The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In self-imposed exile, Trump watches with unhappiness as second impeachment trial unfolds

A truck with a large screen plays anti-Trump videos near Union Station on Tuesday, the first day of former president Donald Trump's second impeachment trial. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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As he faces his second impeachment trial, Donald Trump has been unusually quiet.

Ensconced in his private Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., the former president has spent his days golfing. He has rolled through his phone, calling old friends and allies simply to check in. He has dined on the patio of his lush retreat, often accompanied by a coterie of political aides still on his payroll.

And, as Congress on Tuesday took up a second Senate trial for Trump almost exactly a year after his first, Trump has remained sanguine that an evenly divided Senate will acquit him of charges of inciting an insurrection — despite his egging on of an angry crowd that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Yet despite his overall confidence, Tuesday’s opening arguments did not unfold as Trump or his allies had hoped. Trump was especially disappointed in the performance of his lawyer Bruce Castor, who gave a rambling argument, wore an ill-fitting suit and at one point praised the case presented by the Democratic House impeachment managers, two people involved in the effort said. The former president — monitoring the trial on television from Florida — had expected a swashbuckling lawyer and instead watched what was a confusing and disjointed performance.

Bruce Castor, an attorney for Donald Trump, made a rambling opening statement during the former president’s impeachment trial on Feb. 9. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Several Trump advisers also described Castor’s performance in harsh terms as underwhelming, as did a number of senators, including Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who said the shoddy defense spurred him to change his vote on the constitutionality of the proceedings.

In self-imposed exile in South Florida since leaving office on Jan. 20, Trump has created a gilded bubble around himself — a protective shield further enforced by the decision of Twitter and other social media companies to ban the former president from their platforms after the Capitol riot, which resulted in the death of a police officer and four others.

He is adrift, friends say, with no clear sense of what comes next for the first time in his political life. They add that Trump is calmer than they expected as he faces down another historic indictment in a career littered with them. Four former senior Trump administration officials independently described the former president as “chill” or “chilling.”

Nonetheless, the Senate impeachment trial that began Tuesday is never far from his mind, allies say. The former president is still privately fuming over fellow Republicans who he believes have wronged him, from Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming (who voted to impeach him) to House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California (who said that Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack on the Capitol, before backtracking).

“He’s decompressing. He’s enjoying some of the time he hasn’t had in the past,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally, said in a recent interview. “And he’s thinking about impeachment.”

This portrait of Trump in this moment is the result of interviews with 11 advisers, allies and confidants, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid details.

Trump initially pushed his impeachment lawyers to make the baseless case that the election was stolen, an approach they ultimately rejected while still arguing that the First Amendment protects their client’s right to share misinformation and false claims.

Worried about his instinct for self-sabotage, Trump’s lawyers and allies counseled him to largely stay quiet until the Senate trial ends, fearful that anything he might say or do would only serve to strengthen the case against him or make Republicans more reluctant to acquit him. Daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, also urged him not to get in the way of the Senate proceedings, which seemed to be headed toward a positive outcome for him.

Unlike during special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, and Trump’s first impeachment trial in 2020, the former president also did not press the idea of testifying himself.

But Trump’s seeming quietude, said one confidant who recently spoke with the former president, is less the result of newfound discipline and more a consequence of Twitter’s decision to ban Trump, who no longer has an instant public forum to blast out his latest grievances.

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Former president Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial began on Feb. 9 with a Senate debate and vote over the constitutionality to try a former president. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

In many ways, Trump’s former world is crumbling around him. President Biden handily defeated him in November. His Florida neighbors are trying to ban him from living at Mar-a-Lago where, after leaving office, he lost the special permit to have a helicopter pad. Buildings emblazoned with his name are trying to remove their Trump insignia, the PGA of America pulled its 2022 championship from one of Trump’s golf clubs and the lobby of the former president’s namesake Washington hotel now sits conspicuously empty just five blocks from the White House.

