As his days in office come to a close, President Donald Trump has hinted to those close to him that he’s worried his influence within Republican circles may be waning.
Fearful of party stalwarts growing comfortable crossing him, the president has pushed to keep up the pressure and plot possible revenge scenarios against potential turncoats, according to three people who spoke to him as he unwound at Mar-a-Lago and elsewhere over the holiday weekend.
“Why aren’t they just listening [to me]?” one of the sources recalled Trump asking during a diatribe against prominent GOPers who the president felt weren’t fighting for him on his current battle lines: from nullifying the 2020 election outcome, to torpedoing liability law for Big Tech, to sending out $2,000 checks for COVID-19 relief.
The comments came during Trump’s Christmas getaway in Florida this past weekend and for those who heard them they were some of the clearest indications to date that the president has reached an inflection point. Outwardly insistent that he was robbed of a re-election victory, he has privately groused that too many in his party are acknowledging the reality of his actual loss and showing signs of tiptoeing away from him.
At other points during the long Christmas weekend, the president continued bemoaning the perceived lack of fealty from various elected Republicans, the sources recounted. He rattled off names such as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (for being, in Trump’s estimation, a “wise guy”), and even his own VP, Mike Pence.
“He is keeping a running [mental] list of Republicans who he believes have wronged him since the election,” a source close to Trump said. “The president certainly wants it out there that he’s capable of holding a grudge, and that he has campaigned against [some] Republicans before and could do it again.”
Trump’s musings evoke a president at once eager to portray himself as mighty and tacitly fearful that his aura of political power may be breaking.
The president keeps insisting to his supporters that he could somehow still cling to that power—with President-elect Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration in Washington, D.C., fast approaching—through increasingly anti-democratic efforts to nullify the election results.
But privately, the president has begun losing faith in the work of even some of his most diehard surrogates and allied attorneys. Last week, Trump had informed the conspiracy theory-spouting lawyer (and former member of his legal team) Sidney Powell that he did not intend to appoint her “special counsel” to investigate election “fraud,” as the two of them had once discussed. And in recent days, he’s acknowledged to some confidants, with apparent disappointment, that Powell keeps “striking out” in court and overpromising but underdelivering in her crusade of wild allegations of a massive conspiracy, two people familiar with his admissions said.
As Trump and many of his MAGA devotees look to the Jan. 6 session in Congress for certifying the Electoral College vote as a potential last stand, the outgoing president’s already limited attention to the responsibilities of the office he holds has dwindled even further. Limited resources and attention are now being paid to even his primary objectives.
After weeks of trumpeting his administration’s coronavirus vaccine rollout as one of the crowning jewels of his time in office, Trump has tried this week to shovel as much guilt as possible onto the states for the slower-than-projected rollout. He has pushed publicly for Congress to pass $2,000 checks to Americans for COVID relief. But he’s done little to work Republicans on Capitol Hill to support the measure, save the occasional Twitter excoriation for potentially bucking him. Although his White House has gone to great lengths to pretend as if it is readying for a second term, members of his staff have quietly begun leaving.
Derek Kan, formerly a senior official at Trump’s Transportation Department and White House budget office, became one the latest to do so when he filed ethics exit paperwork this week noting that he’d left the administration on Dec. 5. A source familiar with his post-administration plans told The Daily Beast that Kan will be advising the investment firm Oaktree Capital. The ethics paperwork also indicates he’s lined up a gig with Deliverr, a San Francisco-based eCommerce fulfillment startup.
“Actions speak louder than words, and from what we’re seeing of staff leaving the White House and preparations others are making to leave, it’s sinking in what will happen on Jan. 20,” said Steven Groves, who served as a lawyer, and then spokesman, in the Trump White House. “Even though it appears President Trump knows this, he still knows how to command the press’ attention. But to me, as a conservative, any energy spent by the Republican Party at this time that is not directed at the Senate races in Georgia is misdirected.”
Individuals close to Trump and several of his senior aides say that in recent weeks, the president has struggled behind closed doors to hide his feelings of loss, frustration, and disappointment. Often, he has reverted to his old habits of sheltering himself from voices of mild dissent in his own ranks, ones who would tell him to let it go with even a modicum of grace.
Trump is determined to keep up appearances, attending various social functions and parties, where he is feted by the Trump faithful. And many of his friends insist that he is, whatever the contradictory evidence may be, not mad or losing heart.
On Sunday evening, Trump took a brief moment during a buffet feast at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach to reunite with his former political adviser Roger Stone, whom he had just pardoned the week prior. Stone said he was at the club that night as a guest of Christopher Ruddy, the Newsmax CEO and another Trump pal.
When asked about what Stone and the president discussed, Ruddy told The Daily Beast, “I don’t comment on any of the private dinners,” adding that the “president has seemed upbeat about things lately.”
In the midst of his building despondency, Trump is seizing on little, unexpected joys where he can find and get them. This week, Gallup announced that its public polling shows that Trump now ranks as the “Most Admired” man in the United States, ending his predecessor Barack Obama’s 12-year stretch as the most admired man. According to Gallup, that would make Obama “tied with Dwight Eisenhower for the most ever.”
The “Most Admired” man and woman surveys that Gallup conducts annually lean heavily on name recognition and national fame, and it is incredibly common that the sitting president, no matter who it is, emerges as a winner. Given that metric, it actually took Trump an unusually long time to topple Obama from the top spot, as the former Democratic president bested Trump for most of the years of the latter’s term.
To some presidents, that might come off as embarrassing. But not to Trump. According to a source with direct knowledge of the matter, soon after the president was informed of how he, in Trump’s own words, “beat Obama” this year, Trump specifically instructed aides to publicly promote it far and wide.
—With additional reporting by Lloyd Grove