A week after he officially launched his third bid for President, Donald Trump has surrounded himself with a tight group of seasoned campaigners and political operatives. Members of his inner circle say the former President’s 2024 team has an expertise and professionalism befitting Trump’s frontrunner status for the GOP nomination.
And they fear it’s only a matter of time before all that ends.
“The list right now is impressive, it’s serious,” says a former Trump White House official. “A key question mark for people is: Can Trump resist the impulse to reach out to sh-theads and trust the people he’s with that are solid?”
Fears about the company Trump keeps were amplified on Nov. 22 when Trump had dinner at his Mar-a-Lago Club with Kanye West, who has spread anti-Semitic conspiracies, and Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist and Holocaust denier. Trump described the dinner on his social media site, saying West, who now goes by Ye, wanted advice on business and politics. “I told him he should definitely not run for President, ‘any voters you may have should vote for TRUMP,'” Trump wrote.
History suggests those in pivotal posts in Trump’s 2024 campaign will change multiple times. Both of his previous campaigns, as well as his four years in the Oval Office, were marked by constant turnover of key lieutenants, with Trump often reverting to right-wing bomb throwers like Steve Bannon, who served as his 2016 campaign’s CEO and White House chief strategist, his trade advisor Peter Navarro, and Mark Meadows, who became his fourth White House chief of staff in 2020.
Some around Trump hope the current team can manage to convince him that the surest path to victory is to keep focused on proven winning messages, like the economy and criticizing Biden’s record, rather than fringe conspiracies that motivate a narrower group of Trump’s base. In the weeks between Trump losing the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, then-Attorney General Bill Barr, White House lawyers, and Trump’s campaign leadership all told him he’d lost, but he didn’t want to hear it. It was in those weeks that Trump turned to outside personalities like Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, a lawyer who was the architect of false legal theories that states controlled by Republicans could send slates of fake electors to Washington to overturn Biden’s win.
Trump has centered his campaign planning around his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., largely ditching the Washington-centric advisors who populated his failed 2020 reelection bid. He’s brought in a new mix of long-time Republican political operatives who are trying to position him for the long haul. Other candidates for the Republican nomination aren’t expected to announce until the middle of next year. The first primaries are likely more than a year away, in February 2024. In the meantime, Trump is focusing most of his verbal attacks on President Joe Biden, who has said he would make a final decision early next year about whether he would run for reelection.
“For millions of Americans, the past two years under Joe Biden have been a time of pain, hardship, anxiety and despair,” Trump said in the gilded ballroom of his Mar-a-Lago Club on Nov. 15 when he formally announced his 2024 campaign. “The decline of America is being forced upon us by Biden and the radical left lunatics running our government right into the ground. This decline is not a fate we must accept. When given choice, boldly, clearly and directly, the American people will overwhelmingly reject the left platform of national ruin,” he said.
Who’s on the team?
Trump is leaning heavily on Susie Wiles, the powerful Republican operative in Florida who helped run Ron DeSantis’s winning 2018 campaign for governor, was key to Trump taking Florida from Biden’s win column in 2020, and most recently has been the CEO of Trump’s Save America Leadership PAC.
Read more: How DeSantis Turned Florida Red
Wiles has a track record of helping Trump grow a massive base of support in Florida, and she “knows how to run campaigns,” says Trump’s former White House spokesman Hogan Gidley, who talks to Trump regularly. “She knows the ins and outs of grassroots-ground-game politics, and, as well as being the sweet woman that she is, she’s also tough as nails—that is a very good combination to have when helping someone run for President of the United States.”
Trump has also turned to Chris LaCivita, a long-time Republican strategist based in Virginia who was an organizer of Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, which famously worked to turn public sentiment against the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry by questioning his military service. During the 2020 campaign, LaCivita led Preserve America PAC, a large pro-Trump fundraising arm linked to casino magnate Sheldon Adelson who passed away in 2021.
People familiar with Trump’s campaign say he is continuing to get advice from a cadre of allies he has worked with for years, including his former White House political affairs director Brian Jack; Tony Fabrizio, his long-time pollster; Steven Cheung, his former White House assistant communications director and a former communications executive for Ultimate Fighting Championship; Liz Harrington, a former Republican National Committee spokeswoman; Republican fundraising guru Sergio Gor; and conservative digital ad strategist Gary Colby.
Another person who has been spending time at Mar-a-Lago recently is Boris Epshteyn, a brash communications consultant who has fanned Trump’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen. Notably, Rudy Giuliani was not in attendance at Trump’s announcement.
“Trump supporters or people wanting to give him another look should be encouraged by this list of people, and people who want to dismiss him or people who think it’s going to be a cakewalk should be worried,” says Joe Grogan, who was the director of Trump’s domestic policy council in 2019 and 2020.
What comes next?
Trump’s political rivals were jostling for position at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas the weekend before Thanksgiving. “Personality, celebrity just aren’t going to get it done,” Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has ambitions to run for president, told attendees on Nov. 18, according to the Associated Press. Also in attendance were DeSantis, Trump’s former vice president Mike Pence, and Nikki Haley, the former U.N. Ambassador and former South Carolina governor. Trump agreed to appear by video conference on Saturday, Nov. 19.
In the days after Trump’s dinner with West and Fuentes, some of Trump’s potential 2024 Republican rivals criticized it though most have remained silent. “This is just awful, unacceptable conduct from anyone, but most particularly from a former President and current candidate,” former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wrote on Twitter. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for a leader that is setting an example for the country or the party to meet with an avowed racist or anti-Semite,” Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said on CNN.
Rep. James Comer, the Kentucky Republican slated to take over the House Oversight Committee in January, said on NBC News that Trump “certainly needs better judgment in who he dines with.”
In the meantime, investigations into Trump continue to move forward. On Friday, Biden’s Attorney General Merrick Garland named a special counsel to take over dual Department of Justice investigations into Trump’s hoarding of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago after leaving office and Trump’s role in attempts to overturn the 2020 election. In Manhattan, prosecutors wrapped up their presentation of evidence on Monday in a tax fraud case against Trump’s business empire. And the Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to let House Democrats review copies of Trump’s tax returns, after Trump spent years trying to block that access. Also on Tuesday, a Trump ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, testified before a Georgia grand jury looking into efforts by Trump to pressure state election officials to push the 2020 results in his favor.
After all the build-up to his Nov. 15 campaign announcement, Trump appears to be allowing that momentum to fizzle. Aside from his video speech to the conference in Las Vegas, he has not announced any other appearances or rallies planned for the rest of the year. His political website, which a few weeks ago listed his schedule of rallies around the country to rally his base before the midterms, has yet to be revamped for 2024. The site now generates a pop-up window asking for emails and phone numbers to pad the mailing lists of his nascent campaign and the Trump Save America Joint Fundraising Committee. Now that Trump has formally announced, donations to the joint fundraising committee for the 2024 race are subject to contribution caps of $10,800 per individual.
The Trump campaign will start off “lean and mean” and then will develop into something “bigger, faster, stronger,” Gidley said. He and other advisers suggest Trump’s message to Republican primary voters will sharpen in the new year.
But whether that message will be the one his current team is pressing remains to be seen.
“If he’s just bitching about the past all the time, I think it won’t be compelling and frankly, he won’t win the nomination,” Grogan says. “I think he should be taken seriously and soberly. Let’s hear what he has to say. If he runs a grievance campaign, then fine, dismiss him.”
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