NASHVILLE, Tennessee ( Associated Press) – As religious conservatives gathered at a sprawling resort near the Grand Ole Opry House this week, Nikki Haley pushed the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” crowd to look to the future.
“It is up to us to deliver a new birth of patriotism,” said Haley, the former governor of South Carolina who was ambassador to the United Nations under President Donald Trump. “And with you, and with trust in God, I promise to answer that call and inspire our country once again,” she said, sounding like a White House candidate herself.
Such remarks are typical of a party that is without power and is looking for its next leader. What is unusual: The party’s last leader is planning his own return.
Trump spoke from the same stage on Friday and made his first public appearance since the House committee that investigated the January 6 uprising exposed his desperate attempts to stay in power. It presented shocking video footage and scathing testimony, including stories from Trump’s closest associates and members of his family.
He spent much of his speech exploding the committee’s efforts as politically motivated and insisting he did nothing wrong.
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In the light of the video and allies’ versions, he continued: “What you see is a complete and total lie. It is a total and total fraud. ” He claimed footage had been selectively edited and dismissed the uprising as “a simple protest that got out of hand.”
And he made sure to tease his own plans.
“One of the most urgent tasks facing the next Republican president – I wonder who it will be,” Trump said at one point, echoing a standing ovation and chants of “USA!”
“Would anyone want me to run for president?” he asked the crowd and let out a cheer.
Trump’s return to public speaking comes because he actively weighed in when he could formally launch a third presidential run, according to people familiar with the discussions. The debate, according to assistants and allies who insist he has yet to make a final decision, centers on whether to announce a campaign in the coming months or, in line with tradition, wait until after the November midterm elections.
Trump has held rallies over the past year and a half, delivering speeches and using his endorsements to take revenge and further shape the party in his image. But some supporters say the former president, who camped down from his Florida Mar-a-Lago club to Bedminster, New Jersey, for the summer, is also getting impatient.
While enjoying his role as a party kingmaker – with candidates begging for everything but his approval and picking up big bucks at fundraisers in his ballrooms – Trump also misses the days when he was actually king, especially when he watches Democratic President Joe Biden is struggling with low approval ratings and rising inflation.
“I think a lot of Trump’s future plans are based directly on Biden, and I think the more Biden continues to stumble on the world stage and domestic stage, people forget about the downside, the dark side of Trump’s presidency,” Bryan said. Lanza, a GOP strategist and former Trump campaign official.
An announcement in the near future could hamper efforts by other ambitious Republicans to launch campaigns. Haley, for example, said she would not compete against Trump.
And there is also concern that a short-term announcement could hurt Republicans who are going into the latter part of a mid-term congressional campaign that looks increasingly favorable to the party. A Trump candidate could otherwise unite discouraged Democratic voters and revive the energy the party unleashed in the 2018 and 2020 campaigns.
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Republicans want the November election to be held as a referendum on the first two years of Biden’s presidency. They want nothing, including Trump, to throw them off that track.
Regardless of his decision, the aura of inevitability that Trump tried to create from the moment he left the White House was pierced. Some Republicans have tried to make it clear that a Trump candidate would have little influence over their own decisions.
They include his vice president, Mike Pence, who was seen by the January 6 committee as someone who puts the national interest above his own political considerations. Trump on Friday went on to criticize Pence, who has spoken at the conference several times.
With a view to a White House bid, Pence maintains a tight political schedule focused on drawing attention to Democratic vulnerabilities.
Other potential candidates including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also indicated their decisions do not rest on Trump’s. And they and others have become increasingly shameless in their willingness to cross the former president, including the approval of candidates acting against his.
Some of these potential candidates, including Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Florida Senator Rick Scott and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, appeared with the former president at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s rally in Nashville.
The field could include a long list of others, including Rep. Liz Cheney, the chief Republican on the Jan. 6 panel, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan – both Trump critics. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, is seen by many loyal Trump supporters as the future of his movement.
Indeed, many of those who attended the conference in Nashville – the resort is near the Opry House, where the longtime “Grand Ole Opry” country music radio program is broadcast – were not sold on a third Trump run.
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“I do not know. The jury is still out with me,” said Jonathan Goodwin, a pastor who works as a Faith and Freedom organizer in South Carolina. “I like him, but I think he has himself too. shot in the foot many times ”
Goodwin said he “definitely” had his own concerns about the 2020 election, but did not support how Trump handled the situation. “I think he must have bent gracefully,” he said, “whether it was manipulated or not.”
Illinois Conservative Pam Roehl, who arrived at the conference on Friday wearing a red Trump baseball cap and “Trump 2020” necklace, said she still supports the former president but finds herself increasingly in the minority among friends who have moved on and their throw away bumper stickers and embrace DeSantis.
“They’re kind of like, ‘Go with the program. Why don’t you support DeSantis?'” She said.
While it is becoming increasingly clear that Trump would not march unchallenged to the GOP nomination, a large field of candidates could still work to his advantage. The dynamic began to look like the 2016 campaign, when Trump faced a large and unmanageable group of candidates who split the anti-Trump vote.
Some in his orbit, such as former campaign adviser Jason Miller, encouraged him to jump in sooner rather than later, to get a head start on building a campaign, freezing competition and keeping an eye on himself.
An early strategy would also allow Trump to view his growing legal vulnerabilities merely as political attacks. An Atlanta District Attorney has appointed a special grand jury to investigate his interference in the 2020 presidential election. And in New York, Trump and two of his children agreed to sit for statements next month in the state attorney general’s civil investigation into his business practices.
Others encourage Trump to wait until after the midterm so he can run on Republicans’ November victories. They also warn that the formal declaration of his candidacy will result in campaign funding laws that set limits on how many donors can donate. It will also change its relationship with its Save America PAC, which has more than $ 100 million in the bank – more than both national party organizations combined – and is currently funding its campaign trips.