How Donald Trump moved from a diminished former president to the Republican Party’s strong front-runner

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After years of bending Washington to his will with a single tweet, Trump was temporarily weakened. He was a one-term Republican president who was rejected by voters and then abandoned by major segments of his party after refusing to recognize his 2020 election setback, which resulted in an insurrection at the United States Capitol that sent lawmakers fleeing for their lives.
Some members of his Cabinet had pondered invoking the 25th Amendment, believing he was unqualified to continue in office. He was forbidden from using social media and became the first president to be impeached twice. When he left, Washington was still suffering from the violence perpetrated by his followers, resembling a security fortress with boarded-up stores and military vehicles on the streets.
Three years later, Trump is on the verge of a spectacular comeback. With overwhelming victories in the first two 2024 nominating elections and large polling leads in the states ahead, Trump is rapidly closing in on the Republican nominee. He is already the first nonincumbent Republican to win the party’s contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his victory margin in the Iowa caucus was the greatest in history. His prospects are anticipated to increase this week with a victory in Nevada’s Republican caucuses. Nikki Haley, his final major Republican competitor, will skip the caucuses in favor of a competing primary that offers no delegates.
Trump accomplished all of this while facing 91 criminal allegations ranging from mishandling highly confidential documents and conspiring to overthrow the 2020 election results, which he lost to Democrat Joe Biden, to paying off a porn star during his 2016 campaign. Trump is now facing a civil fraud case in New York, which threatens his control over much of his corporate empire, and he was recently sentenced to pay $83.3 million for defaming a woman for whom he had previously been found accountable for sexual abuse.

How Donald Trump moved from a diminished former president to the Republican Party’s strong front-runner

The story of how Trump became his party’s likely nominee for a third consecutive presidential election reminds us that there was an opportunity — however brief — for the GOP to go beyond him but did not. It demonstrates how little has been learned since 2016, as his critics once again fail to unite behind a clear alternative. And it reveals — with long-term repercussions for American democracy — how Trump and his team capitalised on his extraordinary legal problems, transforming what should have been an impenetrable barrier into a winning strategy.
“I think everybody got in the race thinking the Trump fever would break,” said senior Republican strategist Chip Saltsman, who led the campaign of one of Trump’s opponents. “And it did not break.” It became hotter.

Following a weak announcement about his 2024 bid a few months ago and a slow campaign start, the former president was greeted with a raucous welcome from people demanding answers after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed, resulting in evacuations and concerns about air and water contamination. Local officials briefed Trump, who then lambasted the federal reaction as a “betrayal” before stopping by a local McDonald’s.

“It kind of reminded people what it was they liked about Trump to begin with,” said senior campaign strategist Chris LaCivita. Trump, whose unexpected 2016 triumph was powered by furious white working-class supporters who believed the system had failed them, was once again positioning himself as an outsider against big business and Washington.

Biden did not visit at the time, which allowed Trump to draw a comparison. The president will visit East Palestine for the first time this month, accepting the mayor’s request to see firsthand how the cleanup and rehabilitation efforts are progressing.

The charges start rolling in.
If the derailment reminded Republican voters of why they liked Trump, a series of criminal prosecutions would strengthen their support for him. Ralph Reed, chair of the prominent Faith & Freedom Coalition and a presidential campaign veteran, was at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida for a charity brunch on the morning he was indicted as the first former president of the United States.

“You could feel the ground shift immediately,” Reed stated in a statement.

Instead of calling for Trump’s campaign to be suspended, Republicans responded with outrage. Trump depicted himself as a victim of a politicized criminal justice system intent on undermining his reelection prospects. Republicans quickly came to his defense.

Trump Showed GOP Voters Value Vibes Over Policy
How Donald Trump moved from a diminished former president to the Republican Party’s strong front-runner

His campaign received a torrent of small-dollar donations, raising $15.4 million in just two weeks. (When Trump was eventually arrested on racketeering charges in Georgia and became the first former president to have his mug shot taken, the campaign raised a record $4.18 million that day.) Trump’s associated super political action committee, which had previously struggled to gather funds, saw a comparable increase in contributions as Trump’s poll numbers improved.

