Donald Trump has formally launched his bid to return to the White House in 2024, even as he faces a criminal investigation into his efforts to overturn the last presidential election and just one week after voters largely rejected his chosen candidates in congressional midterms.
Standing Tuesday before a crowd of well-wishers in the ballroom at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida mansion, the former president promised to take on “globalist sellouts,” execute drug dealers and fight “radical-left lunatics.” Returning to familiar nationalistic themes, he painted a dark picture of the U.S. as a place overrun with violent foreigners.
“We will be paying a big price for the invasion into this country for years to come,” he said. “The blood-soaked streets of our once-great cities are cesspools of violent crime.”
The only U.S. president to have been impeached twice – once for fomenting the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol by his election-denying supporters and once for withholding military aid to Ukraine in exchange for help winning the election – Mr. Trump begins his campaign under a legal cloud.
In addition to the election-related investigation, the FBI is also probing his taking classified documents from the White House and hiding them at Mar-a-Lago. Either case could result in the first-ever indictment of a former president. Mr. Trump may be calculating that by getting into the race early, he makes it less likely Attorney-General Merrick Garland will court a political firestorm by charging a presidential contender.
The announcement was also overshadowed by Russia’s escalation of its attacks on Ukraine Tuesday and an explosion in NATO member Poland that may have come from a Russian missile, drawing a stark contrast between the U.S.’s heavy international engagement under President Joe Biden and the isolationism to which Mr. Trump promises to return.
Mr. Trump’s political capital is at a low ebb after last week’s midterm elections, in which candidates he backed failed to win key swing states, allowing Mr. Biden’s Democrats to defy predictions of a “red wave.”
Most of Mr. Trump’s acolytes pushed his lie that the 2020 election had been stolen – and some adopted his graphic language on immigration and abortion – allowing the Democrats to cast them as extremists, deflecting Republican attacks on inflation and crime.
The failures have opened the door to potential challenges for the Republican nomination. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who cruised to re-election last week, was one of the party’s few far-right figures to fare well, and is mulling a presidential bid. Moderate Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has hinted that he may also run. Mike Pence, Mr. Trump’s own former vice-president, is testing the waters on a book tour.
More broadly, the Republicans will have to reckon with what sort of party they want to be. Mr. Trump, for all his support among the base, lost the popular vote in both previous presidential runs and also watched the party twice lose Congress while he was in office.
“This should be a signal to Republicans: you lose elections when you nominate Donald Trump. You lose elections when you nominate Donald Trump-like candidates,” said Gunner Ramer, political director for the Republican Accountability Project, a conservative group that opposes Mr. Trump.
At times on Tuesday, Mr. Trump’s own energy seemed to ebb during his meandering, hour-long speech. At one point, as the former president wandered away from his prepared text to tell a lengthy anecdote, even Fox News cut away from his announcement.
If he were to win in 2024, Mr. Trump would be only the second U.S. president to receive a nonconsecutive term, after Grover Cleveland in 1892. He would also be the first person since Richard Nixon in 1968 to win his party’s nomination after previously losing an election. Mr. Biden said last week that it is his “intention” to run for a second term, but he would not make a final decision until next year.
In this year’s midterms, the Republicans blew a long list of winnable races in which Mr. Trump got them to nominate his picks over more moderate contenders. The Democrats held control of the Senate with victories in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Arizona and Nevada. They also dispatched Trump-like gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin, keeping election deniers away from the levers they would need to overturn future results.
Independent voters seem to have said, “it’s time to calm politics down, it’s just too loud, it’s too harsh and we need to get back to some sort of sanity again,” said Karen Fann, a Republican who is the outgoing president of Arizona’s state senate.
In that state, gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake enthusiastically embraced the former president’s style, running an aggressive campaign attacking election integrity and drag queens. But she lost to Katie Hobbs, a lesser-known Democrat who characterized the election as a choice between “sanity and chaos.” It was the first time since 1974 that Arizona Republicans have lost the majority of statewide races.
J. Miles Coleman of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, pointed to one metric that could be particularly foreboding for the Republicans: White, college-educated voters went for the Democrats by a margin of 54 to 46 per cent in exit polls, when in 2010 they had favoured Republicans, 60 per cent to 40 per cent.
Suburban voters don’t like “weird” candidates, he said, “and some of these Republicans’ messaging is weird.”