And, after the highly divisive former president on Tuesday night announced he will run for president in 2024, the choosing of sides is well underway.
“He’s a fighter, he’s a pugiist,” said Michael Barnett, chair of the Palm Beach County GOP, who is backing the former president. “And that’s what energizes the base. He’s not afraid to stick up and take the hits.”
Others said they are on Team DeSantis.
Jorge Garrido, the chairman of the Hispanic Vote of Palm Beach County, said it is time to recognize that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is the new face of the party in and outside of Florida. Garrido said DeSantis’ popularity across the country is gaining momentum, based largely on a tough-on-crime message and focus on family values.
The rank-and-file also seems to be divvied up along the Trump-DeSantis fault line cutting through Florida like an interstate highway. According to exit polls from last week’s election, some 45% picked the governor and 33% said they wanted Trump.
While far from a surprise, the announcement capped months of speculation punctuated by innuendo and assorted potshots cast by Trump at possible political rivals, specifically DeSantis, a potential GOP nomination rival.
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Trump’s decision sets up what could be a political drama, a real-life House of Cards in Florida. The fault line between Trump and his erstwhile political apprentice, DeSantis, ripped seismically this month, shaking the Republican Party to the core.
Trump has mocked the governor, dubbing him with the nickname “Ron DeSanctimonious.” He also issued a veiled threat to unearth the governor’s “past,” and then scorched him as an “average” Republican in a six-installment missive on his social media platform, Truth Social.
On Tuesday evening, however, the Trump World notables attending the campaign’s launch downplayed the evident, public friction between the Florida GOP’s two favorite sons.
“He didn’t even mention DeSantis,” scoffed pollster Dick Morris, originally a Bill Clinton confidant who has been advising Trump. “This is a fabrication. There’s no feud.”
As for DeSantis and the seemingly brewing battle, on Wednesday he said “people just need to chill out.”
Despite announcement, Trump still faces multiple investigations
Hovering over Trump’s announcement is the fact that he is the only U.S. president to be twice impeached and a former POTUS facing a slew of investigations, which he also touched on Tuesday.
Personal grievance was a mainstay during his speech. To cheers of “Drain the Swamp,” Trump depicted American government, particularly in Washington, as unfailingly corrupt and he again vowed to wage war on the “deep state,” and particularly the FBI and federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors.
He then added: “I am a victim.”
In 2019, the U.S. House voted to impeach Trump over his dealings with Ukraine, but the Senate voted in 2020 to acquit. He was later impeached by the U.S. House for a historic second time just days before leaving office following his re-election defeat, charged with “incitement of insurrection” over the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
And then there are the multiple investigations.
Trump may have major issues unrelated to campaigning for 2024.
Prosecutors are probing the former president over the removal of classified documents from the White House, attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden, and the insurrection in 2021.
The U.S. Justice Department and local prosecutors in Atlanta are looking at Trump’s role in attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss and the subsequent insurrection.
A grand jury also is investigating whether Trump improperly removed classified documents from the White House when he left in early 2021. That probe included a search of Mar-a-Lago, the site of Tuesday’s announcement.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and has called the investigations politically motivated.
Since 2021, Trump has faced legal scrutiny in at least six independent federal and state inquiries that are both criminal and civil in nature. At least two investigations involve the 2020 election.
A special House committee is preparing to issue a report detailing its findings, many of which were explained in riveting televised presentations, into Trump’s role in the Capitol attack. The violence on Capitol Hill is also the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
New York’s attorney general has sued the Trump Organization over its business practices and made referrals to the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
Lincoln Project, progressive group, CREW watchdog call Trump dangerous
A progressive group, Way to Win, said it is ready to hang the Jan. 6 attack, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion ruling and other “extremist” GOP policies, on Trump like an albatross.
For this month’s midterms, Way to Win said it aired a series of 30-second commercials in “key battleground states” in the Midwest and Southwest as well as 17 contested and GOP-leaning U.S. House districts. As of late last week, Way to Win said the Democratic candidates had won 11 of those House races.
Now it plans to do the same in 2024.
“Voters in these key battleground states do not want the Trump Republican agenda of having our freedoms taken away,” said Way to win co-founder Jenifer Fernandez Ancona. “It’s important to keep on that drumbeat.”
They are not the only ones seeking to remind the country of the lawless end to his presidency.
The Lincoln Project, which came into existence precisely to oppose Trump, said Trump’s political brand is an “affront to decency, democracy, and sanity.”
“Donald Trump is back,” the organization said in a statement. “For The Lincoln Project, the dangers Trump poses to America have never left our radar. Even while many on the right and left declared him as, ‘The Former Guy,’ we recognized Trump was a persistent risk to the Republic and our democracy. He’s in, and we’re ready to help defeat him a second time.”
And the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics is calling for invoking the 14th Amendment’s “disqualification clause” to bar Trump “from future office.”
