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Can ‘America First’ exist without Trump? Conservatives are planning on it

Former President Trump
Former President Trump speaks at the America First Policy Institute’s summit on July 26 in Washington, D.C.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Hundreds of Donald Trump’s administration officials, White House aides and supporters in Congress gathered in a downtown D.C. hotel last month to lavish praise on the former president at a policy summit put on by a think tank promoting his agenda.

The two-day event, held by the America First Policy Institute, was a celebration of the Trump era. But in perhaps a tacit recognition of the uncertainty of Trump’s future, those at the summit stressed that his policies — and his legacy — could be carried on by someone else.

“The main goal [of the think tank] is so that the conservative policy movement … is ready when the next Republican administration comes in,” said Kellyanne Conway, a former senior White House advisor who chairs the institute’s Center for the American Child.

“It’s here to make sure his policy accomplishments, really the legacy of the Trump-Pence administration, is preserved and progressed.”

Trump is the early favorite in polling ahead of the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and his endorsement helped elevate candidates in competitive GOP primaries on Tuesday.

In Arizona, Trump-backed Senate candidate Blake Masters, a venture capitalist, has earned the Republican nomination, while gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, a former local TV anchor who has campaigned with the former president, is ahead in a race that is still too close to call.

And in Michigan, the former president’s favored candidate for governor, Tudor Dixon, will face off against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, while Rep. Pete Meijer, a Republican who voted for Trump’s impeachment, lost to John Gibbs, who worked in the Trump administration.

But the early victories aren’t stopping Republicans from trying to figure out how to hold on to Trump’s supporters while exploring the potential for a move away from the former president.

Some, like those in the Never Trump movement, have been explicit in their efforts to return to traditional conservatism since 2016. Others have tried to frame his presidency as the launch of a movement that can be separated from its leader and carried on by others.

Last year, several of Trump’s former White House aides and administration officials formed AFPI, which grew out of policy planning for his second term in office. The group has been called an “administration in waiting” and its leaders note that several of them were in the room when Trump made the biggest decisions of his presidency.

“I would say what the American people want are policies that improve their lives, regardless of race, religion, color, creed, and they had that under Donald Trump,” said Hogan Gidley, a former deputy White House press secretary who leads the institute’s Center of Election Integrity, which is pushing for more restrictive voter ID and absentee ballot laws. “And so, regardless of whether Donald Trump is a candidate or a kingmaker, I think that’s what the people want.”

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For his part, Trump appears to see himself as both. He is expected to announce his third presidential bid as soon as this fall, though some allies have urged him to wait until after the November midterm elections, and has also been strategically endorsing candidates in secretary of state and legislative races who would play key roles in administration of the next presidential election.

The GOP has always hoped it could “sweat out the Trump years and ... move on to somebody who reflected a more traditional understanding of conservative policy agenda,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and founder of the Republican Accountability Project, a political action committee that opposes candidates who promote the “Big Lie” pushed by Trump about the 2020 election.

In first post-Roe election test, voters keep abortion protections in Kansas. Former President Trump’s allies, including election deniers, win in Arizona and Michigan.

The question is whether voters will follow. Longwell has conducted nearly a dozen focus groups since the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack started holding hearings in June, and has found that more and more of Trump’s 2020 voters don’t want him to run in 2024.

Though they’re not watching the hearings and getting turned off by the former president, they worry about his electability, she said.

“They think he’s got too much baggage, they think too many people don’t like him,” Longwell said. “It’s not even about how they themselves feel.”

Trump’s return to Washington for the summit — his first visit since leaving office in January 2021 — came less than a week after the eighth public hearing held by the Jan. 6 committee, which has trained its focus on the former president’s role in inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol and his inaction after doing so.

Hours after Trump’s speech at the summit on July 26, the Washington Post reported that the Justice Department was investigating his actions involving the attack. Trump — along with several in his circle — is also being investigated by Fulton County Dist. Atty. Fani Willis for allegedly meddling in the 2020 Georgia election.

Beside his legal troubles, Trump is also facing potential challenges from a younger generation of conservatives with less baggage, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence, who is urging Republicans to look “forward” to future elections, and avoid relitigating the past. Longwell said Trump’s 2020 voters also mention Republican Govs. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Greg Abbott of Texas as possible 2024 contenders.

Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, said that “people are going to run for president regardless of what Trump does at this point.”

“For any Republican politician with ambitions, they have to run in 2024 or they may never get another chance,” he said. “Taking out Trump is risky, but in many ways Trump is a much weaker candidate now than he was in 2016, given everything that’s transpired over the last five years.”

As a nonprofit that cannot engage in political activity or endorse candidates, AFPI can’t explicitly back Trump, though the organization was founded on his ideals. Some of the people hired by the organization, however, have been critical of the former president and advocated for the party to move on.

In March 2021, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal co-wrote a Newsweek op-ed calling on Republicans to separate Trump from his policies.

“Many conservatives would not miss Trump, the man, if they could preserve the ideas that were making America great,” he wrote.

Despite the op-ed, Jindal was recruited by AFPI president Brooke Rollins, a former director of the White House domestic policy council under Trump, to lead the group’s Center for a Healthy America.

“It’s about promoting state bills, state legislation, as well as federal legislation, so whoever’s the Republican nominee in ’24, whoever’s the next Republican president, has these conservative policies they can work with, they can build on,” Jindal said at the summit after leading a panel on healthcare with members of Congress.

When asked if that nominee should be Trump, Jindal — one of more than a dozen Republicans who ran for president in 2016 — deflected.

“I think it’ll be time to focus on the presidential election after November,” he said. “Right now. I think every conservative, every Republican, should be focused on taking back the House and the Senate.”

Former Trump White House advisor Peter Navarro has publicly criticized AFPI for hiring staff who he believes are insufficiently loyal to the former president, going so far as to warn Trump not to speak at the summit, and arguing that the institute wants to break from him while capitalizing on the success of his movement.

“That may well be AFPI’s broader agenda: Hijack the political attractiveness of Trumpism but replace Trump with an AFPI-anointed RINO,” Navarro wrote in an op-ed for American Greatness, a conservative website.

AFPI staffers have countered by pointing to Trump’s support for the organization. In addition to his keynote, Trump’s Save America PAC gave the group $1 million last year.

At the same time, Trump appears committed to fighting to retain his role as the face of the America First movement.

In his keynote address at the summit, Trump weighed in on the question that will define the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination: Will his legal woes and actions on Jan. 6, 2021, make him unelectable?

He made a familiar promise to his acolytes, declaring that despite his enemies’ best efforts to silence him, he would have a second act in the White House.

“They want to damage you in any form, but they really want to damage me so I can no longer go back to work for you,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Trump told New York magazine last month that he’d already determined whether or not to run, and the only debate is over timing in announcing his decision. He said he believed an announcement before the midterms would discourage others from running, and potentially unleash a “backlash” against anyone who challenged him.

Most political observers agree an early announcement would harm Republicans’ efforts to keep voters focused on the Biden administration’s struggles.

“If Trump inserts himself into the final weeks of the election by announcing his candidacy, it muddies what should be a clear referendum,” Conant said. “I can’t think of a positive aspect to it.”

A Trump announcement ahead of the midterm elections would also be a “bonanza for Democrats,” said former Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, the chair of the Cornell University Institute of Politics and Global Affairs.

“If you look at the 2021 elections, where Republicans did very well in state and local elections, the Democratic strategy was to try and put Donald Trump on the ballot in those races,” he said. “People didn’t accept it, because he wasn’t on the ballot. But once he announces in 2022, he is absolutely on the ballot.”


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