America first without Trump? Conservatives are planning this

Hundreds of Donald Trump administration officials, White House aides and congressional supporters gathered at a downtown hotel last month to pay tribute to the former president at a political summit set up by a think-tank to promote his agenda.

The two-day event, held by the America First Policy Institute, was a celebration of the Trump era. But perhaps in a tacit acknowledgment of the uncertainty about Trump’s future, summit participants stressed that his policies – and his legacy – could be carried out by someone else.

“The main objective [of the think tank] “It is to have the conservative policy movement … ready when the next Republican administration comes along,” said Kellyanne Conway, a former White House adviser who chairs the institute’s Center for the American Child.

“He’s here to make sure his political accomplishments, truly the legacy of the Trump Pence administration, are preserved and progress is made.”

Trump is the front-runner on the ballot ahead of the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and his endorsement has helped raise the bar for candidates in Tuesday’s competitive Republican primary.

In Arizona, venture capitalist Blake Masters, Trump-backed Senate candidate, has won the Republican nomination, while governor’s candidate Carrie Lake, a former local television host who campaigned with the ex-president, is leading in a race that is still close. very. To connect.

In Michigan, the former president’s favorite for the governor, Theodore Dixon, will face Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, while Republican Representative Pete Major, who voted to impeach Trump, lost to John Gibbs, who served in the Trump administration. .

But early victories don’t stop Republicans from trying to figure out how to hold on to Trump supporters while exploring the possibility of turning away from the former president.

Some, such as those from the Never Trump movement, have been outspoken in their efforts to return to traditional conservatism since 2016. Others have attempted to frame his presidency as the launch of a movement that can be separated from its leader and pursued by others.

Last year, several former Trump aides and administration officials formed AFP, which grew out of political planning for his second term in office. The group has been dubbed “The Waiting Administration” and its leaders note that many of them were in the room when Trump made the biggest decisions of his presidency.

Hogan Gidley, a former White House deputy press secretary who leads the institute’s Center for Election Integrity, which is pushing for more restrictive laws on voter identification and absentee ballots. “So, regardless of whether Donald Trump is a candidate or a kingmaker, I think that’s what people want.”

For his part, Trump seems to see himself as both. He is expected to announce his third presidential candidacy as soon as this fall, although some allies have urged him to wait until after the November midterm elections, and he is also strategically endorsing candidates for foreign ministers and legislative races who will play key roles in running the presidential election. coming.

Sarah Longwill, a Republican strategist and founder of the Republican Accountability Project, a politician, said the Republican Party had always hoped it could “end the Trump years and … transition to someone who reflects a more traditional understanding of the conservative policy agenda.” The task force opposing candidates promoting Trump’s “big lie” about the 2020 election.

The question is whether voters will follow. Longwill has conducted nearly a dozen focus groups since the House committee investigating the January 6 attack began holding hearings in June, finding that more and more Trump 2020 voters do not want him to run in 2024.

She said that although they do not watch the hearings and are rejected by the former president, they are concerned about his ability to be elected.

“They think he has a lot of baggage, and they think a lot of people don’t like him,” Longwell said. “It’s not even about how they themselves feel.”

Trump’s return to Washington for the summit — his first visit since leaving office in January 2021 — came less than a week after the eighth public hearing of the Jan. 6 panel, which focused its focus on the former president’s role in mob incitement. that stormed the Capitol and his inaction after doing so.

Hours after Trump’s speech at the summit on July 26, the Washington Post reported that the Department of Justice was investigating his actions related to the attack. Trump – along with many in his circle – is also being investigated by Fulton County. came. Fanny Willis charged with interfering in the Georgia 2020 election.

Besides his legal troubles, Trump also faces potential challenges from a younger generation of less conservative conservatives, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence, who are urging Republicans to look “forward” to future elections and avoid compromising attention. Past. Longwill said Trump voters for 2020 are also mentioning Republican governors. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Greg Abbott of Texas as potential competitors in 2024.

“People are going to run for president no matter what Trump does at this point,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign.

“For any Republican politician with ambitions, he has to run in 2024 or else he may never get another chance,” he said. “Dismissing Trump is risky, but in many ways Trump is a much weaker candidate than he was in 2016, given everything that’s happened over the past five years.”

As a non-profit organization that cannot engage in political activism or endorse candidates, AFP cannot explicitly support Trump, even though the organization was founded on his ideals. However, some people appointed by the organization criticized the former president and called on the party to move forward.

In March 2021, former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal co-wrote an opinion piece for Newsweek calling on Republicans to separate Trump from his policies.

“Many conservatives would not miss Trump, man, if they could preserve the ideas that made America great,” he wrote.

Despite the opinion piece, Jindal was recruited by AFP president Brooke Rollins, a former director of the Trump White House Domestic Policy Council, to lead the group’s Center for a Healthy America.

Jindal said at the summit after leading a panel on health care with members of Congress.

When asked if this nominee should be Trump, Jindal — one of more than a dozen Republicans who ran for president in 2016 — veered.

“I think it’s time to focus on the presidential election after November,” he said. “Immediately. I think every conservative, every Republican, should focus on restoring the House and Senate.”

Peter Navarro, a former Trump White House adviser, has publicly criticized AFP for hiring staff he believes are insufficiently loyal to the former president, going so far as to warn Trump against speaking at the summit, and claiming that the institute wants to break with him while capitalizing on the success of his movement.

“This may be AFP’s broader agenda: hijack the political appeal of Trumpism, but replace Trump with AFP’s RINO,” Navarro wrote in an editorial for American Greatness, a conservative website.

AFP staff responded by pointing to Trump’s support for the organization. In addition to his keynote speech, Trump’s Save America PAC gave the group $1 million last year.

At the same time, Trump appears committed to the fight to retain his role as the face of the America First movement.

In his keynote address at the summit, Trump put his mind on the question that will determine the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination: Will his problems and legal action on January 6, 2021 make him unelectable?

He made a familiar promise to his aides, declaring that despite his enemies’ best efforts to silence him, he would have a second role in the White House.

“They want to harm you in any way,” he said, “but they really want to harm me so I can’t go back to work for you.” “I don’t think that will happen.”

Trump told New York Magazine last month that he had already decided whether or not to run, and that the only debate was when he would announce his decision. He said he believed announcing before the midterms would discourage others from running, possibly unleashing a “backlash” against anyone who challenges him.

Most political observers agree that an early announcement would hurt Republican efforts to keep voters focused on the Biden administration’s struggles.

“If Trump gets himself into the final weeks of the election by announcing his candidacy, that muddles what should be a clear referendum,” Conant said. “I can’t think of a positive side to that.”

Former Democratic Representative Steve Israel, chair of the Cornell University Institute for Politics and Global Affairs, said Trump’s announcement ahead of the midterm elections would be a “wealth to Democrats.”

“If you look at the 2021 elections, where the Republicans did very well in the state and local elections, the Democrats’ strategy was to try to put Donald Trump on the ballot in those races,” he said. People didn’t accept him because he wasn’t on the ballot. But once he’s announced in 2022, he’s definitely on the ballot.”

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