As Trump returns to political stage, nagging questions about 2024

Brace yourself for Donald Trump 2.0, America. The ex-president returns from political hiatus Sunday seeking to regain control of a Republican Party that is out of power and pondering whether the flawed billionaire can win again in 2024.

After losing the Senate and White House, and failing to retake the House of Representatives, a US political party would normally lick its wounds, jettison its failed leader and chart a new path to claw back relevance.

But Trump is a singular force who maintains a vice-like grip on the Republican base, and all eyes will be on the 74-year-old showman when he addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference and teases attendees about his political future.

The speech, his first post-presidential address, comes on CPAC’s final day in Orlando, Florida, where an enthusiastic reception is expected at the nation’s largest conservative gathering.

But is he still the party’s uncontested leader, despite losing to Joe Biden? Or is Trump a twice-impeached has-been who left Washington in shame, banned from Twitter and accused of inciting the January 6 Capitol insurrection?

While Trump has retreated to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, after spending months promoting the falsehood that the election was stolen, strategists and many lawmakers say he remains the dominant conservative political force.

“President Trump is the leader of the Republican Party,” congressman Jim Jordan declared Wednesday on Twitter.

A source familiar with Trump’s plans said the former president will be “talking about the future of the Republican Party” and will criticize some new Biden policies.

But a Trump 2024 announcement may not come at CPAC, which started Friday with panels on “cancel culture” and “protecting elections.”

With Republicans now in the minority, CPAC speakers aired their grievances, describing an America “under siege” by the liberal left, with freedom of speech steamrolled by Silicon Valley “oligarchs.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signaled the rising influence of the party’s populist wing, telling CPAC “we will not go back to the days of the failed Republican establishment of yesteryear.”

So many were maskless in the crowd that organizers paused the proceedings to implore people to wear them.

“Freedom!” attendees shouted back.

– Base ‘still with Trump’ –

CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp, a pro-Trump activist, retweeted a reporter Wednesday citing sources saying that Trump will not announce his candidacy Sunday but will appear “warm” to the idea.

Such posturing will likely freeze other Republican contenders in place, for now.

Several potential White House hopefuls — including former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and Senator Josh Hawley — will address CPAC, which may make for awkward presentations to a crowd still in Trump’s thrall.

A mid-February Quinnipiac poll showed three of four Republicans want Trump to play a prominent role in the party.

“I think there’s a disconnect between the Washington DC Republican Party and where the base is — and the base is still with Trump,” lobbyist John Feehery, who worked in House Republican leadership for 15 years, told AFP.

Tensions over Trump intensified Wednesday at a Republican press conference. Asked whether Trump should address CPAC, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said: “Yes he should.”

The question then went to congresswoman Liz Cheney, the Republican conference chairwoman who voted to impeach Trump over the Capitol riot.

“That’s up to CPAC,” Cheney said. But “following January 6 I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.”

The drama exposed the extraordinary faultline between establishment Republicans and pro-Trump populists.

“Whether the GOP remains an uneasy alliance of those two factions, or splits apart… depends on a number of things that haven’t happened yet,” said Republican political consultant Whit Ayres, president of North Star Opinion Research.

Predicting another Trump candidacy now would be “rank speculation,” Ayres said, pointing to Trump’s “mountain of financial and legal challenges” including tax returns and alleged hush-money payments before the 2016 election.

Such trouble could complicate a future run.

– ‘Stay tuned’ –

But Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a vociferous critic turned steadfast loyalist when Trump won the White House, enthused that the defeated former president “ain’t going anywhere.”

And Senator Lindsey Graham said supporting Trump is crucial for their party to take back Congress in next year’s midterm elections and gear up for 2024.

“If we can get behind president Trump and follow his lead we will win in 2022,” Graham told Fox News. “If we argue with ourselves, we’re going to lose.”

Asked whether Trump runs in 2024, Graham deadpanned: “Stay tuned.”

Politics professor John Pitney Jr of Claremont McKenna College is confident Trump will control the GOP into 2024 — unless legal woes or other hurdles consume him.

“Supporters of president Trump vastly outnumber his critics within the Republican Party,” Pitney said.

“Republicans understand that breaking with Trump carries a political price within the Republican Party,” he said. “Most aren’t willing to pay that price.”

by Michael Mathes