The Memo: Trump strives to stay relevant

Former President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE is trying to maintain his political relevance — and it could be a tough battle.

No one disputes that Trump is the central figure in the Republican Party. But his chief enemy right now is time.

Almost eight months into President BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE’s administration, Trump cannot command attention as easily as he once did. And if Trump really does have ambitions to be the first president since Grover Cleveland to serve nonconsecutive terms, he will need to remain central to the political landscape until 2024, while holding no office.

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But Trump, who learned how to hog the spotlight during his decades as a New York real estate developer, is showing no signs of fading away.

On Tuesday, he announced two rallies in the near future. The first is set for Perry, Ga., on Sept. 25 and the second for Des Moines, Iowa, on Oct. 9.

Trump on Thursday made his biggest — and riskiest — endorsement to date. The former president announced his backing for attorney Harriet Hageman, who is one of several Republicans running to try to oust Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyHouse passes sweeping defense policy bill Trump rips Bush for backing Cheney Bush to hold fundraiser for Cheney MORE (R-Wyo.).

Cheney has become Trump’s most high-profile foe among GOP members on Capitol Hill. She is also vice chair of the select committee investigating the violent events of Jan. 6 — one of only two Republicans to serve on the nine-member panel.

Trump, meanwhile, maintains a steady diet of interviews with friendly media outlets and issues a constant stream of email statements, several of which have assailed Biden in vivid terms for the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But those emails do not have the reach or velocity of his old tweets. That’s a significant problem for the man who was sometimes called the first Twitter president.

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Trump was banished from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube after fomenting the Jan. 6 riot — an action that resulted in him becoming the only twice-impeached president in U.S. history.

Trump is also making some questionable decisions — even by his standards — as he works to make sure the public cannot ignore him. On Saturday night, he will provide commentary at the comeback fight of aging boxer Evander Holyfield.

Trump, in a statement, said he was looking forward to “sharing my thoughts ringside” on a card topped by the 58-year-old Holyfield. That doesn’t line up with many people’s expectations of what a former president should be doing on the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Then, early Wednesday evening, Trump issued a statement condemning the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate army during the Civil War, from Richmond, Va. Trump praised Lee as a "genius" and lamented, "If only we had Robert E. Lee to command our troops in Afghanistan."

These garlands were offered by the former president to a general who had fought to break up the United States and preserve slavery.

Within the GOP, Trump-friendly and Trump-skeptical figures agree that the former president is in an odd spot — dominant within the party but not as formidable as he once was.

Barry Bennett, who served as a senior adviser on the 2016 Trump campaign, told this column that in GOP primaries, “he is probably the most relevant as far as endorsements go. There is no bigger signature, there is no bigger endorsement. But everybody has a shelf life. It will decay.”

Trump’s luster was dented on the endorsements question in late July, when a candidate he backed, Susan Wright, was defeated in a special election in Texas. Other Trump-approved candidates have done better, including Mike Carey, who won a House primary in Ohio in early August.

Still, when Trump tries to show his muscle by offering an endorsement, there is always the danger that the results will cut in the opposite direction.

“When he was president of the United States and he could lay the anointing finger on certain candidates, that’s one thing,” said Dan Judy, a GOP strategist associated with the more traditional wing of the party. “Now, it’s very fraught. Everybody is going to want the Trump endorsement, but that is not necessarily going to win you a primary in these heavily contested races.”

Judy also noted two other points that he said were obvious but sometimes overlooked.

One is that Trump’s status is eroded simply because he’s not president anymore. The other is that there are a lot of major events going on in which he is not really a player.

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“You’ve got the delta surge, Afghanistan, natural disasters — really big news stories that are impacting people’s lives on a daily basis,” Judy said. “And Donald Trump shouting at a rally really pales in comparison to a lot of that stuff.”

Sam Nunberg, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign at its inception, expressed a related concern.

“I think the challenge for Donald Trump is when there are lull times in the Biden presidency,” Nunberg said, “When Biden doesn’t dominate the national conversation, then there is a focus on the Ron DeSantises and Ted Cruzes [the governor of Florida and Texas senator, respectively], and [Trump] doesn’t really have a reason to come out and get the national attention.”

Still, Trump has strengths that can’t be discounted: ferocious loyalty from his base, the ability to draw huge crowds, which will again be showcased at his upcoming rallies, and a massive war chest. The former president had about $102 million at his disposal for political spending at the end of June, according to the latest filings.

Nunberg assessed that it was “highly probable” that Trump would run in 2024 — and would presumably be doing so against Biden, who could by then be weakened by the disappointments that bespoil almost every president’s time in office.

“As of now, anybody else would want to be in his position,” Nunberg said of Trump. “In three years, I don’t know what could happen. But look — today, it’s unlikely anyone could beat him for the nomination.”


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. Updated at 11:35 a.m.