Trump ’24 Foreplay

Trump’s aides are doing the sorts of things that campaigns do in their early stages, like having those hard conversations about what worked in 2016 and did not in 2020, about hierarchy and titles, and engaging vendors Photo: Chris Trotman/LIV Golf/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
October 27, 2022

There’s a bit of denialism swirling around D.C., and around the political power corridors of the country, regarding whether Donald Trump is actually running for president or just engaging in an elongated, Lear-esque fit of equivocating narcissism. Well, he’s running. And the clearest indication—beyond his many public statements that he intends to do so, and beyond the many reassurances I’ve received from aides that they are doing the paperwork—is that Trump is “getting antsy,” as one aide told me. In fact, he would have announced earlier, but was persuaded to postpone on account of the various resultant financial costs and regulatory hurdles of being a candidate.

In fact, Trump’s aides are doing the sorts of things that campaigns do in their early stages, like having those hard conversations about what worked in 2016 and did not in 2020, about hierarchy and titles, and engaging vendors. One recent huddle of this variety occurred two weeks ago in Mar-a-Lago, and it included Chris LaCivita, who is shaping up to be the next campaign manager, whether he has that title or not. LaCivita, a partner at FP1 and senior strategist for MAGA, Inc., has been described to me as an inspired choice, a real player, and an operative capable of running a presidential. He’s famously known as a mastermind of the draconian Swift Boat Veterans campaign that annihilated John Kerry.

Obviously, the locus of power in Trumpworld has long been vested in Susie Wiles, who runs the former president’s political operation, happens to be a Florida expert, and has his ear. But it seems like Wiles is taking on more of a Podesta-style role as a rainmaking ubiquitous elder statesperson, and constant counselor and advice-giver and backup brain. This will also move her off the dartboard. Trump, I’m told, is excited by the new, leaner crop of staffers around him, referring to them as his “new team” as he waxes nostalgic about 2016, when he actually won (the electoral college). 

The mere fact that LaCivita is being brought on to handle the day-to-day operations suggests that the aides around him have finally learned a key lesson of politics, and one that is acutely true in the Trump orbit: the first team rarely makes it to the end and there’s no point fighting for the title of campaign manager. “You can build a hierarchy, but he can still flatten the line by calling someone else,” said a Trump aide who will likely join the campaign. This person waved off as absurd the quixotic notion of a culture change. “Anybody who is going to direct that ship, and thinks trying to fight the many factions around Trump, burn it all down, and replace it with loyalists…” has another thing coming, this person continued. “That’s never going to happen.” 

Wiles had been eager to onboard LaCivita, and I’ve heard that she’s been trying to engage other senior people to work with him. This unnatural inclination to share power, rather than consolidate it, may be Wiles’s pathway to survival. Not only does it maintain her altitude, but it engenders loyalty among the newcomers, and fosters safety in numbers. “Once you want to be the head honcho and become the choke point for him, your time is limited and your time is ticking,” said a former Trump official. “You need a bunch of people around him who you can work off of, if you want to survive.” 

At that Mar-a-Lago meeting two weeks back, LaCivita met with future campaign vendor Brad Parscale, who won’t be on the campaign but whose software Campaign Nucleus will likely be utilized. Other rising aides in Trump’s orbit include Taylor Budowich, who handles his press and works on the MAGA, Inc. super PAC; Justin Caporale, who handles Trump’s events and rallies; Brian Jack, Kevin McCarthy’s guru and now Trump’s political mind; and Steven Cheung, who also works on MAGA, Inc. Others who weren’t in attendance but will likely be involved: pollsters Tony Fabrizio and John McLaughlin, and digital guru Gary Coby, and usual suspects Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller and Boris Epshteyn. 

No one expects Trump’s kids to be as involved on a day-to-day basis given that Donald Trump Jr. has his own growing political operation and Eric Trump has been focused on the Trump Org. I was also told from multiple sources that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have no interest in getting involved in the day-to-day operations of 2024. Kushner has his Saudi-backed private equity vehicle, and Ivanka is trying to figure out her post-White House life. As for any desire to return to the White House, they got their fill of civil servitude, and while Kushner still chats with his father-in-law, he won’t be minutely involved in the campaign unless he’s asked. It’s unfortunate for Trump because they were a good foil for the MAGA base when Trump supported unpopular positions like Covid vaccinations or certain political appointments.

