PALM BEACH, Fla. — He promised to put an American flag on Mars and to execute drug dealers. He joked about climate change and reminisced about his warm relationship with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
For former President Donald Trump — given to lengthy asides about yacht parties or toilet hydraulics — his 2024 presidential announcement was something of a relatively sober policy address, even if it included his typical litany of falsehoods, exaggerations and non sequiturs.
Most notably, Trump refrained from promoting lies about the 2020 election having been “rigged” against him. He had made backing of those claims an all but necessary condition for anyone seeking his support, and persisted in this even as most Republicans concluded long ago that the former president’s obsessive relitigation of his defeat to Joe Biden was only harming their party.
On Tuesday night, speaking mostly from prepared remarks, Trump showed a measure of discipline not seen since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when his regular briefings from the White House press room had about them a disconcertingly normal air, leaving some to wonder if the crisis had transformed him.
It had not. As March turned into April in 2020, and the pandemic showed no sign of abating, Trump grew impatient and was back to attacking journalists, maligning public health restrictions and peddling dubious claims. He rarely listens to outside counsel for long (if he listens at all), and there are plenty of reasons to believe he will soon be delving into conspiracy theories about ballot boxes stuffed in the middle of the night and electronic servers recovered in Germany.
After all, it is only a natural consequence of his insistence on the claim that he did not lose the 2020 election that some of his more vocal supporters want him to keep pressing the issue. “America wants him to run for president, because he is still our real president,” MyPillow founder Mike Lindell, a prominent election denier and Trump backer, told Yahoo News on Tuesday night. “He won the 2020 election.”
At its inception, however, the campaign appeared to recognize that an attachment to 2020 would hurt his candidacy come Election Day 2024 — should his candidacy survive until then. Trump called Biden’s presidency a “pause,” one he falsely suggested had been abetted by “very active” Chinese electoral meddling. But he otherwise downplayed the issue he had been hammering home for two years.
Tuesday’s speech can thus be seen as an attempt to consolidate and win back support at a time when his support is fleeing — and also to energize his core supporters with the promise of a carnivalesque campaign that captures the renegade feel of his first maverick try at the White House. “I think it’s going to be very similar to 2016,” the longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone told Yahoo News ahead of Tuesday’s speech. “Trump has never had trouble remaining interesting.”
Others involved in the campaign stressed that Trump’s speech — and, presumably, the ensuing campaign — would look to the future, not the past. Instead of dwelling on 2020, he would describe what has happened since, and how Biden has — as a senior campaign adviser put it — turned the United States into a “sad, horrible, feckless place,” a charge similar to the one Trump made against President Barack Obama in his 2015 announcement.
At least for one evening, that prediction held. Although Trump’s Mar-a-Lago speech may have lacked some of the madcap energy of his 2016 campaign rallies, the former president was performing an act of complex political acrobatics — an act that will play out in the coming months and may eventually determine who emerges as the Republicans’ presidential nominee.
With the GOP increasingly looking for a new standard-bearer, Trump had to do everything in his power to convince his fellow Republicans that he was not a saboteur, and to stanch a severe bleed that has seen donors and media outlets flock to Ron DeSantis since the Florida governor’s commanding win for reelection less than two weeks ago.
By the time Trump finished speaking on Tuesday night, that trend had hardly been reversed — but there were a few encouraging signals for his nascent presidential campaign.
“If President Trump continues this tone and delivers this message on a consistent basis, he will be hard to beat,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wrote on Twitter. Most reviews of the speech were markedly more negative, but praise from a senior Republican was a signal, however faint, that Trump was on the right track.
“Trump got his mojo back,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, once a GOP candidate for the presidency, declared.
There were far more detractors, however. The current governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, also a Republican, tweeted: “Trump is correct on Biden’s failures, but his self-indulging message promoting anger has not changed. It didn’t work in 2022 and won’t work in 2024. There are better choices.”
Trump’s own daughter Ivanka, a senior White House adviser in his administration, declared on Tuesday night that she wanted nothing to do with his third presidential run. Influential Republican donors like Ken Griffin and Stephen Schwarzman have said they will no longer support Trump.
“I’d like to think that the Republican Party is ready to move on from somebody who has been for this party a three-time loser,” Griffin said at an economic forum in Singapore. He appeared to be including in this tally the GOP losses of the 2020 presidential election, the two Senate seats in Georgia soon after, and the midterms.
Trump will eventually need their help, especially if next year’s Republican primary is a protracted, grueling affair, as presidential party contests often are. For now, however, criticism of Trump from influential financiers may actually help restore some of the anti-elite fervor that helped him overcome more than a dozen primary competitors in 2016.
“The media, the corporate elites, and political establishment has all moved in unison against Donald Trump at their own peril,” an adviser told NBC News. “It’s like they want to re-create 2015-2016. Let them. We are doing it again. Buckle up.”
