The collective January 6 committee testimony has put Trump at the heart of the insurrection.
The embattled former president remains the favorite odds-on to run again in 2024.
Critics worry that nothing short of criminal prosecution – and maybe not even that – can stop him.
Some Republican operatives are holding out hope their party’s 2024 presidential primary voters will choose a new, more unifying leader at a time when Donald Trump’s legal fate is perhaps the biggest unknown in all of American politics.
It’s a long shot, and these GOP operatives know it given how often Trump has dodged scandals and with the current success of more than 100 MAGA-minded candidates who’ve so far won early 2022 Republican midterm primaries in races for state or federal office.
But interviews with a half dozen GOP operatives following the January 6 committee’s first three public hearings reveals a desire to elevate others for the next White House race at a time when Trump could very well be simultaneously campaigning for his old job while serving as the central figure in a historic first-ever federal criminal trial of an ex-president.
Trump’s baggage “would make the 2024 election closer than it has to be,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, who was a top advisor to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“Even his biggest fans daydream about trading him in for a newer version, someone who is right on all the policy only with the sharp edges sanded down,” said Fehrnstrom, now a partner at The Shawmut Group. “At the end of the day, Republicans want to win. The question is, do they have a better chance of winning with a new and improved model?”
Many in the party see an opening, and plenty of Republicans are being talked about or considering a 2024 run – with or without Trump running in a bid to join Grover Cleveland to become the second person in US history to return for a second presidential term four years after losing reelection.
The list is big and includes well-known names like former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Both former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, an anti-Trump Republican, has said they’ll run for president regardless of what Trump does.
“As we’ve seen in the history of America, politicians weather many storms and scandals to run for office – that’s not new,” said Jon Gilmore, the chief political strategist for Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Gilmore added that his desire for Trump not to run in 2024 isn’t because of the events of January 6, 2021. “I base it on the fact that our party needs to be united, and we need to look for the next leader of our party that can do just that, “he said.
Hutchinson, who is himself considering a presidential bid, has been unafraid to cross Trump over January 6.
Last Sunday – before the last round of hearings – Hutchinson said Trump was “politically” and “morally” responsible for the Capitol riot, even if the committee’s findings didn’t result in a criminal prosecution. He has said the GOP needs to move away from Trump.
Others agree that it’s time for a fresh face in 2024, but acknowledge that finding one will be difficult.
“There’s a real chunk of Republican voters – maybe even a majority – who want to move on from 2020,” said Sarah Isgur, who served as a top Justice Department spokeswoman and advisor during the Trump administration and before that was the deputy campaign manager for businesswoman Carly Fiorina’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“But unfortunately,” Isgur added, “they aren’t turning out in these primaries, which leaves Republican candidates pandering to the extremes of their base.”
There’s also the perceived danger that a large number of people entering the GOP nomination race for president would be advantageous to Trump. During the raucous 2016 primary season, he faced off against more than a dozen major rivals and was able to splinter the party vote en route to winning the nomination.
“Donald Trump remains in a very strong position for 2024 unless the rest of the GOP can coalesce around a single alternative, and not a 15-person platoon like in 2016,” Isgur said.
Trumpworld maintains any DOJ investigation is political
Trump’s legal fate remains very much up in the air. New York’s attorney general continue to investigate his business practices. And in Fulton County, Georgia, a grand jury is still being presented evidence in a wide-ranging criminal probe into Trump’s efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 election results.
Back in Washington, the House select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection has been building a case through its investigation and public hearings that Trump broke the law and violated his constitutional oath as part of a broad conspiracy to discard an election where Joe Biden was the clear winner.
Testimony provided Thursday by the retired federal judge J. Michael Luttig summed up the conundrum Republican primary voters will ultimately be facing in the 2024 cycle when he called Trump and his MAGA supporters “a clear and present danger to American democracy.”
It’ll ultimately be up to the Justice Department led by Attorney General Merrick Garland to determine whether it wants to go the next step and obtain a federal grand jury indictment against the former president. In such a scenario, Trump’s future in politics would be very much up in the air.
Insider has previously reported that Trump could still run for the White House even if he were convicted of a crime and sent to prison. There’s basically nothing in the Constitution that would stop him, though states could make it more difficult for him to be on their ballots.
In the next White House campaign, all of that evidence being collected from the January 6 hearings could make Trump “damaged goods in a general election,” according to a Republican strategist who has worked for House and Senate leaders.
But the GOP strategist was also quick to note that any decision by the Justice Department to pursue criminal charges against Trump could end up boosting the former president’s standing among his supporters.
“He could rally his base and maybe even convince some independent voters that the Justice Department under Biden’s leadership is trying to undermine his candidacy,” the Republican told Insider.
For his part, Trump is already complaining on his MAGA-centric social media channel about how unfairly he’s being treated by the committee.
“It’s a one sided, highly partisan Witch Hunt,” Trump wrote on Social Truth. He also demanded equal time to plead his case on TV, even though he hasn’t officially declared that he’s running for anything.
Trump allies also contend that the former president is still in good shape to claim the 2024 Republican nomination if he wants it. They are particularly bullish given Biden’s low approval ratings and signs that the US may be heading toward a recession.
“Brandon is incumbent,” Sam Nunberg, who advised Trump’s 2016 campaign, texted Insider, using an anti-Biden nickname. “Anyone can run and win in this environment.”
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