For Republican voters, the increasing charges validated Trump’s publicly voiced claims that the system was rigged against him, prompting those who had considered other candidates to unite behind him.

It was “a reminder that, at the end of the day, they wear a red jersey, and Joe Biden and his henchmen wear a blue jersey,” according to Trump senior campaign strategist Jason Miller.

Michael Telesca, a former schoolteacher from Hickory, North Carolina, who quit his job to travel the Appalachian Trail, said last autumn that Trump’s indictments and other attacks had changed him from a regular Trump voter to a “ardent” supporter.

While he supported Trump’s objectives, he said he was more concerned with fighting the system that was persistently targeting him. A sizable portion of Republicans believe it’s time for someone else. Here’s the issue: If that happens, you’ve let the system win.”

The impact was immediate throughout rival campaigns, with candidates forced to defend their main opponent in order to avoid aligning with Democratic prosecutors or Biden’s Justice Department. As the indictments came in, Trump continued to dominate media coverage, depriving his competitors much-needed attention.

“It made him a victim, and nobody’s better at playing the victim than Donald Trump,” Reed went on to say.

Trump transformed his following bookings and court appearances into spectacles that became central to his campaign theme. Indeed, some weeks, he chose to spend more time in court than in early voting states. Trump’s campaign team praises his determination to face the charges head on with alleviating supporters’ fears about his electability.

“It was from that point on that it essentially had become impossible to beat Donald Trump in the Republican Party primary,” LaCivita said in a statement.

How Donald Trump moved from a diminished former president to the Republican Party’s strong front-runner

For months, the governor of Florida appeared to be Trump’s most formidable challenger for the Republican nomination.

Ron DeSantis, fresh off a landslide reelection victory in November 2022, was a rising conservative star and one of his party’s few bright lights in a tumultuous midterm election campaign. Some polls found that voters preferred him to Trump, who was being criticized for supporting radical candidates who cost Republicans winnable seats.

However, DeSantis elected to wait until May 2023 to open his campaign, giving the former president and his allies a six-month head start.

Trump’s senior aides advised him not to criticize DeSantis until later in the election. But Trump, rejecting their advice, responded with the derisive “DeSanctimonious” early on. Super PAC advertisements began in March of last year.

“We made a big bet,” stated MAGA Inc. CEO Taylor Budowich. “We decided to go after him early and define him before he could define himself.” That included spending millions of dollars on advertising criticizing DeSantis for earlier supporting Social Security cuts.

For some top Trump advisors, defeating DeSantis was personal. A few had previously worked for the governor, and several were disappointed by his conduct. Even those who departed on good terms knew his strengths and faults.

To contrast DeSantis’ awkward contacts with voters, Trump’s campaign began preparing photo opportunities at pizza restaurants and eateries featuring the former president socializing with his supporters.

Ridicule was also part of the plan, as evidenced by a notable “pudding fingers” MAGA Inc. ad that emphasized negative information about DeSantis’ eating habits, as well as allegations that DeSantis wore lift boots.

To counteract the governor’s momentum, the super PAC ran attack commercials on networks like CNN, attempting to reach out to more moderate voters who were considering voting for the governor.

“MAGA Inc’s national buys were targeted at national polls because that was the barometer of strength at that time — we were able to simultaneously drive down his standing in primary and general election polling,” he stated.

According to interviews with voters, those who were initially receptive to a Trump substitute eventually discovered they preferred the original.

“DeSantis, he can talk from here all day long,” said Gary Leffler, a general contractor from West Des Moines, Iowa, gesturing to his head. “Fact-wise, policy-wise, all this other stuff, he’s pretty solid.”

US Presidential Election 2024: The difficult path to Donald Trump's nomination
How Donald Trump moved from a diminished former president to the Republican Party’s strong front-runner

But Trump Leffler added, pressing his hand to his heart, “Talks from here. And DeSantis lacks that gear.”

