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When Donald Trump unloaded on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over the weekend, it harkened back to the glory days of his presidency, when his bombastic speeches would generate headlines and dominate the news cycle.
Trump’s remarks came after a series of months in which he has been relatively quiet. Since January 20, Trump has granted the occasional interview, made the occasional speech, and issued the occasional statement — a roundabout way of getting past the social-media bans enacted after the January 6 Capitol riot. But by and large, Trump has been a peripheral figure since leaving office. He doesn’t dominate the headlines, he hasn’t embraced the “leader of the opposition” role many thought he might, and he hasn’t announced a 2024 candidacy.
While it’s impossible to say right now if Trump will make a third attempt at the White House, he does not have to run in order to maintain influence. He has already made it clear that playing kingmaker in races big and small seems to be of great interest to him. At the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, Trump implored the crowd to donate to his Save America PAC. And he continues to take aim at figures he believes betrayed him in the aftermath of his election defeat.
Then came this weekend, when at the Republican National Committee meeting, Trump blasted GOP leaders who didn’t support his effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. He called McConnell a “dumb son of a b****” and said of his own vice president, “I wish that Mike Pence had the courage to send it back to the legislatures.”
The message is clear: With both his money and his mouth, Trump intends on shaping the direction of the party.
To start, if Trump doesn’t run, his will be the most coveted endorsement of the cycle. Every candidate with a chance of securing the nomination will at least pay lip service to Trump’s achievements in office, which are not insignificant. Few, if any, will make meaningful critiques of his character faults — also not insignificant.
In this scenario, and if the primary were to begin tomorrow, Florida governor Ron DeSantis would begin the race as the favorite: He boasts conservative credentials, executive experience, and all the right enemies. Most importantly, he appeals to both Trump’s most ardent supporters and loudest critics.
If Joe Biden continues to govern as progressive with a mandate instead of the unifying moderate he ran as, Republicans have a real shot at reclaiming the White House a few years from now. Particularly if they nominate DeSantis or another candidate with the savvy to bring together the GOP’s myriad factions.
But Trump’s involvement would present Republican contenders with a difficult choice – do they explicitly reject his unrelenting claims that the election was stolen, or do they indulge him? Dismissing the stolen-election narrative would be sure to incur Trump’s wrath and alienate primary voters who agree with him. Yet any Republican who embraces Trump’s claims would feel repercussions with Republican-leaners and independents in the suburbs who were horrified by the aftermath of the 2020 race.
Since there is no way for any 2024 candidate to avoid this question, it would be better for the GOP, institutionally and individually, to begin distancing itself from “Stop the Steal” now rather than later.