NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – The first spring donor retreat after a defeat for a political party is typically a moment of reflection and renewal as officials chart a new direction forward.
But with former president Donald Trump determined to keep his grip on the Republican Party and the party’s base as adhered to him as ever, the coming together of the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) top donors in South Florida this weekend is less a moment of reset and more a reminder of the continuing tensions and schisms roiling the party.
The same former president who last month sent the RNC a cease-and-desist letter demanding that it stop using his likeness to raise money on Saturday (April 10) evening served as the party’s fund-raising headliner.
“A tremendous complication” was how Mr Fred Zeidman, a veteran Republican fund-raiser in Texas, described Mr Trump’s lingering presence on the political scene.
The delicate dance between Mr Trump and the party – after losing the House, the Senate and the White House on his watch – was evident in some actual shuttle bus diplomacy Saturday as the party’s top donors attended a series of receptions and panels at the Four Seasons Resort before travelling to Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s private club, to hear Mr Trump speak.
Mr Trump’s insistence on leading the party “affects every member”, Mr Zeidman said, as lawmakers and would-be elected officials jockey for a Trump endorsement that is as powerful in a Republican primary as it could be problematic in a general election.
“He’s already proven that he wants to have a major say or keep control of the party, and he’s already shown every sign that he’s going to primary everybody that has not been supportive of him,” Mr Zeidman said.
“He complicates everything so much.”
As donors and Republican leaders watched on Saturday night, Mr Trump quickly cast aside his prepared remarks and returned to his false claims that the election was stolen from him.
He referenced “Zuckerberg” and US$500 million (S$671 million) spent on a “lockbox” from which, he said, every vote was marked, according to remarks described by an attendee.
“Biden. Saintly Joe Biden,” he said.
Mr Trump praised loyalists like Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mr Mark Meadows, his former chief of staff, while lashing at his enemies – among them Ms Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker; former president Barack Obama, whom he called “Barack Hussein Obama”; Dr Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser; and Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia, whom he berated anew for not helping overturn Mr Biden’s win in the state.
He saved much of his vitriol for Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, calling him a “dumb son of a bitch” and a “stone cold loser”, according to the attendee.
A “real leader”, he said, would never have accepted the results of that election.
Late in his remarks, Mr Trump praised the crowd that attended his rally on Jan 6, admiring how large it was, the attendee said.
Mr Trump added that he wasn’t “talking about the people that went to the Capitol”, though hundreds of the rally attendees left the rally at the Ellipse to go to the Capitol.
Among other things, Mr Trump is considering running again in 2024. Although few of his allies believe he will follow through, his presence could have a chilling effect on other potential candidates.
“The party is still very much revolving around” Mr Trump, said Ms Andrea Catsimatidis, chair of the Manhattan Republican Party and a donor who attended the retreat.
“He was the one who very much revived the party when we weren’t winning.”
Also inescapable is the fact that Mr Trump has quickly built a political war chest that rivals that of the RNC. An adviser to Mr Trump said he currently had about US$85 million on hand, compared with nearly US$84 million for the RNC.
“Send your donation to Save America PAC,” Mr Trump urged supporters last month, not to “RINOs”, the derisive acronym for “Republicans in Name Only”.
He has appeared as passionate about punishing Republicans who crossed him, especially those who supported his second impeachment, as he has about taking back the House and Senate in 2022.
For party officials, the goal is keeping the energy that has propelled Mr Trump to success inside the Republican tent while not entirely allowing the former president to dominate it.
Ms Ronna McDaniel, the RNC chair whom Mr Trump supported for a second term, has vowed to remain neutral in a potential 2024 primary should Mr Trump run again.
“It is a difficult balancing act,” said Mr Bill Palatucci, a Republican National Committeeman from New Jersey who has been critical of Mr Trump.
“The president certainly has devoted followers,” Mr Palatucci said, “but he also more than offended a lot of people with his conduct since the November election, which culminated in his helping to incite the riot on Jan 6”.
Some donors are hoping to quickly move past Mr Trump, but they are also focused on the current Oval Office occupant.
“It is very important the Republican Party puts Donald Trump as far into the past as possible,” said Mr William Oberndorf, an investor in California who has given millions to GOP candidates but said he would now only give to Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach Mr Trump.
“However, if Joe Biden does not ensure that major pieces of legislation have bipartisan support, it is he who will bear more responsibility than any group of Republican donors ever could for resurrecting Mr Trump’s political future and fortunes,” he added.
Among donors, the jockeying for favour and financing extends beyond Mr Trump and the RNC.
On Thursday and Friday, a separate but overlapping gathering for Republican contributors was held at Mr Trump’s private club: an “investors meeting” of the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a non-profit organisation.
Mr Meadows, Mr Trump’s chief of staff, is now a senior adviser for the group, and Ms Caroline Wren, who used to fund-raise for the former president, is raising money for it.
Donors are being pitched on a dizzying array of Trump-adjacent projects, including a new political advocacy group from former -ice-president Mike Pence as well as new entities being started by Mr Ben Carson, Mr Trump’s former housing secretary; Mr Stephen Miller, his former White House adviser; and Mr Russell Vought, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Mr Corey Lewandowski, Mr Trump’s first campaign manager in 2016, is said to be involved with efforts to start a Trump-aligned super PAC as well.
Mr Trump, who continues to talk privately about a future campaign of his own in 2024, spoke to donors for the Meadows-linked group for more than an hour last Thursday, also at his private club.
“All Republican roads lead to Mar-a-Lago,” said Mr Jason Miller, an adviser to Mr Trump.
“Trump is still the straw that stirs the news cycle. His influence will be central to every speech and storyline this week,” he said.
Those who have trekked there to meet Mr Trump in recent months include Ms Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his former press secretary and a candidate for governor of Arkansas; Senator Rick Scott of Florida, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee; and Representative Kevin McCarthy, who is the House minority leader.
In a suit and red “Make America Great Again” hat, Mr Trump stopped by a fund-raiser for Ms Sanders this weekend at his club.
The RNC had initially planned for its entire retreat to be held nearby in Palm Beach, but organisers moved the final Saturday evening events to Mr Trump’s resort, meaning the party will again be paying the former president’s private club to use its space.
During Mr Trump’s White House tenure, his political campaign, the RNC and his allies spent millions of dollars at Trump businesses, including his hotel in Washington near the White House and a resort property in Miami, where yet another pro-Trump group also held a conference this week.
Party officials maintained that donors and a number of party activists were happier being at Trump-branded properties than they were anywhere else. Still, the Trump branding of official Republican events had alienated what was once the Republican establishment.
“This is all about the Trump circle of grift,” said former representative Barbara Comstock of Virginia, who is close to another high-profile Republican – and a frequent target of Mr Trump’s – who was also notably absent: Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming.
Ms Comstock said that the Republicans keeping their distance were wise to “build their own coalitions” and “not get sucked into Trumpism, which has a limited and short-term appeal with demographics dying in this country”.
Mr Henry Barbour, an influential RNC member from Mississippi, said that the party was still in a transitional phase since Mr Trump’s loss.
“When you lose the White House, you kind of figure it’s going to take a little bit of healing, and I think probably first quarter has hopefully got us moving on a better path,” Mr Barbour said.
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