The dodge glosses over one of the most dramatic behind-the-scenes battles for Trump’s favor taking place right now. The former president has hosted a steady stream of potential candidates, sitting senators and political kibitzers who have tried to keep him from endorsing Greitens, a devoted cheerleader who is trying to use Trump’s grass-roots strength to emerge from disastrous allegations of bound hands and coercive sex that forced his resignation as governor in 2018. Trump advisers aware of the meetings spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect private conversations.
Few candidates have done more in recent months to court Trump or to compare his own controversy to the scandals that enveloped the former president. Yet in a state that Trump won by 15 points in 2020, the Greitens campaign has tested the question of just how far the former president and Republican voters are willing to go to overlook past controversies.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who is leading the Senate GOP campaign effort, is among those encouraging Trump to stay out of the primaries in Missouri and elsewhere.
Several Republican strategists say they worry that the lurid scandals that brought down Greitens will create an opening for a Democrats if he is the nominee, especially if former governor Jay Nixon (D) decides to run. More likely, they say, Greitens would just increase the costs for Republicans to win the state, diverting resources from other contests.
“I keep saying to the president: We want to nominate electable people. I think he’s trying to find the most Trumpian person who is electable,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who recently traveled to Trump’s Bedminster resort in New Jersey and said it was “an encouraging sign” for Republican chances to take over the Senate that the former president was, for now, staying out of some races. “A lot of people on the ground are encouraging him to stay out. They are saying don’t put Missouri in play.”
But the efforts by Greitens to win the endorsement and the support of Trump’s most devoted followers have not abated. Greitens has hired a coterie of former Trump aides and won the endorsement of former Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik, whom Trump pardoned after a guilty plea for tax fraud and lying to the government. Former interior secretary Ryan Zinke, former White House aides Boris Epshteyn and Sebastian Gorka and several others from Trump’s orbit have signed on to the effort.
The campaign has hired Trump’s former pollster, Tony Fabrizio, who produced a March survey that showed Greitens leading the crowded field. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Trump campaign aide and the girlfriend of his son Donald Trump Jr., has been hired to chair the Greitens campaign.
“Gov. Greitens has unparalleled support among the MAGA base and beyond in ruby-red Missouri,” Epshteyn, a campaign adviser, said in a statement, citing campaign event turnout and small-dollar donation numbers. “That support is evidenced in polling by President Trump’s pollster which shows Greitens annihilating all the other candidates.”
Greitens has also gone all in on Trump’s false claims of election fraud, even embracing the idea that a new ballot count in Arizona and other states could lead to President Biden being replaced by Trump before the next presidential election.
“If they don’t have the ballots in Arizona, they don’t have the victory,” Greitens said during a June appearance on another conservative podcast, a comment that goes beyond the position taken by his rivals in the Senate contest, who have also expressed concern about the fairness of the presidential election but left more fantastical predictions alone.
Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump adviser who has taken a leading role in spreading falsehoods about the last election, has heaped praise on Greitens for saying that Biden’s electors may have to be decertified if the private Republican ballot audit in Arizona finds a different result.
“Eric Greitens said the quiet part out loud,” Bannon said in a June 11 broadcast on his show after Greitens made his statement.
Such public displays of fealty to Trump’s false claims have not yet proved enough to win any official blessing, say people who have spoken to Trump. The former president has instead expressed frustration to others that Guilfoyle signed on to the Greitens campaign before he took a position on the race. She also serves as a finance chair for Make America Great Again Action, a Trump-backed super PAC.
Two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe their private conversations with Trump said he was not likely to endorse soon.
“He is kind of nowhere on the race,” one of them said. “He talks about all of the candidates without indicating any kind of a decision.”
Some of Trump’s advisers have encouraged him to scale back endorsement meetings and to wait until next year to make some of the decisions, if he makes them at all. They also are urging him to pick Republicans who are expected to have easy wins in 2022, so he can buttress his win-loss record.
Trump advisers have interviewed several candidates for the U.S. House race in Wyoming — hoping to settle on one to back against Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who angered Trump with her criticism of him and his efforts to overthrow the election. Trump will interview at least three candidates soon, advisers said.
“You have to pick someone who can win,” one of the Trump advisers said of the Missouri race. “The worst thing in the world for him would be to dilute the power of his endorsement.”
One concern is that Trump not get too far out ahead of his own voters, as he did in the 2017 Senate primary in Alabama, when he endorsed and campaigned for the state’s appointed senator, Luther Strange, despite many in his movement backing the ultimate Republican primary winner, former state judge Roy Moore. Moore would go on to lose the general election amid news reports that he had, as an adult, allegedly attempted sexual encounters with young girls.
