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Typically, Presidents wrap up their last full day of work on Jan. 19, perform their final nod to ceremony in welcoming their successors and the family to the White House the next day, and then book it to an overdue vacation. Of course, they’ll return when the role’s legacy function demands—state funerals come to mind, as do portrait unveilings and natural disaster fundraisers. But, at least for those who don’t stick around in D.C. to let their daughter finish high school, they leave town as soon as they can and don’t much look back.
Then again, most ex-Presidents long for a fade into the worn background of history. That is decidedly not the playbook in the hands of former President Donald Trump, who despite his exodus from Washington remains an agenda-setting figure in town. His endorsement remains a powerful factor in Republican politics, his return to politics looms on the horizon for 2024, and his conduct ahead of and on Jan. 6, 2021, dominates much of Congress’ agenda. Like so much of his presidency, his post-presidency seems to delight in shattering expectations. In fact, Trump exited the presidency before his successor could show up and take over, effectively punching out before his carriage reverted to a pumpkin when the clock struck noon.
Like a bad hype reel for a reality show, Trump this week returns to Washington for the first time since he left the presidency. Billed as a summit of his non-profit America First Policy Institute, the two-day event is heavy on MAGA-World quasi-celebrities and will feature a speech from the man who is still nursing wounds from 2020.
In a way, though, the return to The Swamp by one of its most unapologetic figures comes as a mini-launch of his comeback tour. Trump has hinted that he’ll be on the ballot in 2024, and his advisers are at this point just trying to keep him from pulling the trigger on a campaign until after November’s midterms. Republicans look poised to have a good showing and could well take back control of the House and Senate alike, but Trump and his ongoing show could shade the GOP’s polling if the party isn’t careful to control for the bleed. Trump remains a driving factor in politics, although the appetite for his shenanigans has diminished as more time has passed since his term. As TIME’s Brian Bennett reports, the Jan. 6 hearings may have exposed Trump’s glass jaw.
So, what is Trump’s play here? He clearly has his eyes on 2024 and is laying the groundwork for his return to office. His contempt of the political elites has not abated, even as he retreated to Florida and then to New Jersey. A second act serves as much as a restoration of power as a way to stick it to the man. After all, so much of Trump’s animating power comes from his personal preferences and individual grievances. But he might find a more skeptical GOP, with some who have newly soured on the Trumpist wing as they learn more and more damning details about Trump’s behavior around the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The timing of the trip comes at a near-perfect state-managed moment. The committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has seemingly completed its summer schedule and is poised to start drafting at least an early version of its report. Congress seems coasting into the August recess. Voters are just now starting to really tune into the November elections. And Trump’s political circle seems ready to turn the key on another go. The MAGA crowd just needs a nudge to remember why his blindingly loud rallies caused so many hearts to flutter.
The real question facing official Washington—namely, Republicans who wield power—is one about its pain threshold. Trump proved a winning vessel in 2016 but couldn’t convince enough voters that he was worth the hourly drama four years later. Come 2024, it will have been nine years since Trump coasted down a golden elevator in Trump Tower and proceeded to break Republican politics. The party has yet to reclaim its equilibrium. Meanwhile, the bold novelty of a Trump candidacy has long faded, much like how most of his predecessors have blended into the background.
Put another way: Trump’s most immediate task this week in Washington is convincing fellow Republicans that he’s worth the Aspirin and the grimace in pursuit for a potential but not-guaranteed victory. It may take every ounce of his skills as a salesman.
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