Former President Donald Trump kicked off his 2024 White House bid with stops Saturday in New Hampshire and South Carolina, events in early-voting states marking the first campaign appearances since announcing his latest run more than two months ago.
“Together, we will complete the unfinished business of making America great again,” Trump said at an evening event in Columbia to introduce his South Carolina leadership team.
Trump and his allies hope the events in states with enormous power in selecting the nominee will offer a show of force behind the former president after a sluggish start to his campaign that left many questioning his commitment to running again.
“They said, `He’s not doing rallies, he’s not campaigning. Maybe he’s lost that step,”' Trump said at the New Hampshire GOP’s annual meeting in Salem, his first event.
But, he told the audience of party leaders, “I’m more angry now and I’m more committed now than I ever was.” In South Carolina, he further dismissed the speculation by saying that “we have huge rallies planned, bigger than ever before.”
While he has spent the months since he announced largely ensconced in his Florida club and at his nearby golf course, his aides insist they have been busy behind the scenes. His campaign opened a headquarters in Palm Beach, Florida, and has been hiring staff. And in recent weeks, backers have been reaching out to political operatives and elected officials to secure support for Trump at a critical point when other Republicans are preparing their own expected challenges.
In New Hampshire, Trump promoted his campaign agenda, including immigration and crime, and said his policies would be the opposite of President Joe Biden’s. He cited the Democrats’ move to change the election calendar, costing New Hampshire its leadoff primary spot, and accused Biden, a fifth-place finisher in New Hampshire in 2020, of “disgracefully trashing this beloved political tradition.”
“I hope you’re going to remember that during the general election,” Trump told party members. Trump himself twice won the primary, but lost the state each time to Democrats.
While Trump remains the only declared 2024 presidential candidate, potential challengers, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, are expected to get their campaign under way in the coming months.
After his South Carolina speech, Trump told The Associated Press in an interview that it would be “a great act of disloyalty” if DeSantis opposed him in the primary and took credit for the governor’s initial election.
“If he runs, that’s fine. I’m way up in the polls,” Trump said. “He’s going to have to do what he wants to do, but he may run. I do think it would be a great act of disloyalty because, you know, I got him in. He had no chance. His political life was over.”
He said he hasn’t spoken to DeSantis in a long time.
Trump, speaking about the footage of the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers, said it was “horrible” and that the attack “never should have happened.”
“I thought it was terrible. He was in such trouble. He was just being pummeled. Now that should never have happened,” Trump said in the interview Saturday, a day after authorities released footage of the attack on the 29-year-old Black man after a traffic stop. Nichols died three days later.
The comments were notable for Trump, who has a history of encouraging rough treatment of people in police custody. He was president during the racial justice protests that emerged in the summer of 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. At the time, he signed an executive order encouraging better police practices but failed to acknowledge systemic racial bias.
In his 2020 re-election bid, Trump ultimately centered his campaign around a “law and order” message that emphasized support for law enforcement.
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and several members of the state’s congressional delegation plan to attend Saturday’s event at the Statehouse. But Trump’s team has struggled to line up support from state lawmakers, even some who eagerly backed him during previous runs.
Trump’s team has struggled to line up support from South Carolina lawmakers, even some who eagerly backed him before. Some have said that more than a year out from primary balloting is too early to make endorsements or that they’ are waiting to see who else enters the race. Others have said it is time for the party to move past Trump to a new generation of leadership.
Dave Wilson, president of conservative Christian nonprofit Palmetto Family, said some conservative voters may have concerns about Trump’s recent comments that Republicans who opposed abortion without exceptions had cost the party in the November elections.
“It gives pause to some folks within the conservative ranks of the Republican Party as to whether or not we need the process to work itself out,” said Wilson, whose group hosted Pence for a speech in 2021.
But Gerri McDaniel, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, rejected the idea that voters were ready to move on from the former president. “Some of the media keep saying he’s losing his support. No, he’s not,” she said. “It’s only going to be greater than it was before because there are so many people who are angry about what’s happening in Washington.”
Republican state Rep. RJ May, vice chair of South Carolina’s state House Freedom Caucus, said he wasn’t going to attend Trump’s event because he was focused on that group’s legislative fight with the GOP caucus. He indicated that he was open to other candidates in the 2024 race.
“I think we’re going to have a very strong slate of candidates here in South Carolina,” said May, who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. He added, “I would 100% take a Donald Trump over Joe Biden.”
The South Carolina event, at a government building, surrounded by elected officials, is in some ways off-brand for a former reality television star who typically favours big rallies and has tried to cultivate an outsider image. But the reality is that Trump is a former president who is seeking to reclaim the White House by contrasting his time in office with the current administration.
Rallies are also expensive, and Trump, who is notoriously frugal, added new financial challenges when he deciding to begin his campaign in November – far earlier than many allies had urged. That leaves him subject to strict fundraising regulations and bars him from using his well-funded leadership PAC to pay for such events, which can cost several million dollars.
Officials expect Trump to speak in the second-floor lobby of the Statehouse, an opulent ceremonial area between the House and Senate chambers.
The venue has played host to some of South Carolina’s most notable political news moments, including Haley’s 2015 signing of a bill to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds and McMaster’s 2021 signing of legislation banning abortions in the state after around six weeks of pregnancy. The state Supreme Court recently ruled the abortion law unconstitutional, and McMaster has pledged to seek a rehearing.
Trump’s nascent campaign has already sparked controversy, most particularly when he had dinner with Holocaust-denying white nationalist Nick Fuentes and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who had made a series of antisemitic comments. Trump also was widely mocked for selling a series of digital trading cards that pictured him as a superhero, a cowboy and an astronaut, among others.
At the same time, he is the subject of a series of criminal investigations, including one into the discovery of hundreds of documents with classified markings at his Florida club and whether he obstructed justice by refusing to return them, as well as state and federal examinations of his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which he lost to Democrat Joe Biden.
Still, Trump remains the only announced 2024 candidate, and early polling shows he’s a favourite to win his party’s nomination.
Stepanek, who was required to remain neutral until his term as New Hampshire party chair ends at Saturday’s party meeting, dismissed the significance of Trump’s slow start, which campaign officials say accounts for time spent putting infrastructure in place for a national campaign.
In New Hampshire, he said, “there’s been a lot of anticipation, a lot of excitement” for Trump’s re-election. He said Trump’s most loyal supporters continue to stand behind him.
“You have a lot of people who weren’t with him in ‘15, ’16, then became Trumpers, then became never-Trumpers,” Stepanek said. “But the people who supported him in New Hampshire, who propelled him to his win in 2016 in the New Hampshire primary, they’re all still there, waiting for the president.”