Over the past few weeks, Trump has faced pleas from inside his orbit to move the ball forward as Republicans approach the 2022 midterm elections, when the party hopes to regain control of both congressional chambers, and brace for his high-profile return to the campaign trail. Several former advisers and allies still close to the 45th President said he is under mounting pressure to concentrate on promoting GOP policy priorities and defining his successor, rather than re-litigating his failed reelection campaign.
But the former President has brushed those voices aside, choosing instead to listen to a crowd of characters both on television and in his wider circle who have encouraged him to keep his focus on the 2020 election.
Trump’s preoccupation with the election is expected to take center stage on Saturday, when he kicks off his first post-presidential summer with an address to the North Carolina Republican Party. The speech, a preview of the campaign-style rallies he plans to start hosting next month, will signal to what degree he intends to ignore advice from those imploring him to redirect his message toward the future. Because it will be his first public appearance in three months, sources close to the former President said the tack he decides to take will be critical in setting the course going forward — not only for him, but for all Republicans on the ballot in 2022.
Sources familiar with Trump’s thinking describe him as bored by the issues his advisers wish he would focus on — from threats to America’s energy infrastructure to increased inflation and other economic concerns. He is so obsessed with his unsuccessful quest for reelection, one ex-Trump official said, that he has been moving himself toward irrelevance.
“It’s like a slow leak of a balloon that is now laying on the floor,” is how the ex-Trump official described it.
A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Lately, Trump’s obsession with 2020 has also led him to indulge unhinged and false notions about being “reinstated” as commander-in-chief, according to three people familiar with these conversations, one of whom said he has been constantly watching the conspiracy-laden TV channel One America News and intensely following an ongoing Republican-demanded audit of votes in Arizona’s Maricopa County.
Trump has claimed the Arizona audit could lead to similar investigations in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Georgia that would ultimately prove he won the 2020 election, one person close to Trump said.
Push to look ahead
Should Trump use his Saturday appearance to deliver a public tirade about 2020, he could hobble GOP efforts to develop a compelling message for the midterm cycle.
To prevent that from happening, he has received advice from several corners of his orbit to deliver a forward-looking speech featuring fresh lines of attack against President Joe Biden and bold references to GOP policy priorities. Some Trump allies hope his remarks will serve as a blueprint for Republican candidates seeking to court his supporters on their own between now and next November, while others find the prospect of him focusing on anything but 2020 laughable.
One ally trying to guide Trump in his messaging is Sen. Lindsey Graham, according to a source familiar with their conversations. While the South Carolina Republican has been realistic about Trump’s fixation on 2020 — recognizing that it’s a fool’s errand to get him to steer totally clear of that topic — he has encouraged Trump to deliver a speech that is “two-thirds forward-looking, one-third grievance,” the source said.
“Any good consultant will tell him to look ahead, not back and that would be good advice,” said David Kochel, a Republican strategist for multiple presidential campaigns. “But one of Trump’s superpowers is knowing exactly what his audience wants. They want the hits, and the #1 hit on the charts right now is ‘Stop the Steal.’ There’s no way he can give a speech without playing that tune.”
More likely than not, Trump’s remarks will resemble the address he delivered to the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. In that speech, Trump thrilled the crowd of grassroots activists by castigating what he called a “very sick and corrupt electoral process” and teased a 2024 White House run by saying he may even decide to beat Democrats “for a third time.” As is the case with his speech this weekend, his CPAC address was drafted by the same speechwriting crew Trump worked with inside the West Wing: Stephen Miller, Vincent Haley and Ross Worthington.
While some allies have floated Trump’s Saturday appearance as the ideal launchpad for an updated stump speech, the internal push to get him to ditch his intense preoccupation with election fraud goes well beyond his visit to North Carolina.
The behind-the-scenes effort, which has included Graham, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Fox News host Sean Hannity, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and other outside advisers, has shifted into full gear amid mounting fears that Trump is alienating certain voters and forcing Republican candidates to adopt the wrong foil in a critical election cycle.
“The conspiracy theories and election fraud rhetoric are helpful for keeping a certain audience engaged but they do virtually nothing to move other voters — especially those who care about pocketbook issues — into our column,” said one person close to Trump.
“At some point, the election integrity stuff just becomes dull,” this person added. “We’re six months out and I think we’re starting to see that happen. He can keep running through the greatest hits but he needs to weave in some new material too.”
An unreliable surrogate for the GOP
The overwhelming expectation that Trump will instead veer off script on Saturday has many Republicans, including some in his inner circle, questioning whether his reemergence onto the political scene at this point is a good idea.
In the weeks following his North Carolina appearance, Trump has plans to resume his signature rallies in Ohio, Alabama, and Florida, according to a senior adviser. This very public re-entry into electoral politics has already left Republicans grappling with how the former President fits into the party’s future — including whether his fixation on 2020 is stymying GOP efforts to regain power in next year’s midterms and beyond.
“President Trump’s insane conspiracy theories about the election cost Republicans the two Georgia Senate runoffs and with them, our seat at the table in Washington,” said Michael Steel, a former aide to House speaker John Boehner and Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. “If you actually care about conservative public policy — stopping tax hikes and massive government spending, securing the border, supporting the police — you have to focus on the future, not the past.”
On several occasions since Trump left office, Republicans have become so distracted by the former President’s demands for loyalty that they have missed valuable opportunities to launch effective broadsides against congressional Democrats and Biden, whose approval rating continues to hover above 50 percent. Most recently, House Republicans spent three weeks orchestrating the ouster and replacement of Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who has flatly rejected Trump’s election lies, in the midst of a dismal jobs report for the Biden administration, swelling inflation and the migrant crisis at the US-Mexico border.
Some of Trump’s aides have thus been left to wonder if now is the right time to deploy him as a surrogate for the GOP, having already witnessed the disruptive impact his election fraud obsession has had on the party’s ability to craft a succinct message for 2022. They question whether the time he spends publicly griping will do more harm to the Republican Party’s prospects of regaining control of the House and Senate next fall.
One of the people close to Trump said it may be smart to limit his public appearances for the time being as GOP candidates settle on a midterm message that he can then echo at rallies next year.
“No, I don’t think it’s wise to let him spend the next 17 months talking about how our elections are rigged ahead of a midterm election where turnout is going to determine how well Republicans perform. We all saw what happened in Georgia,” this person said, referring to claims that Trump inadvertently suppressed GOP votes in two January Senate runoff contests by repeatedly telling Georgia voters his 2020 defeat in their state was the result of widespread voter fraud.
“It’s totally possible this rally tour is going to backfire in exactly the same way if he continues to beat the drum on this one issue,” the person added.
Others, including Meadows, are looking forward to Trump’s return to the campaign trail due to his unique ability to connect with the party’s grassroots base, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
But Republican leaders hoping for a reliable messenger are ignoring Trump’s nature, said Republican strategist Liam Donovan.
“He cares about the party and its fortunes to the extent it furthers his interests, but as a private citizen circa 2022 he has vanishingly little skin in the game,” said Donovan. “Nobody should be surprised that he is more focused on nursing 2020 grudges than helping Republicans win next fall.”