WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump has started 2022 with a bang. Primary candidates were flocking to Florida to woo the former president for a coveted endorsement. His gatherings drew thousands of people. A host of investigations have gone largely under the radar.
A year later, Trump faces a much different reality.
He is mired in criminal investigations that could end in indictments. He was blamed for Republicans’ disappointing performance in the November election. And although he is now a declared presidential candidate, the six weeks since his announcement have been marked by self-inflicted crises. Trump hasn’t held a single campaign event, and he’s barely straying beyond the confines of his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.
Instead of fending off challengers, its potential 2024 rivals look increasingly emboldened. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who just won a resounding re-election, is increasingly seen as Trump’s most formidable competition.
Trump’s low-key campaign announcement left even former stalwarts wondering if he was serious about another run for the White House.
“There was a movie called ‘Launch Failure.’ I think that’s what Donald Trump’s race process has been so far. He got the announcement, and he hasn’t done anything to back it up since then,” said Michael Biundo, a GOP operative who advised Trump’s campaign in 2016 but is avoiding this time.
“What campaign?” asked longtime GOP donor Dan Eberhart, who gave $100,000 to Trump’s 2020 re-election effort but is now looking to DeSantis. “Trump’s early launch seems more a reaction to DeSantis’ outperformance and a legal strategy against lawsuits than a political campaign.”
Trump campaign officials insist they have spent the weeks since his Nov. 15 announcement methodically building a political operation. Trump, they note, announced just before the holiday season, when politicians are usually low-key, and he did so exceptionally early, giving him plenty of time to prepare.
“It’s a marathon and our game plan is implemented by design,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said.
“We’re also assembling high-level teams in early-voting states and expanding our massive data operation to ensure we dominate on all fronts,” he said. “We are not going to play the game of the media trying to dictate our campaign.”
Trump also defended criticism of his campaign’s slow start. “The rallies will be bigger and better than ever (because our country is going to hell), but that’s a bit early, don’t you think? he wrote on his social media site.
While he avoided campaign events, the former president nonetheless courted controversy.
There was his dinner with a white nationalist and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who spouted anti-Semitic tropes and plots; his suggestions to remove parts of the Constitution to bring him back to power; and the “major announcement” which turned out to be the launch of $99 digital trading cards that do not benefit his campaign.
Since his announcement, he has also faced a series of legal losses, including the appointment of a special counsel to oversee the Justice Department’s investigation into the presence of classified documents at Trump’s estate in Florida, as well as on key aspects of a separate investigation involving Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. Trump’s namesake company was found guilty of tax evasion last month for helping executives dodge benefit taxes extravagant. In Georgia, a special grand jury appears to be concluding its investigative work into his efforts to stay in power.
Trump’s potential rivals have spent months laying the groundwork for their own campaigns, visiting early voting states, speaking to conservative groups and building the kind of relationships that could benefit them down the line. .
Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, an Iowa-based conservative group, pointed to Republicans such as former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who have made repeated visits to the state.
“They’ve done the initial work necessary to be ahead of the Iowans and they’re very well received,” he said, noting that the period since Trump announced his candidacy has been “exceptionally quiet.” In many ways it feels like it’s the announcement that didn’t even happen or didn’t feel like it happened because there’s no no immediate buzz. … I don’t hear from people on the ground, ‘I can’t wait for Trump to show up.’ “Did you hear Trump’s announcement?”
He called the poor performance of some Trump-backed candidates in the 2022 midterms a “flag of caution” and said even Trump supporters are ready to back someone else in the 2024 contest.
“For the president, I think he’s definitely going to have to win the nomination,” he said.
Despite his vulnerabilities, Trump remains the GOP’s top frontrunner. Although he is considered potentially beatable in a head-to-head matchup, he is likely to benefit from a crowded field that divides anti-Trump votes, just as he did when he stood presented and won in 2016.
But Biundo, Trump’s former campaign adviser, said after seeing likely candidates such as Pence go to early voting states, he too thinks the field is wide open.
“I don’t think Donald Trump locked him up. I don’t think Ron DeSantis locked him up. I don’t think anyone locked him up,” he said. “At this point, it’s an open primary.”
Jill Colvin, l’Associated Press