As Biden marks 100 days, Republicans eye Trump for clues on future

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Nearly 100 days into Joe Biden's presidency, predecessor Donald Trump -- twice impeached and accused of fomenting a deadly US Capitol rebellion -- remains a curiously powerful Republican figure, potentially into the 2024 election.

Ensconced in his private Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, Trump has been releasing a stream of statements, opining on policy such as immigration or weighing in on his party, as in his Monday attack on Republicans who fail to support his false claims of 2020's "rigged" vote.

The bombastic real estate tycoon also offers endorsements to conservatives, including those challenging establishment Republicans. And he throws red meat to the base by criticizing Biden's "radical left" Democrats.

Although banned from Twitter, Trump reappeared on Fox News last week, providing a grievance-filled interview in which he complained he was impeached for doing "nothing wrong."

Republicans, meanwhile, have flocked to Mar-a-Lago to seek his counsel or endorsement.

In late February, the 74-year-old made an exultant return to CPAC, the annual conservative political confab where he suggested he might still be the party's future, not its beleaguered recent past.

But Biden's symbolic first 100 days, marked by a calm determination in his fight against the coronavirus pandemic, serves as a reminder of the chaos that gripped Trump's own start, when the American public bristled at his impulsive, take-no-prisoners style.

Complicating matters, a profusion of legal woes awaits the former commander-in-chief now that he has returned to private life, including investigations of his finances and possible allegations of tax evasion and bank fraud.

Yet he has shown no signs of retreating to the shadows.

Despite leaving the GOP in a manifestly weaker position -- it lost the executive branch and the Senate, and failed to reclaim the House -- and ending his term at a dismal 34 percent approval rating, the lowest of his presidency, Trump is still an energy that Republicans ignore at their peril.

"Is he just a faction of the Republican Party, or is he a dominant force?" Elaine Kamarck, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who writes about the American presidency, told AFP.

She and others are looking to a series of primary battles where Trump's influence could be put to the test ahead of any presidential repeat run.

The first proving ground is in Texas's sixth congressional district on Saturday, when a crowded special election will be held to fill the seat of House Republican Ron Wright, who died in February.

Trump on Monday endorsed Wright's widow. The ballot also features a lone anti-Trump Republican who is backed by a political group founded by a vocal Republican Trump enemy, Congressman Adam Kinzinger.

Never to shy away from a political squabble, Trump also has pledged to endorse a Republican who mounts a 2022 challenge to Liz Cheney, a member of House leadership who voted to impeach him in January.

"If he loses primaries, the politicians who watch these things will think that maybe he isn't so scary after all," Kamarck said of Trump.

"And if he wins them, he'll be a force to be reckoned with."

- Tug of war -

Party infighting has been raging, and Trump's effort to influence Republican politics could be a political tripwire.

Following the US Capitol riot, some in the party -- like Kinzinger and Cheney -- are seeking a clear political reset from Trump and Trumpism.

Cheney has warned her colleagues against embracing a cult of personality, particularly after the mayhem of January 6. Earlier this month, she told Fox News that she "would not" support Trump if he were the 2024 nominee.

But while party leaders try to tamp down the voices of extremists in their ranks, they keep popping up.

On Saturday, one day before the GOP opened its first legislative retreat since Trump lost the White House, congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene addressed an "America First" rally where she touted her support for Trump and his false claims of election fraud.

"Thank you for staying loyal to our president, Donald J Trump," she told the crowd. "We still have to make America great again."

Greene is one of Congress's most vocal advocates of Trumpism, and she and fellow loyalists are eager to elevate either Trump himself -- or an acolyte, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri -- as their party's 2024 nominee.

Republicans are in a "pro-Trump and anti-Trump" tug-of-war, with "a lot of people hiding and hoping they don't get tagged either way," said Kamarck, the Brookings expert.

"We'll know better in 2022 how strong he really is."

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