Is the G.O.P. Consciously Uncoupling from Trump?

Cassidy Hutchinson
Cassidy Hutchinson, a former top aide to Mark Meadows, offering Jan. 6 testimony. Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Image
Tina Nguyen
June 29, 2022

I had scarcely begun composing a column about the movers and shakers of right wing activism, which seems to be establishing domestic policy at the whims of six people, when I got the alarm to turn on CSPAN immediately. The Jan. 6 panel, tasked with investigating and packaging the events surrounding the Capitol insurrection for a television audience, had thus far struggled to make the sorts of headlines that Democrats craved. (Fox News, in fact, had mostly declined to air much coverage of the hearings at all.) 

But the committee’s surprise witness on Tuesday was, for a change, both telegenic and truly revelatory. Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, testified in chilling detail about how Donald Trump had brushed off warnings that protesters at the Stop the Steal rally were armed, and how he asked for security precautions to be lifted; how he had sought to lead the violent mob into the Capitol, himself; and how a White House lawyer, Pat Cipollone, had told her that the president’s efforts could get them charged with “every crime imaginable.” 

In perhaps the most shocking, and colorful, testimony, Hutchinson relayed a second-hand story in which Trump became enraged when his Secret Service detail began to drive him back to the White House and attempted to grab at the steering wheel, yelling “I’m the effing president. Take me up to the Capitol now!” At another point, she described a scene in which Trump, after being told that the Justice Department had found no evidence to support his stolen-election claim, had thrown a plate at the wall. By Hutchinson’s account, multiple members of Trump’s cabinet were so alarmed by his behavior that they discussed invoking the 25th Amendment.

On CNN and MSNBC, commentary turned to whether the Republican Party could still support Trump for re-election, or even if he could face criminal charges. But Hutchinson’s revelations played differently in G.O.P. circles. Shortly after the Jan. 6 committee adjourned for the day, I hit up a few elite Republican operatives in the orbit of Trumpworld to get their candid thoughts, and they were kind enough to indulge me, even as the results of their clients’ primary elections rolled in on Tuesday night. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these G.O.P. operatives were mostly sanguine about Hutchinson’s testimony, though several conceded that it was likely to accelerate the process, already underway, of the party’s delicate separation from Trump. “It’s not bad,” one advisor close to Trumpworld told me. “It’s certainly shocking, though.”

These operatives and advisors laid out a view of Trump’s future that—spoiler alert—hardly resembles the liberal pipe dream in which right and center-right voters suddenly disavow the former president. First, these people rightly noted, the majority of G.O.P. voters have been primed to disbelieve Hutchinson’s testimony, or at least to find it suspect. Indeed, while Hutchinson has impeccable Republican credentials—Ted Cruz intern, White House legislative aide, Kayleigh McEnany dance partner—the Jan. 6 committee made a grave error by allowing her to veer into hearsay by describing the alleged altercation between Trump and his security detail. Shortly after her testimony, a number of media outlets reported that secret service agents were ready to testify that Trump did not, in fact, lunge for the wheel of his vehicle. That particular anecdote, which was told to Hutchinson second-hand, isn’t critical to the rest of her account, but questions about its veracity are already providing cloud cover for some Republicans to write it off. “[It’s] why [Trump] won’t fight much against her,” predicted a second Trumpworld adviser. “Only haters will believe [her story].”

Indeed, these advisers continued, if Hutchinson had been in possession of all these shocking details, why had none of them previously leaked to the press? “The Trump WH was the leakiest WH in history, and you don’t think throwing plates would have found its way to a reporter?” The first Trumpworld advisor asked me. And the detail about Trump leaning over to grab the wheel of his car strains credulity for those who’ve seen the inside—unless Trump was secretly a “contortionist.” Still, just because Hutchinson falls short of a silver bullet, that doesn’t mean that Trump is invincible. As a third Trumpworld advisor suggested to me, the primary impact of Hutchinson’s testimony will be to compound the cumulative effect of the Jan. 6 hearings, which has been to sow doubts in growing segments of the Republican electorate that Trump is their best shot at retaking the White House. Recent polling shows Ron DeSantis, the culture-warring governor of Florida, beginning to edge out Trump as the party favorite for 2024.  “You can think that [Trump] was an awesome president, and not want him to run again,” a person who has recently spoken to Trump told me. “If you’re all the way in the tank for Trump, that’s 25, 30 percent of voters,” this person continued, describing the diehard, election-truthing base voter. “And then he’s got another 50 percent that thinks he was a great president, but just think that with all this stuff surrounding him, it’s just going to be impossible for him to be the nominee if he runs again.”