Now out of office, Trump has also lost his protective press pool — the captive audience of reporters that follows a sitting president nearly everywhere — and Biden has made clear that he does not plan to extend the courtesy of intelligence briefings to Trump, citing him as an intelligence risk. According to a Post-ABC poll conducted after the Jan. 6 attack, 38 percent of Americans said they approved of Trump’s handling of the presidency — the lowest measurement in Post-ABC polling for Trump since fall 2019.

Trump has pushed for a speedy trial, initially arguing that he wanted the Senate to take up the House’s article of impeachment while he was still in office, aides said. After Republicans lost two Senate seats in a Georgia special election, Trump was hoping the Senate would vote before the two new Democratic lawmakers were sworn in. But he struggled to assemble a legal team willing to defend him, and, though he eventually found a team of South Carolina lawyers with the help of Graham, those lawyers ultimately quit.

Trump is not expected to make a public appearance during the trial and is staying at his Florida club, two advisers said. But he has asked a number of Republican allies in the House, including Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio), to appear on television on his behalf. 

Talking points shared with Senate offices by Trump’s impeachment team urged Republicans to stress that the “entire Impeachment trial is unconstitutional” and an act of “political vengeance” by Democrats. Anticipating a potential question — “Why are the Democrats and some members of the media saying President Trump didn’t take to social media to stop the violence on January 6th like he should have?” — the memo offered a concise answer: “Because they’re liars.”

The former president has been furious with the Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach him and has told aides that he is especially eager to help defeat Cheney, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.). He is also hoping to help unseat Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, who resisted his entreaties to overturn his state’s election results in favor of Trump.

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Trump has railed against Cheney, the daughter of former vice president Richard B. Cheney. He views her as allied with her father’s previous boss, former president George W. Bush, and claims the Bush family is aligned against him because he “crushed” former Florida governor Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican primaries.

He has also griped about how he “made” McCarthy and how McCarthy let him down by initially blaming Trump for the insurrection and not pushing Cheney out of his leadership team after she voted for impeachment. But Trump seemed calmer after McCarthy traveled to Florida and met with him at Mar-a-Lago, part of an effort by McCarthy, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and others to prevent Trump from trying to destroy the Republican Party.

For the first time since Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower in Manhattan in 2015 and announced his presidential bid, his next chapter remains uncertain — and without any clearly defined focus, advisers said.

The former president has asked advisers what he should do with his super PAC funds that he has raised since the election, and he is closely monitoring the finances.

Within Trump’s orbit, there are two competing camps on how he should try to wield his remaining power. One group, which includes longtime outside advisers such as David Bossie and Corey Lewandowski, is working with Trump to recruit candidates to seek retribution against Republicans who were insufficiently loyal, while still keeping Republicans in those seats.

Another group, which includes McDaniel, McCarthy and former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, has argued that Trump can best burnish his legacy by helping Republicans win back the House and supporting fellow Republicans in the process.

Some of his former aides, including his top economic adviser Larry Kudlow, are forming a nonprofit group to advance portions of Trump’s policy agenda. They are expected to hire some senior staff, but Trump himself is not expected to be a part of the effort, a person familiar with the project said.

Trump has talked about reemerging in March, officials said, after taking a few weeks off. He has told some friends that his forced sojourn from Twitter has improved his standing.

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He has recently gloated about falling ratings at Fox News, the conservative-leaning news channel that he abandoned in recent months in favor of rivals Newsmax and One America News. One person who spoke with the former president described him as sounding “bored out of his mind” and pressing for gossip: “What are you hearing? What are they saying?” Trump queried.

“He’s still licking his wounds to some extent, and he’s also waiting for this to be behind him,” said one Republican in Trump’s orbit, adding dryly, “and then he’ll relaunch himself as the savior of the Republican Party.”

Mike DuHaime, a Republican consultant who worked for former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, said that while Trump “remains very  influential within the party,” his influence has dissipated from even two months ago and is likely to further erode over time.

“Some of this is less about Trump and more about the reality that you’re a former president than a president,” DuHaime said. “People move on. Voters move on, too.”

On a recent Friday evening at Mar-a-Lago, Trump came to the club to eat dinner with his wife, Melania, and several friends.

But unlike his usual habit as president, he did not walk around and mingle with other guests, staying at his table and soon retreating to his residence.