WASHINGTON – Donald Trump may not be president much longer, but he still wants to run the Republican Party for the foreseeable future.
If he can.
From setting up a political action committee to suggesting he might run again in 2024, Trump is already working to keep his hold on the GOP after his term ends – but he also faces formidable obstacles in his future drive to stay relevant, according to advisers and other members of the Republican Party.
“He’ll be the head of the party, no matter what happens,” said one Trump aide, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because the president still believes he will prevail in his election lawsuits.
Other Republicans say it won’t be so easy for Trump to control the party once he loses the power of the presidency. That will almost surely happen on Jan. 20, after his various legal challenges to the election won by Democrat Joe Biden are exhausted.
“Yes, he has a big following in the GOP,” said Republican strategist Liz Mair. “But the GOP tends to shift direction after every presidency/losing candidacy.”
Many Republicans, however, expect Trump to continue swinging a big stick within the party for months and maybe years to come.
Republican strategist Brad Todd said the president is beloved among the party’s base, especially among right-leaning populist voters who flocked to the GOP in 2016 and turned out in high numbers for him in this election.
“They tend to like Donald Trump better than most Republicans, but they don’t always vote,” he said.
That gives Trump leverage.
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“There’s only one political sun in the solar system and it’s him,” Todd said. “Some voters – a very big chunk – value his brand and it seems completely logical that he would want to continue to that. I think he will want to be relevant, and that he will be relevant.
Yet Trump will also face pushback from Republicans who want the party to move past the divisions that marked his tenure.
John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, said he doesn’t think Republican voters will uniformly follow him once he is no longer president.
For one thing, Trump will lose the ability to “intimidate” people into backing him, said Bolton, whose book, “The Room Where It Happened,” painted a searing picture of the president as an incompetent commander-in-chief.
Bolton predicted that Republicans would ultimately look for new leaders.
“I think his power to influence will diminish dramatically once he leaves the Oval Office on Jan. 20, 2021,” Bolton said. “It’s a completely different ballgame … the dynamic will change dramatically.”
And Trump could face legal troubles after he leaves office.
Authorities in New York are investigating Trump over accusations ranging from tax avoidance to alleged violations of campaign finance laws by paying hush money to keep ex-mistresses quiet during his 2016 presidential race.
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History is also working against continuing relevance for Trump.
Most presidents fade from the political scene after they leave office, often by choice but also because their ability to shape events quickly faded. One exception: Former President Bill Clinton worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns, but with mixed success at best.
One test of Trump’s continuing political strength comes early: Two Jan. 5 runoffs in Georgia that will decide whether Republicans keep control of the U.S. Senate or cede it to the Democrats.
Trump is publicly backing the two Georgia Republican incumbents who are running on Jan. 5, Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Some Republicans, however, fear Trump’s refusal to concede the presidential election will undercut the party’s brand in Georgia, and in other states in future races.
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Supporting Trump’s intransigence is “a mistake for the country and it’s a mistake for the Republican Party,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told reporters. “And especially as we have the Senate hanging in the balance in two runoff elections in Georgia. Doing anything to tarnish the brand and cost us votes is a pretty significant thing.”
How Trump handles the 2024 questions may also determine his staying power, Republicans said.
Declaring a 2024 campaign right away might actually undercut his leadership, some advisers said. Many Republicans will hold off endorsing him, waiting to see who else runs, while the Republican National Committee will be obligated to stay neutral.
If Trump keeps his options open for 2024, aides said, more party members will look to stay on good terms with him. Other candidates, particularly in the 2022 congressional elections, will want access to the sources of Trump’s power: his fervent followers and donors.
“He has the base of support and the financial base of support” to be a force in the Republican Party for a long time, said one GOP official.
Either way, however, Trump will face competition to be the nation’s top Republican.
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At least a dozen Republicans are considering presidential bids of their own in 2024. While many of these candidates will seek Trump’s blessing, others will seek to chart a new course for the party.
Whit Ayers, a Republican pollster and consultant, disagrees that Trump’s role will be diminished once the 2020 presidential results are finalized. He said while former presidents typically want to retire from public life as much as possible, few expect Trump will follow that tradition.
“Going away quietly would be very much out of character for this president, and remaining quiet would be even more out of character,” Ayers said.
One reason might be due in part to the GOP not being as reflective after having a better than expected election overall.
Republicans have netted six House seats so far despite fears that Democrats might expand their majority. They also fended off closely watched Senate challenges in Maine, North Carolina, Iowa and South Carolina.
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Democrats also failed to flip a single state legislative chamber, which will have major ramifications on redrawing congressional maps after the 2020 census.
“There’s no formal autopsy needed because this is not exactly a sign of weakness or failure, and they won most of what they wanted below the presidency,” Ayers said.
Whether Republicans view Trump sticking around in the form of a PAC or 2024 candidate as good or bad depends on their opinion of the president currently, but most recognize he isn’t going away.
“I think Republicans of all persuasions view Donald Trump’s continuing involvement in politics as inevitable,” Ayers said.
“We’ve had populists through American history, from William Jennings Bryant to Huey Long to George Wallace, but we’ve never had one achieve the presidency before Donald Trump,” he added. “We have no historical basis for determining his long-term legacy or value at this point.”
Trump family will stay in the spotlight
Mair, an outspoken “Never Trumper,” said Trump’s desire to keep running the Republican Party “won’t matter” in the long term. The party tends to move on whenever its leaders lose power, whether it is ex-presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, or losing election nominees like Bob Dole and Mitt Romney.
Trump, however, is discussing ways to stay in the public eye, aides said, from staging more rallies to creating a digital media channel that would stream conservative and pro-Trump content online.
Members of Trump’s family also plan to stay involved in politics, particularly Donald Trump Jr. The younger Trump denied news reports that he plans to seek a leadership position with the Republican Party, but friends said he will continue to speak out on behalf of GOP candidates and his father’s legacy.
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Ivanka Trump, the president’s high-profile daughter, has not said whether she will pursue a political career after her father leaves office.
Trump is in the process of forming his own “leadership political action committee,” ostensibly to give money to state and federal Republican candidates who share his views.
The PAC could also be a vehicle for another Trump presidential campaign in 2024. Aides said they fully expect Trump to at least flirt with the idea of running again, if only to freeze out rivals for the title of top Republican.
Trump could just as easily use his leadership PAC to pay his legal bills, or set up his children for political life, said Mair and others.
“He might run, just to give him a pretext for doing the rallies he loves,” Mair said. “That said, he has two kids who appear to be interested in running. We know he prioritizes his kids ahead of everything else, and he’s pretty old and unhealthy – so he just may not be up to it or in that frame of mind by 2024.”