Trump holds court in Mar-a-Lago, demanding GOP bows to his will

Trump is building a political operation to lead the Republican Party from his…

Trump holds court in Mar-a-Lago, demanding GOP bows to his will 1

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Trump holds court in Mar-a-Lago, demanding GOP bows to his will 3

Mark Niquette and Billy House
 |  Bloomberg

Donald Trump is building a political operation to lead the Republican Party from his Mar-a-Lago resort, but the former president is clashing with other Republicans as he seeks to do it entirely on his terms.

Trump’s Florida estate has become the center of gravity for the GOP, with political operatives and politicians waiting around to get a meeting with him and holding fundraisers in hopes he’ll attend. At the same time, party leaders have gone there to persuade him – so far in vain – to put winning a GOP majority in Congress in 2022 over retaliating against Republicans who opposed him.

Instead, Trump has made it clear he wants to expand his own fund-raising and political operation, cement his place as leader of the Republican Party and defeat the 10 GOP members of Congress who voted to impeach him on a charge of inciting the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. That has put him at odds with the very party leaders who want to ride his popularity back to power.

The pattern emerging is similar to the way he’s operated since entering politics in 2015: Identify enemies, encourage rivalries and raise money toward his own political goals, whether it’s good for the broader party agenda or not.

At Mar-a-Lago, Trump shows up at some of the fundraisers, like a March 5 event for South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a staunch ally who faces re-election next year. Senator Mike Lee of Utah had a fundraiser there last month, and Alabama Senate candidate Lynda Blanchard, Trump’s former ambassador to Slovenia, has an event scheduled there on Saturday.

Trump, who openly muses about running for president again in 2024, has formally endorsed 10 incumbents and potential candidates and two state GOP chairmen so far, and he’s vowed to promote candidates loyal to him and his “America First” agenda. He’s also managing the many advisers in his orbit who see potential profits in a politically active Trump.

Trump adviser Jason Miller said Donald Trump Jr. is leading the effort to recruit candidates for House, Senate and governor’s races as well as challengers against the 10 pro-impeachment Republicans. He said the former president wants to avoid candidates who might turn against him in the future.

“There is a robust research and vetting process going on right now for anyone for these seats,” Miller told former Trump adviser Steve Bannon on his “War Room” podcast Wednesday. “We want to make sure that we also go through and really kick the tires on their policy positions,” he said, adding that “it’s not just that they’re the conservative candidate, but they’re the America First conservative candidate.”

Trump’s advisers have also been trying to ensure that those who get the nod aren’t just people who have the former president’s mobile phone number or reserve the Mar-a-Lago ballroom for fundraising events, said two people familiar with the matter. Trump has spent many days playing golf but also has been studying different races and talking with advisers and candidates, according to people familiar with his schedule.

Such planning has led to clashes with the Republican National Committee and other party entities over control of fundraising, and over whether the emphasis on defeating House and Senate candidates who opposed him on impeachment complicates the efforts to win congressional majorities in 2022.

“This shouldn’t surprise anyone,” said Republican consultant Doug Heye, a former RNC communications director and Trump critic. “Trump cares about his brand first and foremost.”

Congressional leaders have said they believe winning a majority will be easier with incumbents, regardless of their positions on Trump, than primary challengers with less experience.

Among those meeting with Trump to press that case are House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Florida Senator Rick Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is expected to visit Trump at Mar-a-Lago during a fundraising trip this week, according to a person familiar with his plans.

The RNC and other GOP fundraising groups have been soliciting contributions in Trump’s name, especially to tap his loyal base and small-dollar donors. But now that he’s no longer in office, he wants that practice to end and have donations flow to the Save America Political Action Committee that he controls.

The former president has long chafed at people using his name to make money and has asked Dan Scavino, a close adviser, to keep such efforts in check, two people familiar with the situation said.

Trump’s lawyers have threatened to sue the RNC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee for using his name and likeness on fund-raising emails and merchandise without his explicit permission.

The RNC pushed back, saying Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel and Trump had come to an understanding about using his name for solicitations and that it would continue referring to public figures under its First Amendment rights.

But Trump declared Monday that contributions should be made to his political action committee and not to “Rinos” – Republicans In Name Only – because “they do nothing but hurt the Republican Party and our great voting base.” He raised the volume on Tuesday, saying he fully supports the Republican Party and GOP committees but not “Rinos and fools.”

The three GOP groups responded in a joint statement that they’re grateful for Trump’s support and look forward to working with him.

The clash has confused grassroots donors and activists eager to support Trump’s policies and it risks preventing the party from looking ahead to put the right candidates and resources in place for 2022, said Republican consultant Scott Reed, the former chief political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“Trump could sign pieces of toilet paper, and donors would still send in money,” Reed said.

The Save America PAC reported $31.2 million cash on hand as of Dec. 31, and Miller said on Bannon’s podcast that the committee now has more than $80 million.

McCarthy traveled to Mar-a-Lago in January to mend fences with Trump after initially blaming him for the Jan. 6 riot. He emerged saying that the former president had committed to helping elect Republicans to the House and Senate in 2022.

But McCarthy continues to ask the former president – without success – not to get involved in primary challenges, according to a person familiar with the discussion. “I don’t have a commitment on that,” McCarthy told reporters on Feb. 26.

Republicans need to flip only five House seats in next year’s midterm elections to take control of the chamber, and devoting resources to defeat incumbents in primaries is generally seen as counter-productive if it diverts money and attention from competitive races or nominates weak general election candidates.

McCarthy, who could become speaker if his party regains the majority, is committed to backing all 10 incumbents and said in a statement “I look forward to working with each member of our conference in support of their re-election efforts.”

Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, chairman of the NRCC, said in a March 3 Politico online interview that he would discourage Trump from getting involved in the primaries.

Undeterred, Trump has already endorsed former campaign and White House aide Max Miller in a challenge to Ohio Representative Anthony Gonzalez, who voted for impeachment.

Jason Miller said he understands that the GOP committees are obligated to support incumbents, but if the party starts attacking candidates that Trump has endorsed, his cooperation with the committees will end and “there’s going to be big problems.”

Trump’s moves leave the GOP committees and Republicans who are wary of his attempts to dominate the party and its direction in a tough position, Heye said.

“They can only be so aggressive, they don’t want to get in a civil war with Trump,” he added. “They hate this, but they can’t escalate things.

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