The Trump Informant Guessing Game: Knives Are Out!

Former President Trump Holds Rally In Support Of Wisconsin Candidates
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
August 11, 2022

It’s been an exasperating week in Donald Trump’s world, easily the most jam-packed couple days since he retreated to South Florida sans Twitter, sans the usual cast of characters, and sans the round-the-clock CNN and Fox News coverage that fueled the vicious cycle of political media era spanning his golden escalator descent to the violence of Jan. 6. In a veritable 48 hour window, Trump had his Florida club raided, he regained his status as a MAGA martyr, he pleaded the Fifth about 400 times in New York, and then woke up to news that said “raid” had been aided by an alleged informant on the inside. Trump is undoubtedly running in 2024, as I’ve been writing for weeks, and the only question in the air remains how soon he will announce. But, as you might expect, internal conversations have quickly turned to figuring out the identity of the snitch who was reportedly able to tell the feds exactly where more documents were located inside Mar-a-Lago. 

Trump’s inner circle is reeling, almost Agatha Christie-style, over the identity of the informant. And it’s become an interesting guessing game. Since his kitchen cabinet of advisors generally drop in from out of state, and are relegated to his office above the ballroom in Mar-a-Lago, few have access to his residence or the basement where personal items are stored. Trump insiders have told me that they’ve narrowed the identity of the possible informant down to two camps. The theory is that it was likely among the cohort of junior aides, mostly body men, (think Cassidy Hutchinson level), who are by his side day-to-day at either Bedminster or Mar-a-Lago. A few of these people have rotated out of the office in recent months, and, some have speculated, may perceive their futures as brighter outside of Trump’s orbit. Others say it could be an actual staff worker at the Mar-a-Lago club. I’ve been told specific names. 

It was Trump himself who seems to have set this circus in motion, last spring, when he reportedly received a federal subpoena for documents that National Archives investigators alleged he failed to return alongside boxes of other sensitive material that disappeared from the White House when he absconded to Mar-a-Lago. According to the Times, the feds attempted repeatedly to take back whatever documents they believed Trump still had in his possession, even deploying top Justice Department officials in June to meet with one of Trump’s lawyers, Evan Corcoran, at Mar-a-Lago. Trump himself reportedly stopped by to say hello; later, the D.O.J. emailed Corcoran instructing him to better secure whatever Trump had in his basement, and officials subpoenaed surveillance footage to ascertain who was coming in and out of his club.

Not surprisingly, this bizarre series of events has exacerbated already simmering feuds in Trumpworld over how they landed in this pickle and who is to blame. I’m already hearing about clashes within Trump’s legal team between Christina Bobb, the OANN reporter who has become the face of Trump’s latest legal woes as she happened to be in West Palm Beach at the time of the raid, and Boris Epshteyn, a short-lived White House official who made his re-entry into the inner sanctum by being a point person on the fake electorate scheme. He’s now on the payroll through Trump’s PAC, offering legal advice too, and taking the lead on building the legal war room as it expands. (He previously recommended that they hire Steve Bannon’s lawyer Corcoran.) Mind you, Trump has polled multiple people in his inner circle about whether he should respond to the National Archives request, asking them, “Should I comply with the archives?” So really anyone can play freelance lawyer in Trump’s inner circle. That’s why the ascendance of Bobb, who some in Trump’s inner circle believe could have done a better job managing the legal quagmire, has been driving people crazy. 

These people separate the Trump legal camp into real lawyers, TV lawyers, and lawyers self-interestedly offering a combination of both political and legal advice. Epshteyn falls into that last category, and he’s been butting up against Bobb, who some in Trump’s circle view as too extreme, and have compared to Jenna Ellis, also a member of the legal team. Epshteyn, with a law degree from Georgetown, has questioned Bobb’s judgment and proximity to Trump as he edges closer and closer to Trump, himself, through his relationship with the family members like Eric and Melania. He also frequently asks people, “Has the president mentioned my name? What’s he saying about me?”

Some close to Trump who question Epshteyn’s judgment say he’s not wrong to be suspicious of Bobb, who has a Dinesh D’Souza-themed Twitter feed and recently explained to Right Side Broadcasting Network why MAGA women are more attractive than liberals. Another source described Bobb as “a female Boris,” adding, “you can’t have two bulls in a ring.” (Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich refuted the idea that there’s any tension between Epshteyn and Bobb saying, “That’s ridiculous and not true.”)

The F.B.I. raid, whether instigated by Trump or not, has certainly led some on the right to question whether anyone has the power to primary the former president now that his party has circled the wagons. My colleague Tina Nguyen reported that “the DeSantasy” is over. That’s something I’ve also heard from some overzealous Trump aides and advisors to candidates in other camps, who cite the impossibility of being Trumpier than Trump, especially post-raid canonization. A Republican strategist with ties to both Trump and DeSantis camps echoed this sentiment, telling me that DeSantis’s 2024 hopes may have died on the courtroom floor in Palm Beach where the Mar-a-Lago raid warrant was signed.