Hope Hicks won’t join the campaign either, I’m told. Instead, she’ll continue working as a consultant for a slew of corporate clients. Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, Trump’s longtime aides and White House staffers, will likely be involved in the next campaign but in an outer orbit. Jason Miller, the former comms chief who has been invested in his start-up Gettr, and his former bodyman Johnny McEntee, the founder and C.E.O. of the Thiel-funded dating app “The Right Stuff,” will be proffering advice from another rung out, at least in the beginning. For anyone dreaming of a Steve Bannon rendezvous, I’ve been told that he and Trump have lost touch as Bannon deals with his own legal issues. (Epshteyn has become the go-between for them.)

Midterm Fears on the Left and Right

This week started with a lot of paranoid texting from Senate and campaign staffers about the fact that Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund decided to withhold some $5.6 million that had been earmarked for the New Hampshire race. How could they give up on wacko right-wing former brigadier general Don Bolduc in his crusade against Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan, when some polls showed him trailing her by as little as two points, surely within the margin of error? Instead, McConnelll redirected that cash to Pennsylvania, where Dr. Mehmet Oz was still trailing John Fetterman, by as many as 6 points, according to a CNN poll taken before their head-spinning debate. 

Oz will need the mercy of ticket splitters to obtain the seat vacated by retiring Republican Pat Toomey, as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro is shellacking Republican Doug Mastriano in the polls. Maybe McConnell was prescient that Oz, a TV doctor, would lap Fetterman, who is still obviously recovering from a stroke, in their televised debate. He also may have been shrewd to place his bet on ticket-splitting in Pennsylvania.

But McConnell haters can’t help but think that this move was personal. Just two days before the money was moved to Pennsylvania, Bolduc was adamant that he wouldn’t support McConnell for Senate leader. And McConnell’s S.L.F. tried to take down Bolduc in the primary. These same skeptics note that McConnell also won’t put money into the Arizona race featuring the Trump-backed Senate candidate Blake Masters, who has also said he wouldn’t support McConnell, despite the fact that he is making considerable gains against incumbent Mark Kelly. McConnell’s allies assure me, however, that it’s not personal, and that he’s used to being attacked by candidates. And he did sink $30 million into Ohio after J.D. Vance made clear in the primary that he wouldn’t support McConnell for leader, albeit before changing his tune

McConnell’s allies also said he’s funneling money to Oz because they’ve seen the greatest returns in Pennsylvania, where their messaging on crime has been tightening the race against Fetterman, who led Oz by as many as 12 points in the summer. Democrats have been pouring cash into the race, some $36 million so far from the Senate Majority PAC alone, making McConnell antsy. And Republicans are somewhat pot-committed, themselves: S.L.F. has already directed $42 million to Pennsylvania as opposed to the $10 million they’ve spent in New Hampshire. “Typically that’s what the political class does—they dig in on their strategy, and this time, it’s Pennsylvania,” observed a Senate aide. (There’s also a feeling that Republican governor Chris Sununu’s 15 point lead on his opponent won’t carry over to Bolduc, whom he’s called a “conspiracy theory extremist,” in a state where Sununu has won on the ballot alongside Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen.)

Meanwhile, Fetterman’s disastrous debate perhaps only reinforced this decision to stick with Pennsylvania. Democrats have been texting me, furious that his team even agreed to the debate. “My mouth is still on the floor,” said one Democratic strategist. “Whoever the staffers were that okayed him doing this debate need to be fired today. There is no chance we win this.”

For all of the arrows directed at McConnell, his allies suggest that triaging would never have been an issue if outside expenditures weren’t sinking $60 million into the Senate races in Ohio and North Carolina. Vance, after all, has been struggling to raise money and faces a much tougher race than expected against Tim Ryan; likewise in North Carolina, Ted Budd is only a few points ahead of Democrat Cheri Beasley, personifying what McConnell has described as the G.O.P.’s “candidate quality” issues this cycle. For comparison, in 2016, McConnell’s S.L.F. was done spending in Ohio by July. This also explains why S.L.F. hasn’t invested in Washington or Colorado, where there are vulnerable Dems on the ballot for Senate. Others remember when S.L.F. withdrew their support for Senator Ron Johnson in 2014, and he still went on to win re-election. 

But maybe all of McConnell’s woes, making up for Rick Scott’s cash-strapped National Republican Senate Committee and candidates like Vance, would have been solved if Republicans had a small dollar digital operation like the Democrat’s Act Blue. After all, if Herschel Walker, a veritable celebrity without any political experience, is trailing behind Raphael Warnock in cash despite having been one of the most prolific fundraisers this cycle, then maybe Republicans have an even bigger problem then where McConnell chooses to put his cash.