Former president Donald Trump is moving to handpick members of the House GOP leadership team — relentlessly attacking Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican, and endorsing Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York to replace her.
And he is playing host to a burbling stream of Republican well-wishers — including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif). and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) — who travel to his private Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida to pay their respects, seek his support and post a photo of their ring-kissing on social media.
Six months removed from his Election Day loss, Trump has emerged from his West Palm Beach hibernation — refashioning himself as the president of the Republican States of America and reshaping the party in ways both micro and macro.
He has also privately revived his claims that he plans to run for president again in 2024, decrying what he views as the “low ratings” of the Biden administration, said one person who has spoken with Trump recently. He rails that President Biden is “a disaster” and argues that “Joe isn’t in charge, everybody knows it’s Kamala” — a preview of his likely message portraying Biden as an unwitting stooge of Vice President Harris, this person said. Nonetheless, Trump is not expected to make an official decision or announcement until after the midterm elections, an adviser said.
Trump’s reappearance is fueled by an ego-driven desire to remain at the center of national attention, said former advisers and allies who are in touch with him.
The defeated ex-president is propelled primarily by a thirst for retribution, an insatiable quest for the spotlight and a desire to establish and maintain total dominance and control over the Republican base, said several former senior White House advisers. He has boasted to some in his orbit that he expects a book deal at some point, though there is no known offer, two advisers said.
He is pushing the party to the right, attacking transgender female athletes and criticizing the “spiraling tsunami at the border” under Biden; he is influencing Republican Party personnel, political, and fundraising decisions; and he is prompting a roiling, existential intraparty debate about what it means to be a Republican in the post-Trump-presidency era.
“Trump has flipped what we care about into more of an us-versus-them battle that has no end, and so every new development is an opportunity to divide folks, take sides, have a grievance to accentuate,” said Brendan Buck, a Republican strategist and frequent Trump critic. “Usually a fight is the means to an end, but in this case fighting is the end.”
This portrait of the 45th president in this moment is the result of interviews with 13 former White House officials, advisers, Republicans and allies, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid details.
Whether Trump still has lasting political power remains up for debate. Advisers and critics alike note his statements do not receive the attention they once did — and he is severely limited after being banned by Twitter and Facebook. Some previous donors are no longer interested in giving, while allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argue that polling shows Trump is less relevant by the week.
When one ally recently tried to talk to Trump about plans for his presidential library, the former president could not have been less interested, according to two advisers familiar with the exchange. Instead, as he has since Election Day, Trump obsessed over his loss, baselessly claiming the election had been stolen, and was especially reluctant to focus on a library — seeming to fear that any talk of his legacy would signal he is not running in 2024, the two advisers said.
Nonetheless, Trump has talked about acquiring land for the project in Florida, and he’s considering enlisting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican ally, to help him, these people said.
So far, much of Trump’s focus has been on “revenge endorsements,” one of these advisers said — with Trump specifically targeting Cheney and nine other House Republicans who voted to impeach him, as well as other elected officials he believes were insufficiently supportive of his baseless claim that the election was stolen. He has also endorsed a number of Republicans unrelated to the impeachment vote and subsequent Senate trial.
Trump has defied the tradition of previous former presidents of keeping a low profile, largely out of respect for their successor. Instead, after several early weeks spent golfing and largely adrift at Mar-a-Lago, Trump has fallen into something of a rhythm.
Despite being banned from major social media platforms after his role in inciting the Jan. 6 attack, he now regularly puts out statements from the “45th President of the United States of America” through his political action committee. Earlier this week, he also launched a bare-bones website, “From the desk of Donald J. Trump,” that was widely mocked by critics as underwhelming and unimpressive. He dictates the statements to aides, who then print them out for him to edit with a Sharpie before they are officially released.
Otherwise, Trump largely spends his days watching — and occasionally appearing on — cable news, calling allies and his small cadre of remaining political advisers, welcoming Republicans to his private club, dining to standing applause, playing golf and fulminating against the 2020 election results.
Recently, he has become consumed by a hand recount of 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County, Ariz., part of a long-shot effort by Republicans in the state’s largest county to overturn the election results there. He talks about the recount constantly, asking for updates several times a day, and has become especially fixated on the UV lights being used to inspect the ballots.
“The tradition of ex-presidents has been to leave their political careers when they leave the White House, but as with many things, Donald Trump is different because he is at the end of the beginning of his political career, not the beginning of the end,” said Kellyanne Conway, former counselor to the president. “After all, his first run for office was at age 70 — and for president. Ex-presidents 20 years younger left the White House to pursue moneymaking opportunities in business and entertainment. Trump’s career trajectory was the exact opposite.”
The signs of Trump’s continuing dominance in the Republican Party abound.
Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump and publicly rebuked him, weathered a push to oust her from Republican leadership in February. Since then, the former president has inveighed against her, calling her “a warmongering fool who has no business in Republican Party Leadership” and claiming she has “virtually no support left in the Great State of Wyoming.”
The disagreement over Cheney is not one of policy, but one of fealty to Trump. And now her colleagues are poised to push her from their leadership ranks and replace her with Stefanik, whom Trump has dubbed “a far superior choice” and a “tough and smart communicator.”
In a House special election in Texas earlier this month, Trump supported Susan Wright, who was initially trailing in early voting but surged to the front after the former president’s endorsement and advanced to a runoff. Texas Monthly described how the “Trump effect” “helped one Republican beat 22 other candidates in Texas,” and the former president was quick to claim credit in a statement.
Mar-a-Lago has become ground zero for Republican visits and fundraising efforts. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), as well as Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Sarah Sanders — a former White House press secretary under Trump — have all held fundraisers there, while the Republican National Committee relocated part of its spring donor retreat to the location.
Privately, many Republican officials — including some Trump allies — are growing frustrated, worried that the former president is wasting his time on petty rivalries and grievances. They say they wish he was working to protect policies from his term and affirmatively helping Republicans in 2022. “All the 2022 stuff is, ‘Well, what’s in it for me?’ ” said one former senior White House official, summarizing Trump’s thinking.
Trump spokesman Jason Miller, however, noted that Trump has been supportive of various policy groups, especially those stood up by members of his orbit, and argued he also deserves credit for showing restraint and not jumping into some 2022 contests too early.
Trump has repeatedly griped to visiting senators about McConnell, asking who could be a new Senate Republican leader; many demur or just allow Trump to rant, one adviser said. Advisers have also urged Trump to stop criticizing former vice president Mike Pence for certifying the 2020 election results, arguing that the invective hurts Trump more than his previous No. 2.
One adviser said some have urged Trump to withhold his support for McCarthy to be the next speaker of the House if Republicans retake the chamber in 2022, and the former president has appeared intrigued by the idea.
“Why not focus on the biggest, brightest brass ring in politics and the Republican Party between now and 2024, which is who should be speaker when, with Donald Trump’s help, Republicans take the House?” this person said, speaking anonymously to share private discussions.
Others close to both Trump and McCarthy, however, said they believe Trump will ultimately have little choice but to support McCarthy for speaker should Republicans regain the House.
On Monday, Trump held a lengthy meeting with advisers at Mar-a-Lago about endorsements and which races he should get involved in and when, two people with knowledge of the discussion said. Susie Wiles, a Florida Republican operative who is informally leading Trump’s political operation, has attempted to instill some order and structure in the endorsement process. Some of his advisers — including Justin Clark, Trump’s 2020 deputy campaign manager, and Bill Stepien, his campaign manager for the last months of the 2020 race — have suggested other candidates for him to support as well.
Trump is especially interested in endorsing candidates who will take on Republicans who voted to impeach or convict him, and his team has begun making calls in Wyoming to try to clear the Republican field so one candidate can challenge Cheney. He has already endorsed former White House aide Max Miller to oppose Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) and has begun interviewing potential challengers to Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) — both of whom voted to impeach him. He is also interviewing potential challengers to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who voted to convict Trump in an impeachment trial, an adviser said.
He has taken a particular interest in Georgia and Arizona politics after those states flipped for Biden in November. He is calling officials in Georgia to talk about who can beat Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, the two state officials he most faults for his 2020 loss there for their refusal to overturn the state’s election results. He has also been paying close attention to the open governor’s seat in Arizona.
Trump has begun discussing creation of a Trump media group, which would post his videos and statements and potentially offer subscriptions for premium content, people familiar with the conversations say. His team has held meetings with potential social media start-ups, one of these people said, adding that any social media effort could be separate from a Trump media group.
And Trump, long a reluctant fundraiser, has begun fundraising for his PAC through golf tournaments, where donors can pay for the opportunity to play with him. The first one was last Sunday, with Trump and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), drawing nine groups of people who paid $25,000 each, and he is lining up additional fundraising tournaments this spring and summer at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., people familiar with the plans said.
This coming week, the former president is expected to decamp from Mar-a-Lago, which was dubbed the Winter White House during his presidency, to his summer one in New Jersey, two advisers said.
“When I’ve talked to him, the conversations are more about moving forward than they are grievance,” Graham said Friday. “It used to be 70-30 grievances about the election and people he doesn’t like. It’s now a majority of the conversations that are about winning in the future. He is trying to get systems in place to run.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that nine people participated in former president Donald Trump’s fundraising golf tournament last Sunday. Nine groups of people participated. The article has been corrected.