Trump doesn’t need 50 percent of G.O.P. primary voters to clinch the Republican nomination, of course, so long as there are enough challengers to split the field. (He just needs to make it past the New Hampshire primaries.) But this month’s Jan 6. hearings—and Hutchinson’s testimony, in particular—have also highlighted the legal and reputational danger for the political operatives Trump needs to relaunch his campaign apparatus. As I reported the other week, Trump’s theoretical ‘24 campaign faces unusual structural problems that didn’t exist the last two times around. On the most prosaic level, Trump has severely damaged his nationwide campaign scaffolding by alienating a substantial portion of the state operatives and political allies he needs. His communications team wouldn’t be able to rely on Twitter, necessarily, nor could they count on wall-to-wall free coverage of his rallies on cable news. All this talk of coups and insurrection has left a bad taste in the mouths of the donor class, too. But none of that matters if the professional political apparatchiks that Trump needs to run a functional modern campaign have Pat Cipollone’s warning—“We’re going to get charges of every crime imaginable”—ringing in their ears.

As my colleague Tara Palmeri reported last week, there was already plenty of chatter around Mar-a-Lago that Trump might hasten his ‘24 announcement timeline in order to head off DeSantis, who at the very least cannot announce his own run before winning his gubernatorial race in November. Trump could even freeze the potential primary field earlier, declaring his presidential bid this summer or early fall—throwing the midterm elections into turmoil, perhaps, but instantly shifting the media narrative from yesterday’s insurrection to tomorrow’s presidential run. Other people in Trump’s circle have recently suggested to me that Trump won’t run at all, especially as it becomes clearer that DeSantis will make a move.

But among the many factors that could push Trump toward running may be his lack of better options. Shortly after being kicked off Twitter, Trump began to explore various ways to migrate his social media presence and followers to a platform on which he would be uncancelable. Characteristically, he settled on the wildest and potentially most lucrative option: launching his own company, Trump Media and Technology Group, and entering into a merger agreement with a SPAC, Digital World Acquisition Corp. The market value of that entity surged upon the announcement, to around $5 billion, promising to make Trump and his fellow partners incredibly rich—if only they could close the deal, fulfill their obligations to stakeholders, and keep the stock price afloat.    

Since then, of course, Trump’s post-presidential golden parachute has been shot through with holes, first by the collapse of the SPAC market—and the stock market more generally—and then by federal regulators probing the deal. Earlier this week, DWAC announced that the merger was under investigation by the S.E.C. and that its executives had been subpoenaed. Reuters reported on internal problems, too, including TMTG’s struggle to hire key talent. As of now, the blank-check company is trading at $25 per share, a far cry from its high of $175 last October. Indeed, the DWAC-TMTG merger may never be consummated if investors decide the deal is too risky, if the price drops below its net asset value of $10 per share, or if regulators lower the boom. 

But in Trump’s mind, according to the person who speaks with him, there’s one neat solution to all of his messy problems—whether financial, political, social, or insurrectionary. “A normal person’s inclination is ‘Hey, I’m under aggressive assault here on many different fronts. I probably shouldn’t be running for president,’” this person suggested. But Trump, he clarified, is not normal: “His inclination might be, ‘Hey, I get more protection if I’m actually running for president.’”

Update: This story originally included a quote from a source describing Trump’s vehicle on Jan. 6, 2021 as having rear-facing seats. In fact, he was riding in the back of a custom S.U.V., not the presidential limo.