Trump recited rally speeches, added policy nuggets, and echoed DeSantis
Supporters of Trump, however, focused on his speech Tuesday. Morris, the pollster, said it had the ring of a presidential State of the Union and was a “comprehensive plan for America.”
Much of the hour-plus long address, however, had been well-rehearsed and trial ballooned during a series of rallies Trump held during the midterm election campaign. Although Trump’s tone and demeanor were more sedate than what his rallygoers would recognize.
Some topics, like trade deals and border security, have been a consistent campaign focus for Trump dating back to his original presidential campaign seven years ago.
On Tuesday, Trump decried what he called an “open border” and called for the return of a “stay in Mexico” policy that would turn away migrants seeking refuge, asylum or simply a better life at the border. The United States, he said, protected other countries’ borders but not its own.
Trump also had harsh words for drug smugglers, saying he would call for the death penalty for those who sell and traffic narcotics.
Other sections of the speech harkened back to his January 2017 “American Carnage” inaugural address. Trump painted a pointedly dark assessment of urban crime saying American cities were “rotting” and “cesspools of blood.”
Trump also employed DeSantis talking points, which drew some of the loudest ovations from the hundreds of people who attended the speech.
He called for a defense of parental rights in schools, argued for restraints on transgender athletic participation, ripped critical race theory and slammed COVID mandates.
“We will defend the rights of parents and we will defend the family as the center of American life,” Trump said.
In timely fashion, DeSantis dismisses Trump’s attacks hours before speech
DeSantis’ recent rise in national and state popularity has apparently roiled Trump, who backed DeSantis before the former U.S. representative from Jacksonville went on to win the governor’s race in 2018.
Until Tuesday, the governor, also known for his pugnacious and combative style of politics, had not been drawn into verbal fisticuffs.
Then, just hours before Trump spoke, DeSantis finally shoved Trump back.
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The governor, who has done nothing to dispel speculation about his 2024 presidential intentions, dismissed Trump’s bashing as “noise” and that “none of that stuff matters.” He then advised people to “go check out the scoreboard” from this month’s midterm voting in Florida.
“One of the things I’ve learned in this job is when you’re leading, when you’re getting things done, you take incoming fire, that’s just the nature of it,” DeSantis said during an event in Fort Walton Beach.
Trump first to enter 2024 race, but he does so from a weakened position
Trump is the first White House suitor to enter the 2024 race. But he has other obstacles ahead of him as he embarks on a feat that hasn’t been achieved since Grover Cleveland regained the White House after losing a previous re-election bid 130 years ago.
Aside from the previously mentioned investigations and baggage, another challenge is that he has been politically weakened by a barrage of incoming blame for the Republicans’ midterm disappointment.
On the eve of Trump’s announcement, Trump-backed Kari Lake lost her bid to become Arizona’s governor. In addition to Lake, Trump’s pick in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, Doug Mastriano, failed to win a post the GOP badly coveted.
The gubernatorial defeats piled on to the scapegoating of the former president for the party’s failure to capture control of the U.S. Senate. Trump-endorsed candidates, including Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, Adam Laxalt in Nevada and Blake Masters in Arizona, also lost their races.
On Tuesday, county Republican Party chair Barnett swatted away suggestions that the disappointing midterm elections reflected a loss of Trump’s influence.
“People painting a picture of Trump weakness or a loss of influence … are people who are trying to recruit Ron DeSantis or Mike Pence or somebody else to run,” Barnett said as he waited to hear Trump’s speech. “I’m here because I firmly believe President Trump will be the nominee in 2024 and I support him.”
Another challenge Trump will have is keeping his message fresh and relevant in the next 15 months or before the Iowa caucuses in early 2024.
While Trump will have to work to remain in the public eye, for example, DeSantis will be in the media spotlight through the first half of next year after he is sworn in for a second term in January and will have a 60-day legislative session to pursue more culture-war attacks on “wokeness.”
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Notable Trump world people who attended, and were absent
Tuesday night’s announcement was held at the spacious, chandelier-lit ballroom at his private club on the exclusive island of Palm Beach, which is Trump’s primary residence.
Many of the most recognizable names in Trump’s orbit attended. They included Roger Stone, Mike Lindell, head of the My Pillow company, and actor Kevin Sorbo, who played Hercules on TV, and former Congressman Devin Nunes, now CEO of Truth Social.
One of the president’s sons, Eric, was singled out during Trump’s for the number of subpoenas he has received. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who served as an advisor during her father’s presidency, did not attend.
She issued a statement saying that “while I will always love and support my father, going forward I will do so outside of the political arena.”
Sarasota Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson, USA Today Network-Florida government accountability reporter Douglas Soule, Sergio Bustos, Enterprise/Politics Editor for Florida’s Gannett/USA Today Network, and USA Today National Political correspondent David Jackson David contributed to this report.
Stephany Matat is a journalist at the Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Florida Network. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.