Hundreds of Donald Trump administration officials, White House aides, and Congressional supporters gathered at a downtown Washington hotel last month to commend the former president at a political summit organized by a think tank promoting his agenda.
The two-day event, held by the America First Policy Institute, was a celebration of the Trump era. But perhaps in tacit acknowledgment of the uncertainty of Trump’s future, those at the top have pointed out that his policies – and his legacy – could be carried on by someone else.
“The main objective [of the think tank] that’s how the conservative political movement… is ready when the next Republican administration arrives, ”said Kellyanne Conway, a former senior White House advisor who chairs the institute’s Center for the American Child.
“He is here to make sure that his political achievements, truly the legacy of the Trump-Pence administration, are preserved and progressed.”
Trump is the top poll favorite ahead of the race for the Republican presidential nomination of 2024, and his approval helped elevate candidates in the GOP competitive primaries on Tuesday.
In Arizona, Senate candidate Blake Masters, a Trump-backed venture capitalist, has earned a Republican nomination, while Governor candidate Kari Lake, a former local TV host who campaigned with the former president, is in the lead. in a race still too tight to call.
And in Michigan, former president’s favorite candidate for governor, Tudor Dixon, will face the Democratic governor. Gretchen Whitmer, while Rep Pete Meijer, a Republican who voted for Trump’s impeachment, lost to John Gibbs, who worked in the Trump administration.
But early victories don’t stop Republicans from trying to figure out how to keep Trump supporters as they explore the potential to get away from the former president.
Some, like those of the Never Trump movement, have been outspoken in their efforts to return to traditional conservatism since 2016. Others have tried to frame his presidency as launching a movement that can be separated from its leader and carried forward by others.
Last year, many of the former White House aides and Trump administration officials formed the AFPI, born out of political planning for his second term. The group has been called into “administration on hold” and its leaders note that many of them were in the room when Trump made the most important decisions of his presidency.
“I would say what the American people want are policies that improve their lives, regardless of race, religion, color, creed, and they had it under Donald Trump,” said Hogan Gidley, former White House deputy press secretary who leads the Center of Election Integrity institute, which is pushing for more restrictive laws on voter identity and absentee voting. “And so regardless of whether Donald Trump is a candidate or a kingmaker, I think that’s what people want.”
For his part, Trump seems to consider himself both. He is expected to announce his third presidential candidacy as soon as this fall, although some allies have urged him to wait until after the November mid-term elections, and he has also strategically supported candidates for secretary of state and legislative contests that they would play key roles in the administration of the upcoming presidential elections.
The GOP has always hoped it could “sweat the Trump years and … move on to someone who reflected a more traditional understanding of the conservative political agenda,” said Sarah Longwell, Republican strategist and founder of the Republican Accountability Project, a political committee. action opposing candidates promoting Trump’s “big lie” about the 2020 election.
The question is whether the voters will follow. Longwell has conducted nearly a dozen focus groups since the House Commission investigating the January 6 attack began holding hearings in June and found that more and more Trump voters in 2020 don’t want him running in 2024.
Even though they are not watching the hearings and are not turned down by the former president, they are concerned about his eligibility, he said.
“They think I have too much baggage, they think too many people don’t like it,” Longwell said. “It’s not even about how they feel.”
Trump’s return to Washington for the summit – his first visit since leaving office in January 2021 – came less than a week after the committee’s eighth public hearing on January 6, which focused his attention. on the former president’s role in inciting the mafia who stormed the Capitol and his inaction after doing so.
Hours after Trump’s speech at the July 26 summit, the Washington Post reported that the Justice Department was investigating his actions regarding the attack. Trump, along with many in his circle, is also being investigated by Fulton County Dist. Av Fani Willis for alleged meddling in the 2020 Georgia election.
In addition to his legal woes, Trump is also facing potential challenges from a younger generation of conservatives with less baggage, including the governor of Florida. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence, who is urging Republicans to look “forward” to future elections and avoid arguing with the past. Longwell said Trump voters in 2020 also mention Republican governments. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Greg Abbott of Texas as possible contenders of 2024.
Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, said “people will run for president regardless of what Trump does at this point.”
“For any Republican politician with ambitions, they have to run in 2024 or they may never have another chance,” he said. “Eliminating Trump is risky, but in many ways Trump is a much weaker candidate now than he was in 2016 given everything that has happened in the past five years.”
As a non-profit organization that cannot engage in political activities or support candidates, AFPI cannot explicitly support Trump, even though the organization was founded on his ideals. Some of the people hired by the organization, however, were critical of the former president and argued that the party was moving forward.
In March 2021, the former governor of Louisiana. Bobby Jindal co-wrote a Newsweek editorial asking Republicans to separate Trump from his policies.
“Many conservatives would not miss Trump, man, if they could preserve the ideas that are making America great,” he wrote.
Despite the editorial, Jindal was recruited by AFPI President Brooke Rollins, a former director of the White House’s domestic policy council under Trump, to lead the group’s Center for a Healthy America.
“It’s about promoting state bills, state legislation and federal legislation, so whoever the Republican candidate in ’24 is, whoever the next Republican president is, has these conservative policies that they can work with, that they can build on,” he said. Jindal at the top after leading a health care panel with members of Congress.
Asked if that candidate should be Trump, Jindal – one of more than a dozen Republicans who ran for president in 2016 – deviated.
“I think it will be time to focus on the presidential election after November,” he said. “Right now. I think every Conservative, every Republican, should focus on reviving the House and Senate.”
Former Trump White House adviser Peter Navarro has publicly criticized AFPI for hiring staff he deems insufficiently loyal to the former president, going so far as to warn Trump not to speak at the top and arguing that the institution wants to break up. with him while capitalizing on the success of his movement.
“This may be AFPI’s broader agenda: hijack the political appeal of Trumpism but replace Trump with a RINO anointed by AFPI,” Navarro wrote in an editorial for American Greatness, a conservative website.
AFPI staff responded by indicating Trump’s support for the organization. In addition to his keynote, Trump’s Save America PAC donated $ 1 million to the group last year.
At the same time, Trump seems committed to fighting to keep his role as the face of the America First movement.
In his speech at the summit, Trump weighed the question that will define the race to the Republican presidential nomination of 2024: Will his legal problems and his actions on January 6, 2021 make him ineligible?
He made a familiar promise to his acolytes, declaring that, despite his enemies’ best efforts to silence him, he would have a second act in the White House.
“They want to harm you in any form, but they really want to harm me, so I can’t go back to working for you anymore,” he said. “I don’t think it will happen.”
Trump told New York magazine last month that he had already decided whether to run or not, and the only debate is about timing in announcing his decision. He said he believed an announcement before midterm would discourage others from running and potentially trigger a “regression” against anyone who challenged him.
Most political observers agree that an early announcement would hurt Republicans’ efforts to keep voters focused on the Biden administration’s struggles.
“If Trump enters the final weeks of the election by announcing his candidacy, he is confusing what should be a clear referendum,” Conant said. “I can’t think of a positive aspect.”
A Trump announcement ahead of the midterm elections would also be a “godsend for Democrats,” said former Democrat Representative Steve Israel, president of the Cornell University Institute of Politics and Global Affairs.
“If you look at the 2021 elections, where the Republicans did very well in the state and local elections, the democratic strategy was to try and put Donald Trump in the ballot in those races,” he said. “People didn’t accept him, because he wasn’t in the ballot. But once announced in 2022, he is absolutely in the ballot. “