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But the sustaining truism of the ex-President’s riotous political career — not to mention a tumultuous personal and business life — might at least be worth revisiting given staggering revelations this week about his conduct in his final days in office.
Trump has weathered everything anyone could throw at a president, including sexual assault allegations and accusations of profiting from his office. He saw aides jailed for corruption, coddled tyrants and threw tantrums on the world stage. History will remember him as the only President to be impeached twice. He left office in disgrace after effectively inciting a coup in a bid to steal an election he lost and nearly shattered America’s traditions of peaceful transfers of power.
Despite all that, Trump’s Teflon reputation has some serious people thinking he could end up in the Oval Office again after 2024 — especially given a brutal political environment hampering Democrats and President Joe Biden’s reeling approval ratings.
That assumption has now become more complicated.
The House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection has painted a horrendous picture of Trump’s attempts to defy the will of voters and incitement of the most violent attack on democracy in modern US history.
As the committee’s vice chair, GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, put it on Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, “We are confronting a domestic threat that we have never faced before — and that is a former President who is attempting to unravel the foundations of our constitutional republic.”
“And he is aided by Republican leaders and elected officials who have made themselves willing hostages to this dangerous and irrational man,” the Wyoming Republican added.
Her comments followed testimony on Tuesday from ex-West Wing aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who said in a televised hearing that Trump threw his lunch plate against a wall, agreed with rioters who wanted then-Vice President Mike Pence hanged and knew some insurrectionists were armed but didn’t care.
The possibility is growing that things will get even worse for Trump in the coming days. On Wednesday evening, the committee subpoenaed former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who Hutchinson said pushed back against the President’s lawlessness.
The committee is not a court, and its made-for-television narrative lacks basic ingredients of legal proceedings — like cross examining of witnesses to test the credibility of testimony. But its devastating portrait of a President raging out of control and trampling the institutions of US governance that have endured for more than 200 years, still begs this question: Are Americans likely to put such a man back in the Oval Office?
There are two broad approaches to this question. The first involves Trump’s position within the Republican Party. The second centers on how the last few weeks have affected his already questionable appeal to a national electorate.
Trump’s staying power
Despite his staggering litany of scandals, Trump remains the driving force in the Republican Party — and most handicappers see him as a strong favorite for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2024. The ex-President’s almost mystical connection with grassroots conservative voters appears intact. He still fills rallies, most recently in Illinois last weekend.
If the midterm elections produce a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, it may be one in Trump’s image. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s speakership dreams rely on Trump’s favor, which is one reason he has spent 17 months whitewashing the former President’s role in the disaster that unfolded after the last election.
Yet CNN’s Melanie Zanona reported after Tuesday’s hearing with Hutchinson that there is a growing realization from senior House Republicans that Trump could face political or legal problems because of the powerful testimony to the House committee.
One senior House Republican, who did not back Trump’s second impeachment, warned that Hutchinson’s testimony would lead to indictments, despite attacks on the credibility of her second-hand story, told under oath, that Trump had tried to grab the steering wheel and a Secret Service agent in his armored SUV on January 6 because he wanted to go to the Capitol.
One Trump adviser said Tuesday’s hearing amounted to a “bombshell” and advanced the view that it could even hurt the former President with his base, telling CNN’s Gabby Orr and Pamela Brown that Trump’s unhinged conduct would damage the perception held among base voters that he’s always under control.
Still, the fact that Republicans shocked by these events aren’t willing to convey their feelings publicly, and the silence of the House GOP leadership, told a story about Trump’s enduring power in the party. Even if his image is dented, Republicans who want a political future still won’t cross him.
For Trump, there are several reasons why a 2024 campaign announcement sooner or later might make sense, even after this week’s extraordinary testimony.
To start, the ex-President might want to stop potential GOP rivals, including Pence, from gaining traction. And it would be easier for Trump to portray any potential charges against him as politically motivated if he’s already launched a campaign.
Any other politician accused of a fraction of Trump’s malfeasance wouldn’t have a political future. But the ex-President’s outrageous behavior and willingness to torch institutions is central to his appeal.