Of course, as some Republican strategists have suggested, there are still avenues for DeSantis to feasibly out-Trump Trump. One area where the governor has leverage, tragically, is in owning the Covid-denying lane, which deeply penetrates Trump’s base. Many MAGA voters still tie Trump to Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom they view as a Beltway pedant; shutdowns, which they broadly believed were overactive liberal show trials; vaccines, which seem scientifically unassailable but play into all kinds of kooky individual rights eroticism; and masks, which they viewed as lib headdresses. It’s a weakness Trump has certainly been aware of, saying at a recent rally, “We did so much in terms of therapeutics and a word I’m not allowed to mention. But I’m still proud of that word.”

​​It’s a tiny issue that the DeSantis team is keen to exploit. DeSantis has been vaccinated, but won’t say if he’s been boosted, and he’s revered by the hardcore right for his leniency on masking and defying Trump by keeping the state open throughout the worst of Covid. “You’ve seen the contours of taking advantage of that differentiating factor,” said a former DeSantis aide. “It’s classic Ron; he didn’t lay [out] a strategy, he just knows how to seize a small advantage and turn it into a bigger advantage.” 

Indeed, DeSantis aides have been quietly courting MAGA influencers with blue checkmarks to switch sides from Team Trump to Team DeSantis. One influencer in the specific anti-vax “health freedom” circle that DeSantis’s team has targeted is Steve Cortes, the former Newsmax anchor who reached mythic status in those circles when he was fired for not getting vaccinated. He’s also a long-time Trump advisor and supporter, who they called as recently as last week to get him on their side. It’s a mission they’ve been working on for weeks, but will be an almost impossible task as he’s stayed loyal to Trump despite their differences on vaccinations. At the same time, if DeSantis wants to pick this fight, one long-time Trump aide said that his camp has videos of DeSantis urging people to get vaccinated ready to be deployed as necessary.  

Pelosi’s Final Power Move?

Nancy Pelosi, the grand dame of Congress, has been talking about retiring since 2012 only to be foiled by a variety of circumstances: Trump’s presidency, leadership wins, and fears about who else could shepherd a fracturing party. This means tons of private pledges to retire, rescinded over the years, with lots of explanations as to why. But those close to Pelosi say this time is different, that this will be her last term, and one topped off by a legacy-defining trip to Taiwan. The White House continues to leave the Italy ambassadorship mysteriously vacant.

Pelosi’s likely retirement from Congress also comes as her potential successors Hakeem Jeffries, Adam Schiff, and Katherine Clark are openly jockeying for her leadership spot. But it’s her No. 2 (House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 83) and No. 3 (Whip Jim Clyburn, 82), who are getting in the way of her grand plan to gracefully pass the torch to the next generation. They’ve instead been telling members that they’re not leaving on her timeline and want to run for leadership even after she’s gone.

According to a source close to Pelosi, however, the Speaker finds it peculiarly sexist-inflected that she would have to be the first to leave. A source close to her said, “She feels it would be unfair to make a generational change in which the only one to go is a woman.” Her spokesperson Drew Hammill said “The Speaker is not on a shift. She’s on a mission.” 

Arizona Jitters

Finally, I’m hearing that Peter Thiel-backed candidate Blake Masters is facing some money issues after fighting in a long, protracted, painful primary, like so many in the G.O.P. (e.g. Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Eric Schmitt in Missouri, and J.D. Vance in Ohio). The campaign for Masters, a first-time candidate, was expensive, costing nearly $14 million. 

That’s why Masters’ team was shocked on Wednesday to see that the National Republican Senatorial Committee canceled $1.4 million in ad buys for a week in mid-August and then canceled everything from September 30 until October 20. (They added $800,000 in mid-September.) Just today, Sen. Mark Kelly’s team added an additional $1.9 million in ad buys from August until November, on top of their already exorbitant expenditure. While Republicans eye Arizona, along with Nevada and Georgia, as potential pickups, they are getting antsy watching Democrats prepare to outspend them almost two-to-one in the Arizona Senate race. 

An N.R.S.C. spokesperson said they’re not pulling money, just shifting it until later in Arizona. “Buys get canceled and rebought all the time. There’s money constantly shifting around, but nothing has changed our commitment to winning in Arizona,” said N.R.S.C. spokesperson Chris Hartline. And, of course, there is still Peter Thiel, a multi-billionaire V.C. who has already invested some $13 million into a super PAC supporting Masters in the primary, and who Republican operatives hope will step back into the breach as needed.