Republican Party

Trump seeks personal political brand as he grips Republican base

The ex-president has spent his time out of office attacking Republicans who dare to criticize him – and it could cause trouble for the party in the midterms

Donald Trump campaigns in Wisconsin

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POLITICS PRESS GROUP

Days after being acquitted in his second impeachment trial last month, Donald Trump issued a statement lashing out against one of the very Republican senators who made that acquittal possible.

“The Republican party can never again be respected or strong with political ‘leaders’ like Senator Mitch McConnell at its helm,” the former president said in a statement, after the Republican leader criticized him for inciting the 6 January insurrection at the Capitol. Trump added: “Mitch is a dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again.”

But the shocking statement is just one of many colorful examples of how Trump has spent his post-presidency so far: attacking fellow Republicans who dare to criticize him while continuing to promote his personal political brand and his own firm grip on much of the party’s base.

Such antics and behavior could cause trouble for the Republican party, as it attempts to take control of Congress in 2022’s midterm elections by continuing to embrace Trumpism as its guiding philosophy. While party leaders have encouraged Trump to focus on the efforts to flip the House and the Senate, the former president at times seems more interested in extracting revenge against the handful of Republican politicians who supported his impeachment.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) late last month, Trump rattled off the names of each of the 17 Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach or convict him and suggested they should be removed from office. “Get rid of them all,” Trump told the CPAC crowd.

Trump is already putting in effort to unseat those Republicans. The former president has vowed to help defeat Lisa Murkowski next year, attacking the Alaska Republican as “disloyal” after she supported his conviction in the Senate. Trump has also endorsed Max Miller, a former aide who launched a primary challenge against Anthony Gonzalez, one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him.

Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Trump, said the former president would be releasing another round of endorsements in the coming days, including one for a primary challenger running against an incumbent Republican.

“There are upcoming endorsements for folks running for reelection, as well as open seats, as well as, in one case, it will likely be a primary challenge against a sitting Republican,” Miller told the Guardian. “His endorsement is still the single biggest endorsement in politics. He plans on using that.”

Trump’s attacks on “disloyal” Republicans seem to be the latest example of the former president’s vengeful attitude about politics and business, said Michael D’Antonio, the author of the The Truth About Trump.

“He is a person who very much believes in getting even with anyone he believes harmed him,” D’Antonio said. “It’s always a matter of, ‘Are you with me? And if you’re not with me, then you’re against me, and you must be destroyed.’”

Miller emphasized that Trump remains “committed” to working with the party’s committee groups, such as the Republican National Committee (RNC), to elect candidates who support the former president’s “America first” agenda. But Trump has been adamant that anyone using his name or likeness to fundraise must have his pre-approval before doing so.

In a fiery statement released earlier this month, the former president criticized “Rinos,” meaning “Republicans in name only”, for using his likeness to raise money for their campaigns.

“I fully support the Republican party and important GOP committees, but I do not support Rinos and fools, and it is not their right to use my likeness or image to raise funds,” Trump said. “So much money is being raised and completely wasted by people that do not have the GOP’s best interests in mind.”

Trump instead encouraged his supporters to donate to his own political action committee, the Save America Pac. According to Miller, the Pac already has more than $80m in the bank, with about a year and a half to go until the midterm elections.

Trump’s efforts to direct contributions toward his own Pac, where he and his advisers have much more control over how funds are spent, have led to criticism that the former president is more focused on raising money for himself rather than helping the Republican party regain control of Congress.

“He doesn’t want anything to impact his ability to raise money for the super Pac that he has created, so he wants to divert as much cash away from the RNC to that Pac,” said Michael Steele, a former RNC chairman and a frequent Trump critic. “This is all transactional for him. It’s not personal. It’s the next level of financial transactions that Trump wants to engage in.”

Capitalizing off of his political brand may be Trump’s best financial prospect at this point. The Trump Organization’s revenue sharply declined last year, and Trump is personally responsible for $300m in loans that are due over the next four years, according to a New York Times analysis of his tax records. His financial woes come as the Manhattan district attorney has launched an expansive investigation of the Trump Organization’s business dealings.

“If you look at all the peril he faces legally and the near collapse of many of his businesses, he’s looking for a revenue stream, and no dollar amount is too small for him to fight for,” D’Antonio said of Trump’s latest fundraising efforts. “I think that’s his new business.”

The RNC has continued to fundraise off Trump’s name as well, and senior Republicans have generally attempted to downplay any tension between the former president and party leaders, insisting they are united in their goal to push back against Joe Biden’s agenda. “The Republican civil war is now cancelled,” Senator Rick Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a widely shared memo late last month.

Yet, when Scott met with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida earlier this month, the former president would not commit to staying out of Senate primary races. “He didn’t say he was going to,” Scott told CNN on Tuesday, when asked if Trump indicated he would get involved in primary battles. “I’m sure he wants to be helpful, so the best thing for him to do would be to participate in whoever wins the primaries and come back then.”

Scott is one of a number of Republican leaders who have made the journey from Washington to Palm Beach in recent weeks to consult with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. The House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, and the House minority whip, Steve Scalise, have also paid visits to the Florida resort since Trump left the White House.

Even incumbent Republicans, such as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, have traveled to Mar-a-Lago to fundraise and meet with Trump, with the apparent hope to secure an endorsement from the former president and prevent any primary challenges as they seek reelection.

Trump has already endorsed several Senate Republicans up for re-election next year, including Tim Scott of South Carolina and Jerry Moran of Kansas, and Miller said the former president’s next round of endorsements will include more sitting Republican senators.

“Everybody is coming to Mar-a-Lago or trying to get President Trump on the phone to ask for his endorsement,” Miller said.

The widespread efforts to appeal to Trump underscore the massive influence the former president still holds over the Republican party, even after leaving office. But Trump and party leaders may be on a collision course if the former president continues to target incumbents and redirect money toward his own Pac, potentially jeopardizing Republicans’ hopes of taking back Congress.

“They are about to come headlong into each other because their interests don’t align,” Steele said. “Trump is not in the business of expanding the party. He is in the business of having in place people who support him, and he can afford to lose people who don’t support him.”

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