Trump and the pursuit of complete and total control

Endorsement from former president can be double-edged sword

Former President Donald Trump is looking to be the difference in several GOP primaries in 2022, Rothenberg writes.  (Caroline Brehamn/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former President Donald Trump is looking to be the difference in several GOP primaries in 2022, Rothenberg writes. (Caroline Brehamn/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 28, 2021 at 10:00am

Donald Trump didn’t win reelection in 2020, but he appears to have learned some lessons that would make him a more “effective” — and dangerous — president if he runs for and wins a second term in 2024.

Trump clearly regrets initially surrounding himself with people like Defense Secretary James Mattis, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and even Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

He found that too many of those Cabinet secretaries and senior officials were unwilling to jump at his command. Often, they ignored his instructions, hoping that he would forget what he ordered or simply change his mind.

Later in his term, Trump became more comfortable surrounding himself with “yes” men and ideologues who, like Trump, regarded limits on his authority as annoying technicalities to be ignored. Who cared about congressional Democrats’ subpoenas? So what if he didn’t fill vacant Cabinet slots and instead appointed “acting” secretaries who would do his bidding? 

Trump also learned that it’s good to have friends in Congress — and not only because their fawning behavior played into his narcissism.

He always wanted to be in control. Any criticism of him from within his party needed to be shut down. It didn’t matter that only a handful of Republicans thought his behavior was grounds for impeachment. Every vote against him was a personal affront, a score to be settled.

What mattered most to Trump wasn’t members’ position on issues, but rather whether they kowtowed to and flattered him.

Trump’s strength with his party’s base surely kept GOP members of Congress in line. Most of the hopefuls he endorsed in primaries won, and even those Republicans who seem to have the stature to stand up to him — like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn and current Senate Minority Whip John Thune — have taken the easy way out and avoided a public spat with him.

But as Sessions and former Vice President Mike Pence found out, no matter how early someone committed to Trump’s candidacy and how obsequious their behavior when they served him, Trump decides who is and who isn’t loyal.

Now, according to The Wall Street Journal, Trump seems to be fishing for someone to challenge McConnell as Senate Republican leader.

While even the most conservative GOP senators dismiss the possibility of McConnell being ousted as leader, Trump’s search for a challenger is a reminder that the former president’s priority when it comes to 2022 is on recruiting House and Senate candidates who reflect his style and agenda, and who place loyalty to Trump above all else — certainly above McConnell.

In North Carolina, where Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr is retiring, Rep. Ted Budd has already been endorsed by Trump, former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and the increasingly extreme Club for Growth.

But other conservatives, including Trump administration alumnus Mick Mulvaney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn, have endorsed former Rep. Mark Walker in the GOP primary.

Establishment Republicans in the state, including the retiring Burr, much prefer Pat McCrory, a onetime North Carolina governor and former Charlotte mayor, who would likely have the greatest statewide appeal. But conservatives find him too pragmatic, and McCrory may have burned bridges with the former president when he was critical of Trump for not accepting the 2020 election results.

In endorsing Budd, who voted against certifying the 2020 election in January, Trump said the congressman had his “complete and total endorsement.”

In Alaska, Trump endorsed Republican Kelly Tshibaka for Senate, calling her “MAGA all the way.” A former state official, Tshibaka is trying to derail the reelection bid of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who ran and won as a write-in candidate in 2010 after she lost the GOP primary.

Of course, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the pro-McConnell Senate Leadership Fund super PAC are strongly backing Murkowski, who was one of seven GOP senators to vote to convict Trump at his second impeachment trial.

In Pennsylvania, perhaps Democrats’ best Senate takeover opportunity in 2022, Trump has endorsed Sean Parnell, as have Donald Trump Jr. and Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson, one of the former president’s acolytes and previously a White House physician.

An Afghanistan veteran, Parnell lost a House bid for a western Pennsylvania district to Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb last fall. “Sean Parnell will always put America First. He has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” Trump said.  

In Georgia, the former president has endorsed former football star Herschel Walker, who may have some personal baggage to overcome, including his past diagnosis with dissociative identity disorder and reports that he threatened his ex-wife with a gun. As Politico has noted, McConnell has “warmed” to Walker’s candidacy after initials concerns about him as a general election nominee.

Trump has yet to endorse Senate candidates in Arizona or New Hampshire, two competitive states. But in the Granite State, he recently had some kind words for retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc. 

The GOP establishment in Washington and in New Hampshire has been urging sitting Gov. Chris Sununu to jump into the Senate race, in which he would be a narrow but clear favorite against Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan. Bolduc’s general election prospects would be more uncertain.

Of course, Trump endorsements can be a double-edged sword. While they generate support among the MAGA crowd, they make Trump part of the debate in each of those races, potentially turning off swing voters who find the former president repugnant.

But instead of letting the nominating process play out in each state, Trump has already picked some hopefuls, and he is likely to pick others up and down the ballot. Some picks will make it harder for the GOP to win some of those races, though that depends on how popular (or unpopular) President Joe Biden is next fall.

The problem is that Donald Trump is a megalomaniac, who wants complete control and total allegiance. And ultimately, that leaves little room for McConnell, or anyone else, to run the GOP.