A former occupant of the White House cannot exactly purport to be an outsider, although Trump certainly tried to claim that mantle on Tuesday, promising to challenge the “corrupt forces and entrenched interests” in Washington. “This will not be my campaign,” he said. “This will be our campaign.”
But how many supporters are left to power him to victory?
Their number appears to be shrinking as the pool of potential primary challengers grows. Some recent polls have shown DeSantis opening a lead in early primary states, like New Hampshire and Iowa. Nor is there any indication that the primary contest will be a choice between only two candidates. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who has been promoting his new book with a CNN town hall and other events, is positioning himself as an elder statesman of deep piety and patriotism. Other possible candidates include Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
“I think we’ll have better choices than my old running mate,” Pence said to CNN’s Jake Tapper when asked whether he would support Trump’s candidacy.
Furthermore, conservative media outlets are singularly aligned against Trump, with Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post — all owned by Rupert Murdoch — by turns mocking, criticizing or simply ignoring Trump’s third bid for the White House. Now it is DeSantis who is enjoying media adulation, as well as an aura of inevitability, which carries its own problems.
It doesn’t help that the former president is mired in several criminal investigations having to do with his company’s finances, his handling of presidential records and his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Yet on Tuesday, Trump turned the threat that he might be indicted into evidence for his argument that elite institutions are aligned against his return.
“I’m a victim,” he said at one point during his announcement speech, an incongruous statement delivered from the sumptuously gilded ballroom of his South Florida resort.
Trump’s advisers are quick to point out that plenty of conservative outlets criticized him when he first launched his long-shot bid for the presidency in 2015. Rare was the Republican in Washington who endorsed him. “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed,” Graham said in early 2016, only to become one of his closest allies soon after.
“Against Trump,” read the cover of a 2016 National Review issue devoted to describing him as a “menace” to the conservative principles the magazine espouses. After his first year in office, however, the National Review was praising his “impressive record of achievement.” By then, Murdoch’s once skeptical outlets were all firmly in Trump’s camp, where they would remain until 2021.
"It's very probable that that pattern will happen again here. They'll all come back to him if the voters stay with him,” says Joe Walsh, R-Ill., the former congressman who hosts the "White Flag" podcast. In a telephone interview, Walsh estimated that about 38% of the Republican electorate is made up of “hard-core” Trump supporters who will follow him to the exclusion of any other candidate. Another 20%, he argued, are willing to entertain other options but will grudgingly back Trump if he emerges as the frontrunner.
“The voters don't leave Trump," Walsh says. If they stay with him, donors and establishment figures may find themselves deprived of feasible alternatives. “They follow.”
Advisers to the former president are operating under the same conviction. While there was some bravado on display at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday night, it was tinged with the recognition that Trump has been tarnished less by what he did as president — most Republicans continue to support his policies — than by his refusal to concede, after Nov. 7, 2020, that the presidency would no longer be his.
Several high-profile candidates who supported Trump’s election conspiracy theories — Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, Kari Lake and Blake Masters in Arizona, Mehmet Oz and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, J.R. Majewski in Ohio — lost in last week’s midterms elections, fueling the anti-Trump narrative from the conservative establishment. DeSantis, who has never fully endorsed or rejected Trump’s election-focused lies, provided a ready alternative with his own victory, including in the historically Democratic strongholds of South Florida.
On Tuesday, Trump offered a typical attempt at reorganizing reality around his own imperatives. "In the midterms, my endorsement success rate was 232 wins and only 22 losses. You don‘t hear that from the media,” he said, citing an inflated statistic that included dozens of races whose outcome was effectively predetermined by electorates that were heavily Republican. He also told his supporters to vote for Republican candidate Herschel Walker in next month’s runoff for a Senate seat in Georgia.
Even in a state like New Hampshire, Trump supporters can spot a measure of encouragement. Inarguably, a more polished, centrist candidate could have succeeded where Bolduc failed in wresting a Senate seat from the Democratic incumbent, Maggie Hassan. Yet the defeat of a Trump-endorsed candidate may not say all that much about Trump’s own prospects.
"It's Groundhog Day,” one person closely affiliated with the Trump campaign told Yahoo News. “The Murdochs hate Trump, and the National Review is standing athwart Donald. Well, if we are also going to repeat 2016 — let me remind you that Trump's first primary victory in New Hampshire was with 35% of the vote. These head-to-head polls showing him hovering around 40% support give me no reason to worry."
Trump is now preparing to court conservatives again, with two events scheduled this week and next, according to the Daily Caller. Sitting governors like DeSantis and Youngkin are unlikely to announce for several more months, potentially leaving the campaign trail, at least officially, to Trump.
Former Fox News host Megyn Kelly — who was subjected to sexist insults from Trump after the first primary debate of the 2016 election — believes that even candidates as seemingly formidable as DeSantis won’t make much of a difference in the end, because of the loyalty Trump engenders among his supporters.
“Those voters are not Republicans; they’re Trumplicans,” she told an Australian news outlet. “They’re not just going to meander over to DeSantis because he’s the latest, sexiest flavor. They love Trump.”