Trump advisers have watched North Carolina warily as Senate candidate Ted Budd, a congressman whom Trump endorsed on June 5, has struggled with fundraising. Budd reported raising just over $780,000 through the end of June, a period that included the weeks after Trump’s nod. By contrast, former governor Pat McCrory (R) raised $1.24 million and former state Supreme Court justice Cheri Beasley (D) raised $1.23 million.
Greitens, a former Navy SEAL who received a Purple Heart after surviving a truck bombing in Iraq, has also faced a relative struggle to raise money, despite receiving a $2.5 million commitment from conservative donor Richard Uihlein for an external effort to support his campaign.
Greitens raised about $357,000 for his campaign through the second quarter, compared with higher sums for the campaigns of other Republican candidates: $1.3 million for Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, about $831,000 for Rep. Vicky Hartzler and $561,000 for Mark McCloskey, a personal-injury attorney who recently pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault after brandishing a gun at protesters who were walking down a private street outside his home last year.
More candidates could enter the race, which opened with the planned retirement of Republican Roy Blunt. And at least two other GOP members of Congress, Jason T. Smith and Billy Long, have had repeated meetings with Trump as they consider whether to run. Greitens has also traveled to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where he made headlines by helping a man in medical distress at the club restaurant. A separate group of Republicans has had early discussions about founding a group to spend money against Greitens in the primary if his candidacy does not fade, according to one person involved who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plans were not public.
James Harris, a Republican consultant in Missouri who has worked with Smith, expressed what has become a widespread concern among GOP officials.
“I think if the election were to be held today in a five- or six-way race, Eric Greitens is ultimately the nominee,” Harris said. “If there was a prolonged effort on educating people on all he did, his support would fall pretty quick and he would pose a serious problem in the general election.”
Greitens was once seen as a rising star in the party, with a movie-star appearance and campaign talent that Trump typically gravitates toward. But his rise was upset in 2018, when his former hairdresser accused him of coercing her into a sexual encounter three years earlier.
She testified under oath to a special investigative committee of the Missouri House that he led her to his basement, bound her hands, blindfolded and undressed her and later coerced her into performing oral sex. She said she believed he had taken a photo of her at the time and threatened to release it publicly if she spoke of their relationship. Greitens declined to testify in his own defense, but he made his cellphone available to police, who found no evidence that a photo was taken.
In a separate audio recording made days after the encounter, the woman agreed when an acquaintance asked whether she had been “half-raped and blackmailed,” according to a bipartisan report written by the Republican-held Missouri House. “Yes,” she said.
She later told House investigators, when asked whether she consented to sex, that “it felt like consent, but, no, I didn’t want to do it.”
A prosecution for invasion of privacy based on the photo allegation fell apart, with the lead investigator later being charged with lying in a deposition and the prosecutor being referred for a disciplinary hearing. A separate Missouri Ethics Commission investigation of Greitens’s 2016 gubernatorial campaign found “probable cause” that his campaign had not disclosed some contributions but concluded that Greitens did not have knowledge of the violations, even though he was “ultimately responsible for all reporting requirements.” His campaign paid a fine.
Greitens has admitted to the affair but denied the specific behavior described by the woman, pointing to her testimony that she felt as if she was “remembering it through a dream.”
On the campaign trail, Greitens has become practiced at minimizing and deflecting questions about the accusations, largely by claiming that he is the victim of the same liberal forces that attacked Trump in office and dismissing criticism from “Republicans in name only.” He has also emphasized that the criminal prosecution against him collapsed.
“I feel incredibly blessed to have lived through that,” Greitens told a conservative audience at a town hall July 15 in O’Fallon, Mo., of his various scandals. “Because I feel like I had a window into the true viciousness of the left. I had a window into what is really at stake for this country. I feel like I was pulled aside and I had an opportunity to come back with stronger faith, with more courage, even bolder.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, has made clear that he does not think Greitens has been absolved of wrongdoing. As Missouri’s attorney general, he had called for Greitens’s resignation in 2018, and when asked this year whether he stood by that decision, he said, “I wouldn’t change any of that.”
Hawley is one of the three senators, along with Scott and Graham, who are known to have discussed the race with Trump, and advisers working for Greitens’s rivals consider him an asset in their efforts to prevent Trump’s endorsement of the former governor.
“Josh has had a number of conversations with different candidates and President Trump,” Kyle Plotkin, Hawley’s chief of staff, said in a statement. “He hasn’t made any decisions, but stay tuned.”
Greitens’s campaign remains confident of his ability to win over Trump supporters in next year’s primary, regardless of the positions taken by other elected officials.
“There’s one thing RINOs and liberals have in common — they’re terrified of Governor Greitens going to Washington to fight for President Trump’s policy,” Greitens’s campaign manager, Dylan Johnson, said in a statement.