After he lost his reelection bid in November, Donald Trump immediately told allies he planned to run for president again in 2024, preparing to announce as soon as Inauguration Day.
He began backing off the idea after learning that running would require him to release a new round of financial documents that would make him vulnerable to his ongoing criminal and civil investigations and lawsuits, according to two Republicans close to Trump.
Then came last week.
A growing number of Republicans hold Trump responsible for inciting the deadly riots inside the U.S. Capitol Wednesday. The clashes came hours after they blamed Trump for a pair of losses in Georgia that will leave the Senate in Democratic control.
In interviews, more than half a dozen Republicans who had supported or worked for Trump say the president isn’t likely to run again, though he may tease it. If Trump changes his mind again and chooses to run, some said they would urge him not to, while others hope he’d be talked out of it.
“I think nothing is going to happen,” said a Trump friend. “He won’t be around in 2024. He’s not going to run. He’s going to fuck around and say he’s going to run. … He’ll tease. I don’t think he’s ever going to say ‘I won’t run.’ He just won’t run.”
With less than two weeks left in his term, Democrats are calling for Trump’s removal from office, state officials are pressing for criminal charges, allies are dropping their support, and aides and even cabinet officials are abandoning him. His crusade to overturn his clear-cut electoral loss has left the Republican Party — already divided during the Trump presidency — embroiled in a civil war.
“The Republican Party is more divided now than it was two months ago, which is not how it’s supposed to work,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant, who worked for two presidential candidates. “If anything we should be more united now as we get ready to serve as the opposition.”
Those new fractures began when Trump started railing about rigged elections last spring as he anticipated electoral defeat and plotted a strategy to hang onto power. He spent weeks after his loss alleging fraud with scant evidence, pressuring state leaders to overturn the election, threatening Republicans who disobeyed him, and criticizing his ever-loyal vice president Mike Pence.
“The four years of substantial policy accomplishments, whether it be the economy, judges, the Supreme Court, all of that is wiped away by six weeks of extraordinary undisciplined bad behavior that culminated in a day of disgrace at the United States Capitol,” said a national Republican strategist who worked to elect the president.
Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster, described Congress’ certification of the election results on Wednesday as the “opening round of what will be a fight for the soul of the Republican Party.”
Talk of Trump’s conduct prompting a GOP civil war has happened before. But never has it come at a time when the president’s political stature has been so damaged. The party’s base may still be with him. But his capacity to reach them — and, in doing so, intimidate others — took a serious hit on Friday when the major social media platforms either suspended his account indefinitely or kicked him off entirely.
Some Republicans — including those who had defended Trump through controversy after controversy for four chaotic years — had thought with near certainty that Trump would be their standard bearer after he left office, even though he never had much allegiance to the GOP. Not anymore.
“He is not the leader of any Republican Party I recognize,” said Scott Jennings, who worked for President George W. Bush and is close to the Trump White House.
A former Trump aide said the president now “needs to be ostracized and excommunicated from the Republican Party.”
Still, more than 100 House Republicans and a dozen Senate Republicans had signed onto objecting to the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. They don’t blame him for what happened at the Capitol. Nor do some party stalwarts.
“All the people who despise and dislike Donald Trump have looked for every possible reason to smear him,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, who argued that the media was partially to blame for the “outpouring of frustration and rage” by those who rioted. “Biden will be the de facto president. But for 45 percent of the country, he will never be an acceptable president. There will always be a belief this was a corrupt and dishonest election.”
Even those who have turned on Trump know he remains popular with his conservative base, many of whom he brought into the party. Trump received more than 74 million votes in the November election, the second highest number ever next to Biden’s 81 million.
“The problem for the GOP is that every Republican on Capitol Hill needs the support of these protesters — and people like them — for survival,” a senior Trump adviser said. “Unless and until the party can find a message that is more popular with the white working class than Donald Trump, there is no bright future for Republicans.”
Mounting a second act would be difficult for Trump even if he weren’t surrounded by controversy and suspended from his social media accounts. Most recent former presidents have shied away from the limelight after leaving office, in part to allow their successor to govern.
Several presidents have tried to secure a second non-consecutive term, but Grover Cleveland is the only one to succeed, mounting a 1892 comeback after being voted out of office in 1888.
Trump allies say the president hasn’t decided what he will do after he leaves the White House. But he has told them he wants to hold rallies and campaign against Republican candidates who didn’t support his bid to overturn the election, including Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia.
But presidential historians say Trump may find that he fades from political relevance after leaving office, the way former presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush did.
And Trump’s thirst for the political spotlight may fade as well—even if his desire for attention doesn’t. The president’s allies say he had cooled to formally announcing his candidacy for 2024 because running again would require that he disclose financial information, according to two Republicans close to Trump. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and top aide, and Bill Stepien, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, had advised him to take his time.
The Trump Organization is presumed to have lost millions of dollars during the coronavirus outbreak, just before Trump has to pay back $421 million in loans that he guaranteed, much of it to foreign creditors, according to a New York Times examination of Trump’s personal and business tax returns. Meanwhile, New York investigators are examining whether Trump improperly inflated assets, evaded taxes, and paid off women alleging affairs in violation of campaign finance laws.
With such legal drama awaiting him, Trump is expected to keep teasing a presidential run — without actually filing the paperwork or erecting a campaign — to garner the attention he seeks.
“He may not ultimately pull the trigger,” said a former Trump aide who remains close to the White House.
If Trump makes declarative statements about running, purchases campaign ads, or spends more than $5,000 on an actual campaign, he would have to register as a candidate for office. But if he just explores a potential candidacy, he doesn’t have to, so long as he spends less than the legal maximum on things like polling, travel and calls to potential supporters, according to the Federal Elections Commission and election lawyers.
“He’s going to hold it out there long enough for him to be a player,” a former senior administration official said, “and then try to be a powerbroker.”