The FBI raid made Trump into a 'martyr' and stronger than ever, icing out potential 2024 rivals like Gov. Ron DeSantis, GOP insiders say
- The FBI raided Trump's Mar-a-Lago last week in search of classified documents.
- Fundraising soared and an outpouring of support came from GOP politicians.
Heading into August, several news outlets and Republican insiders predicted the revelations from the House select committee's January 6 hearings had been damning enough to do real damage to the former president's 2024 prospects.
Yet, as has been the case so many times before with Trump, the narrative took a sharp turn after the FBI searched the former president's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
The change in tone was so intense that even political insiders who support other candidates say it'll be difficult for any Republicans to challenge Trump for the 2024 nomination if he should choose to run again. So, in other words, the FBI raid is shaping up to be bad news if your last name is DeSantis, Pence, Cruz, Haley, or Cotton.
"It makes him pretty much unbeatable in a primary," said a Republican strategist who worked on an opposing 2016 primary presidential campaign. "Basically, what the federal government has done, the FBI, the Biden administration, is they've made him into a martyr. It's going to be really difficult to see a scenario in which he runs in and loses in a primary because of that."
Indeed, Trump's political action committee, Save America, saw a massive bump in donations, the Washington Post reported. Even potential Republican 2024 rivals have flocked to support him.
"If I was a campaign finance lawyer for Donald Trump, I might well report to the Federal Elections Commission this raid as an in-kind contribution to the Trump political campaign, because it is so enormously helpful to Trump," Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said on his "Verdict with Ted Cruz" podcast that aired August 13. Cruz is a 2016 Trump primary rival who recently said he would "wait and see" if the ex-president ran again before announcing his own 2024 plans.
Republican insiders also say that Trump in recent weeks has demonstrated his grip on the party through ousting more establishment candidates as well as his Republican political enemies, most notably Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the top Republican on the January 6 committee.
The combination of the 2022 primary results along with the raid put a pause on plans that GOP strategist John Thomas had to start a political action committee to help support a 2024 presidential run for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Thomas told Insider.
The raid "turned President Trump into a victim, causing people who liked him but might have softened on him to now run to his support or run to his defense," Thomas said, calling it a "watershed" event for the former president.
A large number of Republicans are eyeing a bid
While waiting on a formal announcement from Trump, a slew of both pro- and anti-Trump Republicans appear to still be testing the waters.
Former Vice President Mike Pence and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan have made recent visits to the Iowa State Fair, a common stomping ground for White House aspirants. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and DeSantis are out stumping for candidates for the November midterms.
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas made numerous visits to early voting states New Hampshire and Iowa. After losing her primary to a Trump-supported opponent, Cheney said she was "thinking about" mounting a 2024 White House run.
Some Republicans hope that there might be a lane for them to get to the White House, particularly for someone who might be able to appeal to Trump's base yet without his political and legal baggage.
"They're tired of the drama all the time," said a GOP operative who works for a potential 2024 candidate.
Among the baggage is that the Justice Department is investigating whether Trump violated various laws including the Espionage Act in how he handled national security documents. Trump also faces numerous other federal and state investigations including his conduct during the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
Trump fatigue was beginning to show up in focus groups after the January 6 hearings, said Gunner Ramer, political director for the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project.
Before the hearings, Republican focus group participants were enthusiastic about another Trump White House bid, Ramer said. After the hearings, only one or two Republicans said they wanted Trump to run again.
"As these groups become concerned about electability and finding a Republican to beat in 2024 they were starting to look around for other candidates that don't have the baggage Trump has," Ramer said.
DeSantis was the alternative they raised most often, he added.
Ramer said it was too soon to tell whether the raid might have turned things around for Trump, but said the participants tend to have "a deep distrust of our institutions, including the FBI."
The former president's legal liabilities aren't likely to open up any new path for a rival who wants to win the nomination by saying he's a crook, said a longtime GOP operative with ties to Trump told Insider.
"My gut says no, because every time people try to do that he comes back even stronger," the person said.
Republicans agree that the higher the number of people who run, the better it is for Trump. The ex-president could splinter the vote without receiving majorities, given that his base is larger than the other candidates.
And anti-Trump Republicans are unlikely to be able to carve out a path for themselves in a crowded field. A longtime GOP operative close to Trump said Hogan, who has been critical of Trump, was "trying to carve a path through the Amazon with a butter knife."
"If you go out there too quickly to try to create that differentiation then you create much more likelihood that'll backfire on you," said the source. "This has been done before many times and no one has successfully pulled it off."
Trump is 'willing to say almost anything'
While DeSantis is likely to face pressure to enter the race even against Trump, doing so can still be perilous to a politician's future given the former president's blistering debate delivery.
"If you put him on a stage next to Ron DeSantis I don't think it goes well for Ron DeSantis," said Michael Binder, director of the University of North Florida's Public Opinion Research Lab. "If you put Trump on a stage next to anyone, he's extremely charismatic, he's quick witted, and he's willing to say almost anything — and that's difficult to combat. You saw a lot of skilled politicians just wilt against what is Donald Trump on a stage."
Thomas said he would not advise DeSantis to enter the race against Trump, saying it would sour him to Trump's base because it would automatically place him in the category of being "anti-Trump" because he'd have to argue why he was a better alternative.
"Trump can end careers," Thomas said.
DeSantis' gubernatorial campaign has repeatedly stressed he's focused on his reelection in November, and hasn't dished about what his plans will be afterward. Haley pledged in April 2021 that she would not run for president in 2024 if Trump mounts another White House campaign. But this July she told reporters in Iowa she'd run "if there's a place for me."
Whether or not Trump runs, he's expected to still loom large in the presidential race. For that reason, whatever happens with Trump might have little effect on any Republicans' decisions to run.
"Ultimately you have to win a good portion of the Make America Great Again bloc," the longtime GOP operative with ties to Trump said. "Whether that is against Donald Trump or not, because he's not in the race, you've got to win them over with his policies, with his focus, whether it's his name or not."
Nicole Gaudiano contributed to this report.
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