Donald Trump’s first week out of office ended well. On Tuesday only five Republican senators opposed a motion that declared it unconstitutional to impeach a former president—far from the 17 GOP votes that Democrats would need to find Trump guilty. “He was gratified, because that’s certainly his view: that it’s unfair and unconstitutional, and he knows it means there’s no chance he’ll be convicted,” says a close friend who spends time with Trump in Mar-a-Lago. (This source and several other Trump friends and advisers requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.) Now Citizen Trump feels confident he’ll emerge with a legal and a political win.
Trump has been considering two questions: how to contest the forthcoming Senate trial and how to maintain his political relevance over the next four years. He’s getting differing opinions from family members, friends and advisers. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, former chief White House political strategist Steve Bannon, and a handful of others are pushing him not just to defend against the charge that he incited the January 6th Capitol insurrection, but to use the Senate trial as an opportunity to re-litigate his claims of election fraud in key swing states. “Show everyone the receipts,” is how Bannon puts it, referring to evidence of fraud that the Trump team claims to have.
The camp that favors this combative approach got a boost (in their own view at least) when Trump hired the attorney who will defend him. South Carolina lawyer Butch Bowers was recommended to Trump by Senator Lindsey Graham, a friend and fellow JAG officer. Bowers represented former GOP Governors Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley in impeachment and ethics hearings in Columbia, the state capital. But Bowers is also an election law specialist with a particular focus on legal tests over voter ID. That prompted speculation that Bowers might try to make the case that there was, in fact, significant fraud that affected the election outcome.
Daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, along with friends and informal advisers including Senator Graham, strongly oppose that tack. They believe it will reinforce images of the mob of Trump supporters who had gathered in Washington for a “Stop the Steal” rally. Graham, who has spoken to Trump at least twice since Joe Biden was inaugurated, told him, “You just don’t want to go there,” according to a source with knowledge of the conversation.
This camp believes there are other ways—and plenty of time—to pursue the issue of election-law reform going forward, and they are urging Trump to lead a movement seeking that. In the meantime, they say, Trump should try to contest legally whether the Senate can in fact try a president who has already left office. And then he should simply fight the the impeachment count in the Senate, arguing that at no point did he incite his supporters to violence. His legal team will point out—as his supporters continually have on social media and conservative chat shows—that he asked them to “peacefully and patriotically” march to the Capitol to protest the certification of the electoral college votes.
The “just get on with it” group had been telling Trump that there was no way the Democrats would get the 17 Republican votes needed for conviction, and the Tuesday vote made this argument even stronger. When 45 GOP senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, voted for the motion declaring a Senate trial to be unconstitutional, it effectively meant game over, as even some Democrats privately conceded. “The impeachment trial is dead on arrival,” said Senator Rand Paul, who introduced the motion.
That message, said the Palm Beach friend who has spoken with Trump and his inner circle, has gotten through. “He’ll let Bowers handle the trial in a straightforward way, without litigating the election fraud stuff. The president will be acquitted again, and then he’ll use his two acquittals as a badge of honor with his base.”
And then? Before January 6, Trump was likely to run again in 2024, using the “we was robbed” theme as the starting point for a campaign of revenge. The Capitol riot and the political fallout may have prompted him to rethink, two sources say. When asked by a journalist last week what his plans were for ’24, Trump response was cryptic: “We’ll be back in some form.”
Some of his advisers are pushing him to focus on getting Republican-controlled state legislatures to make sure pandemic-driven election-law changes are not codified going forward—particularly the widespread use of mail-in ballots. Others are skeptical of that idea. “He doesn’t have the attention span to get really deep in the weeds on something like that,” says a friend. “He may do a few rallies, but that effort is going to be up to others.”
Some of his friends have speculated he may try to form a media company—possibly a social media company to compete with Facebook and Twitter, both of which have banned him. But that’s much easier said than done; raising the money and hiring the people necessary to stand up a credible competitor is a lot of work. “There’s this perception among people who are illiterate in business that Trump can just snap his fingers and get stuff done in media or real estate or whatever, but that’s just not so, particularly now,” says a business friend of Trump’s. ”His ‘brand’ has taken a hit, particularly in the areas of media and finance,” says this friend.
Those pushing him to run again for president say the idea that his “brand” has been hurt is nonsense. They point to a recent NBC News poll showing that 87 percent of GOP voters still support him, even after January 6. ”If he’s so damaged, why are the Democrats so worried about his running [in 2024] that they need to impeach him again,” Giuliani asked on his podcast recently. (A conviction in the Senate would preclude Trump from seeking public office again.)
The next election is still a long way off, and the mercurial Trump could change his mind about his political future every day for the next two-and-a-half years. One option that the former president is said to be mulling, according to two of his friends, is to bestow the mantle of ”Trumpism” on someone else. ”Should he not run, could I see him giving his full backing to a Trump-like successor,” says one of the friends. “Sure.”
Who might that be? Until very recently, one name that routinely popped up was former South Carolina Governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley, whom Trump liked. But the former president is said to have been angered by Haley’s appearance on Laura Ingraham‘s television show in late January. Haley criticized Trump not only for his handling of the events of January 6, but also for his attempts to undermine the results of the November election in the preceding two months. That criticism will be seen as an act of disloyalty and probably rules out future Trump support, friends say.
There are other alternatives. Foremost among them, say Trump aides and friends, is the young governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. Like Trump, he gets feisty with the press; like Trump, he not only favored keeping the economy open during the pandemic, but as governor he actually did so. Trump likes DeSantis, admires his combativeness and knows he’s smart: “smart as hell,” says the Florida business friend of Trump’s. (DeSantis is a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School.) Could Trump, should he choose not to run, get behind DeSantis for 2024? ”It’s probably premature to say that,” the friend says, ”but yeah, I’d say, watch that space.”