Trump Is Spooked and His 2024 Rivals Know It

8 minute read

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Back during the first months of the Trump presidency, then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich made a prescient—if not entirely original—observation about his one-time rival for the Republican nomination: “You don't put an animal in the corner without the animal striking back, [and] you don't put a politician in the corner … without them expecting to strike back at you.”

Kasich was correct in his assessment of Trump’s approach to leading Washington, and it’s a strategy that’s re-emerged as the ex-President faces increasingly urgent risks coming at him from all directions. Luck, it turns out, is a finite commodity. And a ginned-up gerbil can do more damage than a complacent cheetah. 

Trump is under indictment in three separate criminal cases and is out on bond. A fourth criminal case out of Georgia could come as soon as this week, and preparations underway in Fulton County sure look like prosecutors in Atlanta are bracing for a chaotic scene. The trials would derail Trump for weeks if not months at the exact time he would need to be pandering to voters. And, despite being atop the polls of Republicans looking to be the presidential nominee in 2024, the risks to both his frontrunner status and his freedom are real enough that it’s sending him spiraling in search of a distraction.

“IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!” That’s what Trump posted on his Truth Social account over the weekend, prompting Justice Department lawyers to ask a judge in the case involving election interference to issue a protective order. The not-at-all-subtle warning was part of a litany of all-caps threats that brought to mind various unhinged stretches of posts when he used to frequent the platform previously known as Twitter. When Trump wasn’t complaining that he was a victim of a politically motivated prosecution (“WHAT THE DEPARTMENT OF INJUSTICE IS DOING TO ME IS THE SAME THING DONE BY THIRD WORLD COUNTRIES ALL OVER THE WORLD.”), he was going after the U.S. team for its loss in the Women’s World Cup, singling out star player (and Trump critic) Megan Rapinoe for an errant foot: “WOKE EQUALS FAILURE. Nice shot Megan, the USA is going to Hell!!! MAGA.” 

Sure, Trump’s social-media footprint has never been a particularly sophisticated logic-based realm. But for the first time since he joined the presidential fray back in 2015, Trump sounds genuinely scared, like he finally seems to be realizing his luck may be unique but not limitless. His knack for defying political gravity has been evidenced since his first campaign, when any other nominee would have been felled by the same series of missteps, scandals, and self-immolation; Trump instead somehow rode the fire-engulfed dumpster all the way to the North Lawn of the White House. 

Trump has long enjoyed lashing out at those he perceives as insufficiently loyal. No one has been immune, be they real challengers like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or just perceived threats, as were the cases of Pope Francis, George W. Bush, and Megyn Kelly. But these latest attacks, somehow, feel different in a changed environment that no longer guarantees fearful fealty from his rivals. Where he previously launched his rockets with abandon, he is now being more direct to respond to would-be usurpers.

To Trump’s credit, his reflex appears to be more tactical than in the past. 

Take, for instance, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the closest thing that Trump has to a rival for the nomination next year. While Trump enjoys a massive lead over the Anti-Woke Warrior from the Sunshine State, DeSantis has been working on retooling a failure-to-launch bid, and it seems like he’s rethinking his deference to Trump. In an interview that aired on NBC News this week, DeSantis for the first time finally stopped pussyfooting around whether Trump won in 2020. "No, of course he lost," DeSantis said. "Joe Biden’s the President." After more than 1,000 days of playing coy games and dodging any declaration about Biden’s legitimacy, DeSantis has finally concluded it is time to treat Trump like the man to dethrone.

DeSantis, who on Tuesday replaced his top political hand, had been walking the line. For months, the default has felt like a backhanded defense of Trump at every turn, living both in contempt and cower of the ex-President. But two weeks ago, during a swing through Iowa, DeSantis subtly jabbed his one-time self-considered patron. “I don’t consider myself to be an entertainer,” DeSantis said in Osceola. “I’m a leader. And that’s what you get for me, somebody that will deliver results.” The ceiling of the distillery where he spoke didn’t collapse, and DeSantis marched on. (Trump, naturally, told a conservative radio host that DeSantis should drop out for the good of the party.)

DeSantis’ footing—and Trump’s counter-punch—has seemed to grow stronger in recent days. Until recently, only former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been an unabashed critic of Trump’s return to power, a lonely spot but one that is starting to have some pals testing its viability. After all, 78 looming felony charges gives even the most mild of candidates permission to at least raise the question of Trump’s true viability in a rematch against Joe Biden. “This election needs to be about Jan. 20, 2025, not Jan. 6, 2021,” DeSantis said in Waverly, Iowa, during that weekend bus tour.

Similarly, former Vice President Mike Pence—the one who spent four years as Trump’s loyal and self-censoring understudy—has started to rev up his critique of the ex-boss, and thus draw his ire. While Pence has hinted at his antipathy toward Trump and, in particular, his former boss’ conduct on Jan. 6, 2021, the intensity has increased of late. And not coincidentally, Trump has targeted more of his public attacks on Pence, as he realizes that his former vice president poses a real threat to his legal woes, given his first-hand access to the West Wing during the final weeks of Trump’s tour there.

Pence predicted Trump’s realization was coming, telling The New York Times on July 30: “I think we’re coming to a fork in the road.”

It’s more of a pitchfork, based on Trump’s reaction. “He’s delusional, and now he wants to show he’s a tough guy,” Trump sniped at his former running mate, who testified for more than five hours before the federal grand jury back in April and spoke candidly about the events before and during the Jan. 6 uprising. Should Trump move forward to trial, Pence may end up testifying—a development that could move the actual argument against a third Trump nomination away from the theater-focused debate stage and to a far more extraordinary courtroom testimony, one where Trump would have to sit in silence and hear his one-time loyalist turn over all of their secrets.

Trump’s allies have started to pick up on the shift, too. During a stop last week in Londonderry, N.H., hecklers stood outside the American Legion post and held signs calling Pence a traitor. Inside, skeptics asked Pence point-blank why he didn’t take steps to keep Trump in power, even in electoral defeat.

Unflinching, Pence said he followed the Constitution and, ever one to cite Scripture down to chapter and verse, urged voters in that lead-off primary state to look up Article Two, Section One, Clause Three.

Similarly, Trump’s best ally in the field vowed to find everyone involved in investigating Trump and fire them. The maneuver won Vivek Ramaswamy applause and tracks with his larger strategy of running against Trump while also being his biggest booster in the field. Other rivals, all the while, have picked up the House Republicans’ chorus that the Department of Justice has been weaponized by Biden and his cronies.

Elsewhere, of course, criticism of Trump has been a moderated rumble through the GOP campaign to this point. With the first debate scheduled for Aug. 23—and Trump’s participation an open question—the GOP will be watching closely if Christie’s open antagonism is no longer the clear loser of a strategy that it seemed a few months ago. The party remains loyal to Trump, but the sober reality of nominating a thrice-indicted ex-President is finally sinking in. And Trump, it seems, is starting to sense that and responding to the threats he had previously—and maybe wrongly—assumed were immaterial.

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