Trump signals intent to retain grip on Republican Party

America Letter: Former US president’s re-emergence underlines party’s current status

 US president Donald Trump speaks during last year’s  Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbour in Oxon Hill, Maryland. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

US president Donald Trump speaks during last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbour in Oxon Hill, Maryland. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

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More than five weeks after Donald Trump made his final official trip on Air Force One, in which he travelled to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, the former US president will make his first public appearance since leaving office this weekend.

On Sunday, Trump will speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando. CPAC is a highlight of the Republican calendar. Usually held in the outskirts of Washington in Maryland, this year it moved to Florida. 

CPAC president Matt Schlapp – husband of former Trump adviser Mercedes Schlapp – was upfront about the change of venue. The organisers had considered relocating to other cities, including Las Vegas. But the Democratic governor in Nevada “just makes it impossible”, Matt Schlapp told Fox News, “whereas the governor of Florida is doing just the opposite.”

In spite of the Covid-19 pandemic, Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally, has welcomed the conference with open arms. Although face masks will be required at the event, thousands of people will gather for it at Orlando’s Hyatt Regency.

Trump’s appearance at the event is indicative of the current status of the Republican Party as it tries to navigate a post-Trump world.

The former president has kept a relatively low profile since leaving Washington, DC. Banned from Twitter, his only public comments in recent weeks have been phone-ins to conservative TV channels concerning the death of right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh.

But in recent days he has indicated that he is not prepared to allow his grip on the Republican Party to slip. In a blistering statement, he lambasted Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell – the de facto leader of Republicans in the Senate – for delivering a damning speech about Trump following his acquittal in his second impeachment trial.

In addition to calling McConnell a “dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack”, Trump also questioned if McConnell was the right person to be a party leader, saying Republicans “will not win again” if they stick with him. He then threatened to back primary “rivals” who espouse his “Make America Great Again” philosophy in the midterm elections.

Cause for concern

The insinuation by the former president that he plans to be actively involved in Republican politics and strategy, including in next year’s midterms, will concern those Republicans – such as McConnell and representative Liz Cheney – who believe their party needs to reject Trumpism to win.

Though out of the public eye in recent weeks apart from the odd round of golf, Trump has been holding court at Mar-a-Lago. South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham flew to Palm Beach last weekend to talk strategy at the estate. “He’s very involved in helping the team win,” Graham said, confirming that they had discussed the 2022 elections.

Graham’s trip followed a similar pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago by House of Representatives minority leader Kevin McCarthy last month.

Trump, however, declined to meet Nikki Haley, a possible presidential candidate in 2024, after she criticised him in an interview for helping incite the January 6th Capitol Hill riot. She had proposed a visit to Mar-a-Lago, last week.

Trump is expected to speak about the future of the Republican Party in his CPAC address on Sunday. The very fact that he is delivering the closing speech of the conference shows that he continues to dominate the party for now, and is unchastened by his presidential election loss or second impeachment trial. While much of the focus of the Republicans in the immediate term is on next year’s midterm elections, and the role Trump might play there, a bigger question is whether Trump might run again for president in 2024.

Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator to vote twice to impeach Trump, said this week he believes the former president will win the party’s presidential nomination if he decides to run.

Legal battles

An issue that may weigh on Trump’s decision in this regard, however, will be his own legal battles. This week, the former president suffered a significant blow when the supreme court cleared the way for a New York prosecutor to gain access to his tax returns and other financial documents.

New York district attorney Cyrus Vance is pressing ahead with an investigation into Trump’s finances. It follows reports in the New York Times that Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes in his first year as president and no income tax at all in 10 of the previous 15 years.

Trump denounced the investigation in a statement as a “fishing expedition” and “a continuation of the greatest political witch hunt in the history of our country”. “It just never ends!” he added, in his distinctive style. But regardless, a criminal trial of a former US president now looms as a distinct possibility. This, rather than political considerations, may dictate Donald Trump’s next career steps.

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