He made video appearances at a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting, a conservative conference in Mexico and a fundraiser for families of defendants in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot — all beamed out from Mar-a-Lago. He did an interview with Fox News and a tele-rally for Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker and he dropped in on a fundraiser with promoters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, still at Mar-a-Lago.
Trump’s seclusion within the ornate walls of his club and a series of controversies — from the dinner with antisemites Ye and Nick Fuentes to a social media post suggesting the “termination” of the Constitution — have left him increasingly isolated within his party as he tries to mount a political comeback. Walker’s loss in a Tuesday runoff election became the latest blow, prompting more Republicans to join the chorus faulting him for dragging down the party’s performance in this year’s midterms.
“The former president presents our biggest risk of losing for 2024, and conservatives are tired of losing,” said Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Family Leader, an Iowa-based social conservative group. “Even the former president’s announcement is being greeted like it never happened. There’s no buzz amongst my network at all.”
The Trump campaign wasn’t planning to follow up his announcement with a burst of rallies or public events, instead focusing on quieter moves like staffing up. A campaign official said Trump will start doing more public events after January, which will address the criticism that he hasn’t gotten out more. A recent message from Trump suggested an upcoming stop in Iowa, home of the first Republican nominating contest.
“We’re still two years out,” the official said. “There’ll be a time to do events and a time to do rallies.”
Trump’s defenders argue that he has in the past overcome resistance from Republican leaders and reshaped the party.
“President Trump entered the race three weeks ago ready to win and he is going to do exactly that — no amount of wishful thinking from the media or consultant class will change it,” said Taylor Budowich, head of the MAGA Inc. super PAC supporting Trump. “He’s building one of the most ruthless and talented teams in American politics, and he is the only person in the country who is ready and capable of reversing America’s decline.”
The early announcement — which advisers said was planned in part to clear the field of potential rivals and help Trump get ahead of a potential indictment — appears to have failed or backfired on both fronts. Rather than declining to run against Trump, a crowd of other Republicans have become more vocal about their possible moves to challenge him for the nomination. And Trump’s formal declaration of his candidacy prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to appoint a special counsel to oversee the federal criminal probes circling the former president into his campaign’s efforts to submit phony electors in 2020 and into the mishandling of sensitive government secrets at Mar-a-Lago.
Trump’s legal challenges escalated further this week with the conviction by a New York jury of his namesake company for tax fraud. Trump personally wasn’t charged, though prosecutors said in their closing that Trump knew about the cheating. And the conviction, which the company said it would appeal, could complicate the business’s future operations, now also under scrutiny by a special monitor appointed in a civil suit brought by the New York attorney general.
The criticism of Trump for hurting Republicans at the ballot box is showing no sign of abating, and grew even louder after Tuesday.
“It’s a formula that doesn’t work,” said Brian Robinson, a GOP operative in Georgia, explaining that the party’s candidates needed to reach voters outside the Trump base. “I don’t think moving forward you’re going to have another primary season where the litmus test is vowing to talk about the 2020 election.”
Two prominent Republican senators, John Cornyn of Texas and second-ranking John Thune of South Dakota, on Wednesday faulted Trump’s influence for hurting the party in this year’s races.
“I think he’s less relevant all the time,” Cornyn said. “Even if you capture all the Trump voters, you may be able to win a primary, but you’re not necessarily going to win a general election. And in this business, you have to win an election before you actually govern.”
Thune said Trump and his endorsed candidates’ emphasis on saying the 2020 election was stolen hurt the party with independent voters and underscored the need for a new standard-bearer to take the GOP in a different direction.
“I’m hoping to have other options … And I think we will have other options who represent a new generation of leadership,” Thune said in an interview. “I think there are going to be a lot of our candidates that start to emerge who say if we want to win the presidency in 2024, if we want to get the majority back in the Senate, we’ve got to move in a different direction in terms of our message.”
Retiring Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) highlighted the contrast between resounding victories for Republican governors like Mike DeWine in Ohio, Chris Sununu in New Hampshire, Brian Kemp in Georgia and Ron DeSantis in Florida with losses or lagging performances by Trump-backed candidates.
“I think it’s as clear as can be,” Toomey said in an interview. “The electorate is speaking and it’s saying, ‘Hey, we’re okay with Republicans. We like the traditional conservative set of principles, but don’t obsess about that guy.’”
The pile-on from Capitol Hill was the third round of Republican leaders distancing themselves from Trump over the past two weeks. Lawmakers returning last week from the Thanksgiving holiday confronted questions about Trump’s Nov. 22 dinner with Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, and Fuentes, a far-right online personality. Trump made several statements that fell short of disavowing his guests and their well-publicized antisemitic comments, drawing criticism from Republican leader Mitch McConnell, ally-turned-potential-rival former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and even his former vice president, Mike Pence.
The cycle repeated this week after Trump posted to his Truth Social platform musing about throwing out the 2020 election results to declare himself the winner or to hold a new election. “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” Trump wrote.
Again, Republicans were pressed to respond, with McConnell saying Tuesday, “Anyone seeking the presidency who thinks the Constitution can somehow be suspended or not followed, it seems to me, would have a very hard time being sworn in as president of the United States.”
On Wednesday Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), one of the handful of far-right lawmakers who have endorsed Trump’s 2024 bid, posted and then deleted a tweet saying he supporting Trump’s original message about terminating the Constitution.
Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, appeared on NBC demanding more forceful condemnations from potential 2024 rivals or else he would consider getting into the race himself. Trump and allies tried to clean up the controversy by falsely claiming he hadn’t actually suggested terminating the Constitution.
“The Fake News is actually trying to convince the American People that I said I wanted to ‘terminate’ the Constitution,” Trump wrote on Truth Social. “This is simply more DISINFORMATION & LIES.”
Walker’s loss on Tuesday steered more blame toward Trump because he personally recruited the football legend to run, despite many vulnerabilities in his biography that were known at the time. Trump did not return to Georgia to campaign for Walker ahead of the Nov. 8 general election or Tuesday’s runoff, in a mutual recognition by both teams that an appearance with Trump wouldn’t help Walker with the voters he needed to win over, according to Trump advisers.
Walker didn’t mention Trump during recent campaign rallies, but incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael G. Warnock’s campaign produced an ad that was almost entirely a clip of Trump promoting Warnock at the kickoff event for his 2024 bid.
Defenses of Trump were scarce across even right-wing media on Wednesday. For its part, the Trump campaign spent the day blasting out links to reports of layoffs at various news organizations.
Even as elected Republicans show increasing willingness to buck Trump, Democrats pushed for more forceful denunciations.
“The list of reasons why this three-week-old campaign should contend for one of the worst launches in history is simply too long, but Donald Trump’s stranglehold on the MAGA party hasn’t loosened,” DNC spokesman Ammar Moussa said. “Trump’s potential primary competitors’ refusal to condemn Trump for breaking bread with antisemites or wanting to terminate the Constitution is a reminder the Republican Party remains firmly beholden to Trumpism and his extreme positions.”
Colby Itkowitz and Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.