His candidacy didn’t gain traction at first. It wasn’t until his comments about immigrants from Mexico spurred a broad backlash from his business partners, generating enormous media attention on the subject, that he rose to the top of the primary polls. Even as he maintained that position, though, it seemed unlikely that he would win the nomination, particularly given his habit of saying things that played well with a base tuned to conservative media but not to the Republican establishment.
The result was that Trump’s campaign was as motley a crew even as the general election approached as it was at its outset. His campaign chairman was Paul Manafort, a guy whose connections to dubious international actors had pushed him outside of Republican circles. Trump’s advisory team on foreign policy was a grab bag of names, including a guy whose credentials included a mention of participating in model United Nations. Shortly before the election, Trump hired the head of the hard-right website Breitbart to guide his strategy.
Trump pitched this reliance on outsiders as a strength, a sign that he wasn’t beholden to the swamp. But for most of the time he was running, he had no choice. More traditional campaign staff members and advisers were either lined up with his opponents or viewed him as too toxic to support.
Then he won. In short order, much of the establishment fell in line. Trump’s continued political strength with Republican voters meant that the party establishment was eventually subsumed into the MAGA world. By his fourth year in office, Trump’s senior team was mostly, if not exclusively, loyal to him.
As the 2020 election approached, the Trump reelection campaign and the party began preparing for potential legal fights after Nov. 3, standard practice in a presidential contest. After polls closed, it soon became apparent that Trump was unlikely to win a second term in office, though the race was close enough in enough states to introduce uncertainty. The campaign and the party deployed lawyers to try to either flummox vote-counting in states trending toward the Democratic nominee, former vice president Joe Biden, or to bolster Trump’s totals in places where he trailed.
It didn’t take long for that effort to come up short. But Trump had spent most of the year insisting that any loss must be a function of fraud, so he began pushing in earnest the idea that the election had been stolen. Law firms working for his cause began to drop off the case, both because their long-shot efforts had fizzled and out of concern about being associated with Trump’s increasingly flailing efforts.
On Nov. 14, a week after the race was called for Biden, Trump announced that his legal team had been narrowed to what the attorneys on it would later refer to as an “elite strike force.”
This was to a campaign legal effort what Roger Stone, the model U.N. guy and Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, were to a presidential campaign: What was left when the establishment turned its back. Just as the political world had been skeptical of Trump, the legal world came to be.
Since Trump announced the team above, the elite strike force has not comported itself particularly well.
- Sidney Powell was kicked off the team after her unfounded claims about alleged fraud became increasingly unhinged. On Monday, she retweeted a call for the establishment of military tribunals and for the suspension of the electoral college.
- At a news conference last month, Rudolph W. Giuliani signed on to Powell’s bizarre and false theories about Venezuelan involvement in U.S. voting machines even as he detailed what he called “a national conspiracy” to steal the election from Trump. The only reason Giuliani declined to pin the conspiracy on Biden personally was because he suggested Biden was too addled to do so.
- Joe diGenova, once a U.S. attorney, appeared on a radio show on Monday, where he declared that the country’s former cybersecurity leader — fired by Trump for stating unequivocally that the election wasn’t marred by interference — should be executed.
- Lawyer Jenna Ellis has apparently spent more time sharing unfounded allegations during hearings and on social media than guiding any effective legal strategy for the president. She also has attracted attention for personal attacks on critics — ironic, given that she at one time was part of the anti-Trump establishment and attacked her now boss.
L. Lin Wood, a lawyer not formally affiliated with Trump’s team, has nonetheless received Trump’s blessing on social media. He, like Powell, has advocated for Trump to try to deploy extreme measures to block the results of the election.
Dozens of legal cases brought by Trump’s campaign and his allies have been defeated in court. His team has failed to stop the certification of the vote in any of the states it has targeted, and there’s no sign that there will be any viable effort to block the appointment of electors for Biden before members of the electoral college meet later this month.
That the political establishment turned away from Trump when it seemed unlikely he would win in 2016 and that the legal world turned away when it became obvious he wouldn’t prevail four years later is probably not a coincidence. Establishment figures have a bias for power, and, at both points, Trump has seemed largely impotent. But it’s also probably the case that those moments of apparent impotence are ones in which Trump embraces strategies and rhetoric more likely to turn away established actors.
Regardless, Trump is now in a similar position as he was in at the end of 2015. His team is loyal, sure, but also made up largely of people who weren’t likely to land gigs within the D.C. establishment.
Trump and his supporters often see that as a positive. Fair enough. In this case, though, the end result will almost certainly not be a surprise victory by the gang of outsiders. It will, instead, be that the president leaves office having spent at least a month encouraging a dubious team’s efforts to erode confidence in the outcome of the election.