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Republicans Want Donald Trump to Help Them Win Back Congress. How Helpful Will Trump Be?

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Former President Donald Trump wants to play a role in leading the Republican Party to victory in future elections, but it’s becoming clear that he means to provide his help only to those who’ve never crossed him.

This month, that meant sending a warning shot to three national Republican campaign entities devoted to defending incumbents — the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee — including those who voted to impeach or convict Trump. Trump’s legal team demanded in letters, first reported by Politico, that the bodies must stop using the Trump name and likeness in fundraising.

“Not only is President Trump the biggest name and the biggest draw in Republican politics, he’s the biggest name and the biggest draw in politics overall,” says Jason Miller, senior advisor to Trump. He says Trump is willing to help, but he wants to be asked first. “President Trump will continue to be the kingmaker in the Republican party.”

Trump is famously protective of his name brand, but having the symbolic figurehead of the GOP undermine party efforts puts his fellow Republicans in a difficult spot. One Republican lawmaker, who spoke on background because they don’t “do hallway interviews,” noted the situation was “obviously not ideal.”

The 2022 midterm elections are more than a year and a half away, but Trump’s apparent ambivalence over helping GOP lawmakers is raising the question now of what his role will be as the party tries to win back the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Republican lawmakers largely stood by Trump through two impeachments and countless scandals. But after some distanced themselves after Trump sought to overturn the 2020 election results and incited a violent mob that stormed the Capitol, he has lashed out at the GOP establishment.

On Thursday, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, returned home to Florida, where he met Trump for dinner at Mar-a-Lago to discuss how the former President can help Republicans regain control of the Senate. “He said he wants to help make sure we get a majority, so we’re going to work hard and make sure it happens,” Scott told TIME earlier that afternoon, saying he had plans to meet with the former President soon.

According to Miller, part of the meeting was spent discussing how Trump can help recruit “America First” conservative candidates, and going through areas where they saw overlapping interests.

The cease-and-desist letters weren’t the only sign of resistance from Trump world over helping fellow Republicans. Days after they were sent, the Trump-aligned Save America PAC issued a fundraising email to his supporters, asking them to send donations directly to that political action committee. “No more money for RINOS,” Trump said in the included March 8 statement, using the acronym for ‘Republican in Name Only.’ “They do nothing but hurt the Republican Party and our great voting base—they will never lead us to Greatness.”

The next day, Trump appeared to reverse course and put out a statement vouching for the party entities. “I fully support the Republican Party and important GOP Committees, but I do not support RINOs and fools, and it is not their right to use my likeness or image to raise funds. So much money is being raised and completely wasted by people that do not have the GOP’s best interests in mind,” Trump said. The statement went on once again to encourage his supporters to donate directly to political efforts that he’s guiding, rather than the broader Republican Party.

The Republican campaign bodies have shown no signs of heeding Trump’s legal team’s request. On March 8, Justin Riemer, chief counsel to the RNC, sent a letter to Trump’s lawyer Alex Cannon in response to the cease-and-desist letter. Riemer noted the close relationship between Trump and RNC chair Ronna McDaniel. “We understand that President Trump reaffirmed to her over the weekend that he approves of the RNC’s current use of his name in fundraising and other materials, including for our upcoming donor retreat event at Palm Beach at which we look forward to him participating.”

Riemer went on to say that the RNC “of course” has the right to refer to public figures and “will continue to do so,” highlighting Trump and the RNC’s “common goals.”

Publicly, the bodies have taken a more conciliatory tone. “The RNC, NRSC and NRCC are grateful for President Trump’s support, both past and future,” said Scott, McDaniel, and NRCC chair Rep. Tom Emmer in a joint statement on March 9. “Together, we look forward to working with President Trump to retake our Congressional majorities and deliver results for the American people.”

Around Capitol Hill, Republicans were careful not to express any sort of frustration around the former President’s reservations in sharing the wealth with his colleagues. Some of Trump’s most ardent allies in Congress, like Rep. Matt Gaetz, told TIME that Trump was being reasonable in his request.

“Ultimately President Trump is going to decide what kind of role he wants to play in elections in the future,” said Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, when asked about the letters at a March 9 press conference. “I know we’re focused on winning the House back.”

Scott, when asked if he was worried whether Trump might leave Republican Senators out to dry in terms of campaigning the next couple of years, suggested it wasn’t a concern. “Everybody’s working hard … we’re going to end up with good candidates, and so we’ll be fine.”

In the last six years, Trump single handedly reshaped GOP politics, creating a bitterly divided party that appears to be heading in two different directions: those who would prefer to distance themselves from the 45th President, and those who want to continue embracing his politics. Though most of the party remains loyal to him, Trump has never fully embraced them back, observers say. “It’s always been about him,” says a Republican operative, who spoke on background due to current employment, noting the letters he sent did not come as a surprise. “He’s not interested in the party, never has been.”

At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February, Trump insisted that he didn’t want to start a new party, saying that the current Republican party would unite and be “stronger than ever before.”

Exactly how helpful he plans to be in those efforts remains an open question. Miller insists helping win back the chambers of Congress is a priority for Trump, and many rank-and-file Republicans want that backing. As U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a fierce Trump loyalist, put it: “It’s impossible for us to succeed without President Trump.”

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Write to Lissandra Villa at lissandra.villa@time.com