Tim Miller, a former Republican operative who broke with his party over Trump, explained after Hutchinson’s testimony that the incentive structure for GOP politicians to avoid standing up to Trump remains firmly in place.
“They have decided that the game and staying within their social circle and owning the libs is more important than doing the right thing for the country,” Miller said on CNN on Tuesday.
“The reason they can get away with it is that is what Republican voters want. Republican voters want to have their grievances and biases reinforced and politicians who give it to them are going to be rewarded,” added Miller, author of a new book, “Why We Did It: A Travelogue From the Republican Road to Hell.”
Yet as the first stirrings of the 2024 Republican presidential campaign begin ahead of the midterm elections in November, it’s not a given that a broader Republican coalition is ready to sign up for another season of the Trump show.
While Trump’s wildness is an important factor to his appeal, there are Republicans who may be even more effective at implementing his populist, “America first” agenda with a side of culture war issues. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, knows the value of attacking the media and hitting issues like transgender rights, the teaching of race in schools and dismantling Covid-19 protocols when it comes to riling up Trump’s base. But he also brings relative discipline to the wielding of executive power, which the former President has always lacked.
A clutch of GOP senators like Josh Hawley of Missouri or Tom Cotton of Arkansas could offer their own hardline visions of conservatism and culture warfare. And Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who won the governors mansion in a state Biden had carried by 10 points just a year earlier, pioneered a new brand of conservatism at arm’s length from Trump.
One of these candidates could shape a message that looks to the future — usually an ingredient of winning campaigns — rather than wallowing in the paranoia of Trump’s stolen election claims. The Supreme Court’s recent decisions — like overturning the constitutional right to an abortion and loosening gun laws — directly highlight Trump’s legacy, which would be a powerful argument to GOP voters for him to return to power, if he ever stopped drowning out those accomplishments with whining about the last presidential election.
It’s too early to say how this will play out in a potential 2024 primary. But a recent poll in New Hampshire showing DeSantis gaining ground among likely GOP voters in the first-in-the-nation primary state caused a real stir in Republican politics.
Still, Trump has something his potential GOP rivals lack — a magnetism and bond with base conservative voters that he used to take down opponents in the 2016 primary and GOP apostates when he was in the White House.
The main insight of the 2022 campaign season so far is that there may be more able messengers for Trump’s signature political creed. But for their own political futures, any GOP hopeful who comes at the king in 2024 best not miss.
There are a few hints that some Republican voters are beginning to tire of Trump’s relentless focus on the last election.
Many of the Senate candidates he’s thrown his weight behind have prevailed in primaries so far this year, although some didn’t receive his backing until they were poised for victory. But Trump’s elaborate effort to unseat Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans who blocked his bid to steal the election in their state, was an embarrassing failure. And in Colorado on Tuesday night, Republican voters rejected three election deniers running for statewide office.
Still the election lie bandwagon has not totally stalled. Pennsylvania Republican voters selected an arch election denier, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, as their gubernatorial nominee. And in Nevada, Jim Marchant, a vocal proponent of election lies, won the GOP nomination for secretary of state, potentially setting him up to oversee the state’s 2024 elections should he win in November.
While conservative media may be shielding viewers from the full impact of the committee hearings, the picture of an out-of-control ex-President is likely to further damage him among more moderate voters who, after all, rejected him before the Capitol insurrection and his attempt to steal power.
But of course, elections do not take place in a vacuum. If he is the Republican nominee — and Biden goes ahead with this vow to seek reelection — Trump would be running against an opponent who is already attracting doubts because of his age. Biden will be 81 in November 2024. Trump will be slightly younger at age 78. With the current President’s approval ratings below 40% and Americans frustrated by high inflation and record gas prices, the GOP nominee, whoever it is, could have a strong chance of victory if conditions don’t improve.
Suburban voters, who turned away from Trump in 2020, are hurting badly — even if an alternative Republican might be better placed to win them back.
For now, those hoping to bar Trump from a return to power have been enormously helped by the select committee and its ever more powerful case that he’s unfit for office.
“Republicans cannot both be loyal to Donald Trump and loyal to the Constitution,” Cheney said in California, challenging her own party to reject Trump once and for all.