And some former allies of Trump, as well as some Trump voters, have expressed a desire for a different 2024 Republican standard-bearer — most specifically, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has privately indicated he plans to seek the White House.
Trump — who stoked an insurrection trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election and is running again in 2024 — finds himself in growing peril, both legal and political. Multiple investigations into him and his actions are entering advanced stages, all while many in the Republican Party — in private conservations and public declarations — are increasingly trying to find an alternative to him.
On Friday, former Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), one of Trump’s earliest backers in 2016, took to Twitter to say that he and Tom Marino, another former Republican representative from Pennsylvania, were urging DeSantis to formally enter the presidential fray.
“More than ever our country needs strong leadership, someone that gets things done & isn’t afraid to stand up for what’s right,” Barletta wrote. “So Tom Marino & I are calling on our former colleague @RonDeSantisFL to run for president in 2024. Come on Ron, your country needs you! #NeverBackDown.”
On Thursday, a new pro-DeSantis super PAC, Never Back Down, also disclosed that it will be led by Ken Cuccinelli, a former Trump administration official. In a statement, Cuccinelli touted DeSantis as “a fighter with a winning conservative track record” with the ability to marshal “an unmatched grassroots political army.”
Yet for Trump — who since entering politics in 2015 has proven to have more lives than even the luckiest of felines — the latest developments could also prove little more than distractions that don’t fundamentally undermine his support among much of the Republican base.
The status of key investigations involving Donald Trump
“The theory that Trump defined and validated throughout his political career has been the 5th Avenue Republican theory, which is that he could do anything — he could shoot anybody on 5th Avenue and they would stick with him,” said Kevin Madden, a senior adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “That’s going to be put to the test, but so far it has proven to be an enduring principle.”
As Trump enters yet another period of peak vulnerability in a career full of them, Madden added, the real question is whether one of his potential 2024 Republican rivals will use the opportunity to deliver a knockout blow.
“It remains to be seen whether or not they seize this moment and decide they want to wrestle the leadership mantle of the party away from him,” Madden said.
Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist, was more blunt: “If the primary and caucuses were held today, Donald Trump is still going to be the nominee of the party,” he said.
Documents show that Trump’s PAC has spent more than $10 million on lawyers on various probes, which stretch from Georgia to Washington to New York. Some of his top advisers are still expected to appear in front of a grand jury in the federal investigation into the possible mishandling of classified documents and obstruction of justice. And prosecutors probing Trump’s role in the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol have quizzed witnesses about a number of Trump’s lawyers, along with Trump’s own actions, The Washington Post has reported.
Two Trump advisers, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal details, said his lawyers regularly brief him on the various cases, and Trump also keeps tabs on which of his advisers are appearing before the two grand juries in Washington. From his Mar-a-Lago Club, Trump regularly complains about Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith, who is leading the federal probes into Trump’s mishandling of classified documents, as well as the run-up to Jan. 6.
Smith, one top Trump adviser said, has interviewed many of Trump’s allies and advisers several times, which the former president’s team views as overly aggressive. “It has him on edge and a lot of people around him on edge,” this person said.
Some on Trump’s team are preparing for the likelihood that he is indicted within a month, two advisers said, and that they have to run a campaign while he is facing charges. “You think about Georgia and New York in particular,” one of the advisers said Friday. “You could see charges in both places, and he could be on trial while running for president.”
Still, Trump believes he can cast the various investigations as “political witch hunts” and continue to run for president, several advisers added. Appearing at the Conservative Political Action Conference just outside of Washington on March 4, Trump said he would “absolutely” stay in the 2024 race if he was indicted.
“President Trump is leading by wide margins in poll after poll, and there is nobody else who can generate the type of enthusiasm and excitement like he can,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement. “Despite out-of-control Democrats trying to influence an election by engaging in bogus witch-hunts, their efforts will not stop this movement or the American people from returning President Trump to the White House.”
Trump’s lawyers were furious Thursday night when the news broke that the Manhattan district attorney had invited Trump to appear next week before a grand jury, and that the district attorney is proceeding with a case that many in the former president’s orbit believe is weak, two Trump advisers said.
Trump’s advisers and lawyers have privately warned Trump that testifying in the New York probe is inadvisable, with one top adviser adding there is “no way” Trump will testify.
But, this person added, the latest legal maneuverings have not gone unnoticed by Trump and his team. “We all live in a constant state of worry,” this person said. “This is just something else. What are you going to do about it?”
On Monday, Trump’s former personal attorney and confidant, Michael Cohen, is expected to testify in front of the grand jury hearing evidence about hush money given to adult film actress Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election, a person with knowledge of the case planning confirmed. That person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a confidential matter.
In the Georgia probe, meanwhile, Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) said in January that charging decisions in the case are “imminent.” Emily Kohrs, forewoman of a special purpose grand jury charged with investigating the matter, told reporters last month the panel had recommended multiple indictments to Willis — though she declined to say whether Trump was among them, citing a judge’s request to keep specific findings private until prosecutors decide whether to file charges.
“There may be some names on that list that you wouldn’t expect,” Kohrs told CNN. “But the big name that everyone keeps asking me about — I don’t think you will be shocked.”
Politically, Trump is also facing a perilous moment. DeSantis, who has not yet announced an official campaign, traveled to Iowa on Friday to introduce himself to voters there. Hundreds of people arrived Friday morning to his first event at a resort casino in Davenport — where Trump will travel Monday for what his team is billing as a speech on education.
DeSantis’s new book, “The Courage To Be Free,” also reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list, displacing Prince Harry’s memoir from the top of the nonfiction category.
And a new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll found Trump’s support is weaker in the early caucus state than it was two years ago, with 47 percent of Iowa Republicans saying they would definitely vote for him in the 2024 general election if he was the Republican nominee — down 22 points from June 2021, when 69 percent said the same.
Trump’s grip on the Republican base is slipping — even among his fans
Even among his fans, Trump’s grip on his base seems to be slipping, with some supporters saying they are interested in finding a new party standard-bearer, Post interviews with more than 150 Republican voters in five pivotal early voting states found.
Yet Trump advisers and outside strategists say that, at least in the short term, the legal probes into Trump are unlikely to hurt his support among the Republican base — and could even help boost it, if voters feel he is being unfairly attacked.
Rob Kelner, a prominent Republican lawyer who has frequently been a Trump critic, warned that “going after a former president needs to be extremely buttoned up and needs to come across as nonpolitical and objective” and worried that the Manhattan investigation does not meet that standard.
“Any case has to pass the American public’s smell test, and this doesn’t pass the smell test to me,” Kelner said.
Stuart Stevens, a former Republican consultant who now serves as an adviser to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said that far from being politically wounded, Trump could perhaps emerge from the various investigations buoyed.
“It’s impossible to know what will happen legally, but the reaction of the majority of Republican Party voters who will participate in the primary will be that this proves that Trump is being persecuted, and they have to vote for him, otherwise they’ll be voting for the ‘deep state,’” Stevens said. “I think it will help Trump in the primary situation.”
Shayna Jacobs contributed to this report from New York. Scott Clement contributed to this report from Washington.
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