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Donald Trump was forced to confront his drastically diminished online presence this week, as a two-year suspension from Facebook for inciting the Capitol attack followed the closure of his blog, an endeavour which failed to attract an audience.
Nonetheless, the former president was poised to return to the public arena on Saturday night, with a speech to the North Carolina Republican convention in Greenville.
Trump, who will be 75 on 14 June, was impeached for inciting the Capitol attack as part of his lie that his electoral defeat was the result of mass fraud. He was acquitted thanks to Republican supporters in Congress, who also blocked a bipartisan investigation of 6 January, and remains eligible to run for office again. The former president is reportedly due to hold rallies this summer in other keenly contested states, Florida and Georgia among them.
In Arizona, meanwhile, emails were released on Friday in which the Republican president of the state senate said Trump called her after his defeat by Joe Biden in November, to thank her “for pushing to prove any fraud”.
The emails add to understanding of the evolution of Trump’s “big lie” about supposed electoral fraud, and how that lie stoked both a controversial election audit in Arizona and the deadly Capitol assault.
Beating Twitter to the punch by a day, Facebook suspended Trump on 7 January, the day after the Capitol attack. On Friday, it announced that it would follow the recommendation of its independent oversight board.
“Given the gravity of the circumstances that led to Mr Trump’s suspension, we believe his actions constituted a severe violation of our rules which merit the highest penalty available under the new enforcement protocols,” said Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice-president of global affairs.
Suspension from Facebook would be a devastating sucker-punch for most politicians with national ambitions – it is a key platform for fundraising as well as attempts to persuade. But Trump’s response seemed to tease his return.
“Next time I’m in the White House there will be no more dinners, at his request, with Mark Zuckerberg and his wife,” Trump said. “It will be all business!”
It was also widely reported that Trump believes he will be reinstated to the White House by August, when electoral fraud is proven. Analysts call that a fantasy.
The reality of Trump’s ambition to return may be about to be tested. The New York Times reported on Saturday that his political operation has shrunk “to a ragtag team of former advisers … reminiscent of the bare-bones cast of characters that helped lift a political neophyte to his unlikely victory in 2016”.
Most such advisers, the Times said, “go days or weeks without interacting with Mr Trump in person”.
Trump’s public appeal also seems to have waned. Though he currently travels to Manhattan from his New Jersey golf club to work out of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue “at least once a week”, the Times said, his commute draws scant attention. In his office, he is “mostly alone, with two assistants and a few body men”. He no longer has the company of longtime cronies, staffers or his children, the Times said.
It was not clear what Trump planned to say in North Carolina, although an adviser, Jason Miller, this week trailed attacks on Dr Anthony Fauci, the senior public health official who was regularly at odds with Trump and who Republicans across the US have pilloried for his role in the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Most polling shows that Trump’s hold on the Republican party is strong, making him, as the Times noted, “the frontrunner for the presidential nomination in 2024”.
Revelations about his communications with Republicans in Arizona will enthuse supporters and enrage opponents. The emails obtained by American Oversight, a legal watchdog, and released on Friday showed how Trump and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, pushed officials to act and how a controversial election audit in Arizona’s most populous county came to be set up.
Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia are prominent among states which produced Biden victories Trump and his supporters insist were won by fraud. They were not.
Election day was 3 November. Biden was declared the winner four days later, by more than 7m votes and by 306-232 in the electoral college, the score by which Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, a result Trump called a landslide.
Regardless, Trump went on the offensive with a frantic legal effort led by Giuliani and almost entirely laughed out of court.
In one email released on Friday, dated 2 December, Karen Fann, the president of the Arizona state senate, told two constituents she had spoken to Giuliani “at least six times over the past two weeks”.
Threatened later in the month with being recalled by “the new patriot movement of the United States”, Fann wrote that the state senate was “doing everything legally possible to get the forensic audit done”.
Republicans in Maricopa county mounted an audit of ballots. Most analysts view the audit as part of concerted attempts by Republicans in state governments to restrict access to voting or produce laws by which results can be overturned.
In the emails released by American Oversight, Fann told the constituent threatening action she had been “in numerous conversations with Rudy Guiliani [sic] over the past weeks trying to get this done”.
She added: “I have the full support of him and a personal call from President Trump thanking us for pushing to prove any fraud.”
Fann also told a constituent concerned about the use of taxpayers’ money: “Biden won. 45% of all Arizona voters think there is a problem with the election system. The audit is to disprove those theories or find ways to improve the system.”
Another rightwing network, Newsmax, has said it will show Trump’s return to public speaking on Saturday.