The Memo: Is Trump the GOP's future or in rearview mirror?
The Memo: Media obsess over Trump's past as he eyes comeback
The media have focused on former President Trump's past this week. But it's his future that fixates opponents and supporters alike.
There has been a media furor in recent days about whether Trump had COVID-19 during his first debate with President Biden before the 2020 election.
The Jan. 6 insurrection has also come back into the spotlight, with the House select committee investigating the attack sparring with various Trump-era officials.
And there have been new stories about Trump's business interests, especially centered on his hotel near the White House in Washington.
To be sure, these are important stories. But the biggest story of all is what comes next.
The former president has displayed zero willingness to abandon the political stage. And, to the horror of his many detractors, some of the stars are aligning for a Trump comeback.
Trump's effort to marginalize Republicans who have refused to do his bidding is picking up steam all the time.
On Wednesday, after Democrat Stacey Abrams announced she would try for a second time to become governor of Georgia, Trump fired off a statement blasting Abrams but also taking aim at the sitting Republican governor, Brian Kemp.
Kemp's sin, in Trump's eyes, was his refusal to back Trump's fictions that the presidential election in Georgia was fraudulent. If Trump gets his wish for Kemp to be vanquished in a primary, there could be a more MAGA-friendly GOP governor intimately involved in any future close election.
The Jan. 6 committee has also tussled with key Trump aides recently, the most high-profile example being Stephen Bannon, who has been indicted for criminal contempt of Congress.
But no sanction Bannon faces appears likely to stop his efforts to install Trump supporters on school boards, boards of elections and other low-level positions across the country that help democracy function.
As Rolling Stone magazine noted, just hours before it was announced that Bannon had been indicted, he told listeners of his podcast, "We're taking action. We're taking over school boards. We're taking over the Republican Party with the precinct committee strategy. We're taking over all the elections."
Bannon's push is part of a broader effort that worries not just Democrats but pro-democracy advocates generally. They see a dangerous erosion given that 19 states have passed laws making it harder for people to vote just this year. Several of those states are also meddling with the way elections are administered.
Earlier this year, Stanford academic Larry Diamond, an expert on democratic norms, told this column that even with Trump out of office "much of one of the two political parties ... is basically pursuing an agenda that is hostile to democracy."
Even setting such ominous predictions aside, the simple fact is that the Republican presidential nomination for 2024 looks to be Trump's if he wants it.
Numerous polls have shown the former president to be the runaway favorite of Republican voters.
In a Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey last month, Trump drew 47 percent support when Republicans were offered multiple options as their potential standard-bearer. The second-place finisher, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, polled at just 10 percent. No one else made it into double figures.
Lucy Caldwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist, said that even if his influence had diminished to some degree, Trump "still holds the core of the party and can really shape the direction of the party."
Others agree. Ford O'Connell, a more Trump-sympathetic GOP strategist, said, "There is no stronger force than Donald Trump" among the Republican grassroots.
"If he wants to be the nominee, he has the best chance," O'Connell said.
If the GOP went down that route, it would be taking a huge gamble.
Trump's popularity with the GOP base is countered by his broad unpopularity with the electorate at large.
In this week's Economist-YouGov poll, Trump was viewed favorably by 80 percent of Republicans but by just 38 percent of the general population. Among all adults, nearly half - 48 percent - said that they had a "very unfavorable" view of the former president.
But to his supporters' delight - and his opponents' horror - none of that means Trump can be counted out from becoming the first president since Grover Cleveland to serve, lose and then win again.
Trump has amassed a massive campaign bank account. Financial disclosures covering the first half of this year showed he and his affiliated committees had $102 million cash on hand.
He has remained central to the national political conversation despite being suspended from Twitter and Facebook.
And he still has vocal advocates in the media, particularly talk radio and cable news.
Then there's the other huge and salient fact: Biden is, for now, mired in difficulties, with a job approval rating that has drifted downward.
Of course, much will happen in the three years before the 2024 election. But Biden, who by then will be 81, will also have labored beneath the burdens of the presidency for four years. For their part, Republicans fancy their chances with whoever is eventually their nominee.
The focus on Trump's past is, of course, partly due to his position within the GOP and prospects as a possible future candidate. And his apparent obsession with the 2020 election and near-daily airing of grievances on that score keep his supporters fired up and help keep him on stage.
Trump might vent about the past. But he too has his eye on the future.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.