scott, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, as well as high-profile challengers who are looking to settle scores for Trump and his allies.
For example, Trump gave $5,000 to Harriet Hageman, a conservative lawyer looking to oust Cheney in a Republican primary in Wyoming this summer. The campaign of Joe Kent, who is challenging Jaime Herrera Beutler, another House Republican who voted to impeach, also received $5,000 from Trump fundraising vehicles.
Trump also gave the maximum $5,000 to Kelly Tshibaka, a former state official in Alaska who is challenging Lisa Murkowski, the Republican senator, in another closely watched primary later this year. Murkowski was one of seven GOP senators who voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trial relating to January 6.
In addition to keeping himself front and centre in races across the country, the former president is hoping to collect up-to-date data on voters in all 50 states, giving him an edge should he run again for president in 2024.
“He is continuously updating his list of supporters, contributors, et cetera,” says one person who had recently met with the former president at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
Trump has not only funnelled cash to congressional candidates, but is spending millions of dollars on Facebook advertisements and the event management companies that put on his campaign-style rallies. In addition, Trump has also shelled out large sums from his political machine to keep his most loyal allies on the payroll, including longtime advisers Dan Scavino and Stephen Miller.
According to Eberhart, Trump is very much “keeping the MAGA world employed, active, engaged . . . in the sphere”.
For Sykes, any hopes of Trump’s demise within the Republican party seem optimistic and still trigger memories of 2015, when he was expected to be toppled but never was. And yet a subtle change may be under way. “I’ve seen this guy come back from one thing after another, right? But it is worth watching — whether or not we’re seeing some Trump fatigue setting in.”
Additional reporting by Antoine Gara in New York