WASHINGTON — The Trump train is stuck in the station, and it was weighed down Tuesday with the new baggage of corporate tax-fraud convictions and a final midterm defeat.
In the three weeks since former President Donald Trump launched his comeback bid from a ballroom of his Mar-a-Lago club, he has exhibited little of the energy that made him a force in national politics, but many of the behaviors that led voters to oust him two years ago, according to Republican strategists.
During his short campaign, Trump has dominated headlines by dining with the rapper Ye, who has gone on antisemitic tirades in recent weeks, and the white nationalist Nick Fuentes. More recently, Trump advocated for the “termination” of articles of the Constitution as a means to overturn his 2020 defeat.
Two Trump companies were found guilty of criminal tax fraud in a New York court Tuesday. He also watched helplessly in recent days as courts handed his tax records to Congress, dragged his White House lawyers before a grand jury and facilitated an investigation into his removal of classified documents from the White House.
And on Tuesday night, Herschel Walker’s loss in a Georgia Senate runoff added an exclamation point to the argument that Trump hurt the GOP by picking a bad crop of candidates in swing states. Trump's Monday tele-rally for Walker didn't provide the necessary boost.
“Frankly, he should have waited [to launch his campaign until] after the Georgia contest was decided,” said Michael Biundo, a national Republican strategist who served as an adviser to Trump in 2016 and is based in New Hampshire, which is scheduled to host the first GOP primary. “To me, the rollout seemed rushed and incomplete. I give it a D-minus.”
Biundo’s observation is widely shared across the GOP and even among some Trump confidants. But there’s also a latent belief among many Republicans that Trump has an almost magical grip on party faithful who just don’t care what the elites think.
“The stuff you’re seeing on the news or the influencer-types on Twitter, you’re not seeing that on the ground with Trump,” said Wes Donehue, a top Republican digital strategist from South Carolina, which holds the first primary in the South.
“Trump still controls the Republican Party with everyone I talk to, whether it’s people in county parties or just conservatives at the bar or guys at the gym,” he said. “People are ignoring the media, the influencers, and it’s just Trump’s to lose. South Carolina is Trump country. People like Trump a lot here. And they like [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis. They just think he’s the future, but Trump is the present.”
Still, Trump hasn’t offered much in the way of a new vision for the country. He has neither blitzed the country with his trademark rallies nor, GOP insiders say, left prospective rivals for the 2024 presidential nomination quaking in his wake. There are small signs that fellow Republicans, including prospective challengers, are more willing to criticize Trump, as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and others did over his remarks on the Constitution.
“I’ve watched the other party really erode many of the constitutional principles that I hold dear, and, as Republicans, we should not contribute to this,” Youngkin said at a Wall Street Journal conference Tuesday. “I think our job is to defend and protect the Constitution.”
Despite the indirect reproach, however, Youngkin avoided answering the specific question he was asked: whether Trump had disqualified himself as a Republican Party nominee for president.
But if Trump had hoped to scare away challengers, his sputtering launch could do the opposite, according to a senior official on Trump’s 2020 campaign.
“The design of this was to come out, be the front-runner and scare everyone out, and all the last few weeks have done is encourage donors and voters to go window-shopping,” the source, who did not want to publicly criticize the de facto party leader, said. “This is the problem with coming out this early and not being strong: All it does is force people to look for other options.”
DeSantis is now more popular among Trump’s 2020 supporters than Trump, according to a survey conducted by the firm WPA Intelligence as part of a review of the midterm elections. The poll found that DeSantis’ net favorability among Trump voters is plus-69, while Trump’s is plus-44. A narrow plurality of Republicans — 40 percent to 37 percent — said Trump should no longer be seen as the leader and face of the GOP.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, currently on a tour for his book “So Help Me God,” is looking at a 2024 bid, as are a string of former Trumpworld figures and anti-Trump Republicans. John Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security adviser, told NBC’s Kristen Welker on Monday that he would consider running to stop Trump if other candidates aren’t willing to repudiate Trump’s remarks on the Constitution.
“I’d like to see Shermanesque statements from all the potential candidates,” Bolton said. “If I don’t see that, then I’m going to seriously consider getting in.”
But Trump’s campaign and defenders point out that no one has yet to file against him and, they say, he’s picking up endorsements and campaigning in an under-the-radar way by speaking to select conservative groups, such as the Republican Jewish Coalition last month, or by providing pre-recorded video messages, which he did for the Patriots Freedom Fund, a group that represents people charged in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
“This is a marathon and our game plan is being implemented even though the presidential calendar hasn’t been set yet and the 2022 midterm cycle is still ongoing,” Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump, said. “We however are not going to be lectured by political swamp creatures who are already looking to find ways to make a quick buck in 2024 by running to the media and providing cowardly background quotes. … President Trump is the single, most dominant force in politics and people — especially those who purport to be close to him — should never doubt his ability to win in a decisive and dominant fashion.”
Trump's universal familiarity to voters and early start grant him exclusive advantages over the crowd of hopefuls tiptoeing around the 2024 arena.
“Other candidates, what they’re doing right now is just exploring how they can increase their name ID and increase their exposure,” said one Republican with ties to Trump world who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity to share thoughts. “But they’re not doing anything to actually say, ‘I’m running.’”
Matt Moore, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said he’s seen little evidence of anyone campaigning in his crucial early primary state.
“Obviously Trump hasn’t done much anywhere at this point,” Moore said. “But he could put on the afterburners at some point. Trump is still very popular here.”
Republican primary rules disproportionately award convention delegates to candidates who win pluralities in state nominating contests. That means that Trump, as he did in 2016, could win a nomination while winning far less than half the vote in states where multiple candidates are on the ballot.
One longtime outside adviser who tacitly acknowledged the early stumbles said that they won’t matter if the course is corrected by the time candidates really begin campaigning for votes.
“Let’s get the holidays behind us. Then in early 2023, I expect the Trump campaign to start rolling out an effort to lock down the early primary states,” the adviser said. “If Trump can put together early primary support, if he can raise a bunch of money, he’ll be hard to beat. … If you fail by June of next year, if you’re sputtering along, you can expect major challenges.”
It’s not yet clear whether Trump will be able to raise the money necessary to dominate the GOP primaries or compete effectively in a general election in 2024. Two years ago, his campaign struggled to keep up with the massive infusion of cash that helped put Democrat Joe Biden in the White House, and some of the money earmarked to help him win this time around is being diverted to lawyers involved in the various proceedings against him.
The Washington Post reported this week that Trump’s Save America PAC has raised conflict-of-interest concerns — and diminished cash reserves for efforts to help his campaign — by paying legal fees for witnesses in those proceedings.
The dual realities of Trump’s early bumbling and persistent formidability are one reason that several Republican strategists refused to openly criticize the former president's nascent run.
“As you can imagine, it would make a big difference if we’re on the record or off the record,” said one national GOP strategist who agreed to be quoted on the condition of anonymity because he has clients who don’t want to get crosswise with Trump.
“The one thing Trump had to do was come out of the block looking like a winning presidential candidate in 2024," the strategist said, "and I think he has looked anything but that."
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com