WASHINGTON — The Trump train is stuck in the station, and it was weighed down Tuesday with the new baggage of corporate tax-fraud convictions and a final midterm defeat.
In the three weeks since former President Donald Trump launched his comeback bid from a ballroom of his Mar-a-Lago club, he has exhibited little of the energy that made him a force in national politics, but many of the behaviors that led voters to oust him two years ago, according to Republican strategists.
During his short campaign, Trump has dominated headlines by dining with the rapper Ye, who has gone on antisemitic tirades in recent weeks, and the white nationalist Nick Fuentes. More recently, Trump advocated for the “termination” of articles of the Constitution as a means to overturn his 2020 defeat.
Two Trump companies were found guilty of criminal tax fraud in New York’s highest court Tuesday. He also watched helplessly in recent days as courts handed his tax records to Congress, dragged his White House lawyers before a grand jury and facilitated an investigation into his removal of classified documents from the White House.
And on Tuesday night, Herschel Walker’s loss in a Georgia Senate runoff added an exclamation point to the argument that Trump hurt the GOP by picking a bad crop of candidates in swing states. Trump’s Monday tele-rally for Walker didn’t provide the necessary boost.
“Frankly, he should have waited [to launch his campaign until] after the Georgia contest was decided,” said Michael Biundo, a national Republican strategist who served as an adviser to Trump in 2016 and is based in New Hampshire, which is scheduled to host the first GOP primary. “To me, the rollout seemed rushed and incomplete. I give it a D-minus.”
Biundo’s observation is widely shared across the GOP and even among some Trump confidants. But there’s also a latent belief among many Republicans that Trump has an almost magical grip on party faithful who just don’t care what the elites think.
“The stuff you’re seeing on the news or the influencer-types on Twitter, you’re not seeing that on the ground with Trump,” said Wes Donehue, a top Republican digital strategist from South Carolina, which holds the first primary in the South.
“Trump still controls the Republican Party with everyone I talk to, whether it’s people in county parties or just conservatives at the bar or guys at the gym,” he said. “People are ignoring the media, the influencers, and it’s just Trump’s to lose. South Carolina is Trump country. People like Trump a lot here. And they like [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis. They just think he’s the future, but Trump is the present.”
Still, Trump hasn’t offered much in the way of a new vision for the country. He has neither blitzed the country with his trademark rallies nor, GOP insiders say, left prospective rivals for the 2024 presidential nomination quaking in his wake. There are small signs that fellow Republicans, including prospective challengers, are more willing to criticize Trump, as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and others did over his remarks on the Constitution.
“I’ve watched the other party really erode many of the constitutional principles that I hold dear, and, as Republicans, we should not contribute to this,” Youngkin said at a Wall Street Journal conference Tuesday. “I think our job is to defend and protect the Constitution.”
Despite the indirect reproach, however, Youngkin avoided answering the specific question he was asked: whether Trump had disqualified himself as a Republican Party nominee for president.
But if Trump had hoped to scare away challengers, his sputtering launch could do the opposite, according to a senior official on Trump’s 2020 campaign.
“The design of this was to come out, be the front-runner and scare everyone out, and all the last few weeks have done is encourage donors and voters to go window-shopping,” the source, who did not want to publicly criticize the de facto party leader, said. “This is the problem with coming out this early and not being strong: All it does is force people to look for other options.”
DeSantis is now more popular among Trump’s 2020 supporters than Trump, according to a survey conducted by the firm WPA Intelligence as part of a review of the midterm elections. The poll found that DeSantis’ net favorability among Trump voters is plus-69, while Trump’s is plus-44. A narrow plurality of Republicans — 40 percent to 37 percent — said Trump should no longer be seen as the leader and face of the GOP.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, currently on a tour for his book “So Help Me God,” is looking at a 2024 bid, as are a string of former Trumpworld figures and anti-Trump Republicans. John Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security adviser, told NBC’s Kristen Welker on Monday that he would consider running to stop Trump if other candidates aren’t willing to repudiate Trump’s remarks on the Constitution.
“I’d like to see Shermanesque statements from all the potential candidates,” Bolton said. “If I don’t see that, then I’m going to seriously consider getting in.”