McCarty’s Pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago
Rival campaign aides suggested Trump’s path to the 2024 GOP nomination began barely three weeks after the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021. That’s when Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader of the United States House, went to Mar-a-Lago and posed for a widely shared photo next to a beaming Trump at his most vulnerable.

Former US Rep. Liz Cheney, an ardent Republican critic of Trump, subsequently wrote in her book that McCarthy informed her that he had been summoned because Trump was despondent and didn’t eat. (Trump said he was truly agitated and “eating too much.”)

However, the normalization episode demonstrated that the GOP was unwilling to abandon Trump.

“I thought it was the kiss of death for McCarthy, the party, and the country,” said Mike DuHaime, a top advisor to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2024 presidential campaign, who is another Trump critic. “It breathed new life into Trump.”

Risky Bets That Paid Off
From the start, Trump acted like the front-runner, turning down invitations to multicandidate rallies and refusing to debate.

Trump’s absence drained viewers’ interest, leaving his lower-polling competitors fighting among other instead of him.

“You’ve got to give credit to the Trump campaign,” said Saltsman, who ran Vice President Mike Pence’s 2024 campaign. “They treated it like they were an incumbent running for reelection.”

Miller, Trump’s adviser, said staying out of the debates was part of a larger attempt to focus on Biden. Trump attacked the Democrat on the economy, the border, and wars in Europe and the Middle East.

The Endorsement Game
At the same time, Trump’s team worked tirelessly behind the scenes to secure endorsements that would demonstrate his continued domination of the party and the strength of his new campaign. It has been largely acclaimed as far more disciplined and professional than previous initiatives, which were marred by infighting.

Trump spent “hundreds and hundreds of hours” developing relationships, according to Brian Jack, a top campaign aide who oversaw the effort. Trump worked the phones, gave dinners, and encouraged officials to fly on his private plane.

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How Donald Trump moved from a diminished former president to the Republican Party’s strong front-runner

He also strategically weaponized the endorsements. In April, as DeSantis was making a well-publicized trip to Washington ahead of his projected campaign announcement, Trump’s campaign issued a list of new endorsements from Florida leaders. Later, before the New Hampshire primary, Trump mocked Haley, an ex-South Carolina governor and his U.N. ambassador, by flying in a group of South Carolina politicians who supported his campaign.

Marc Short, a senior advisor to Pence’s campaign, also cited Trump’s more than 200 midterm endorsements. While Trump had mixed results that November, he proved to be an effective kingmaker in GOP primary races that sometimes descended into loyalty wars.

“Everyone saw the candidates he endorsed in their primaries won their primaries, signaling to others that, ‘I better show my allegiance to Trump or I’m going to be in trouble,'” he added.

Aside from endorsements, Trump’s campaign collaborated closely with state parties to establish delegate allocation rules, pushing winner-take-all elections and other reforms that would eventually benefit a front-runner.

“We were closing doors to our opponents in the Republican nomination seven months ago before they even realized that was happening,” LaCivita said in a statement.

The Loyalty Factor
As the first nominating contests approached, Trump’s staff attempted to enlist the help of his devoted fans. The approach paid off especially well in Iowa, where extremely low temperatures reduced predicted caucus attendance by half.

fake Trump elector
How Donald Trump moved from a diminished former president to the Republican Party’s strong front-runner

Trump’s campaign gave its volunteers privileges like VIP seats to his rallies and gold-embroidered caps. Some, such as John Goodrich, who lives in suburban Des Moines and knocked on 300 doors, received personal phone calls expressing gratitude for their efforts.

“I was just thrilled,” Goodrich recalled about the caucus day call. Trump “was very thankful for the help” and inquired about his family and plans for the night. “It just made me feel good that he would turn to just someone who was more or less a door-to-door salesman for him to get my opinion.”

In Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump’s staff was also impressed with how DeSantis and Haley spent their time and money attacking one other, mostly sparing him.

In the end, DeSantis finished a distant second in Iowa, the state where he had placed his candidacy. He dropped out soon after. Haley, who finished second in New Hampshire, has committed to stay in the race until March, but her way ahead remains uncertain.

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