Donald Trump’s quixotic attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election has created a fissure within his own ranks, as top campaign officials and allied donors seek distance from a legal effort that they increasingly view as a pointless laughingstock.
The breakdown, sources with direct knowledge say, has been evident for some time just below the surface. Staff in leadership roles on the 2020 reelection campaign have disappeared from public view. Others, including campaign manager Bill Stepien, have had limited to no involvement in the legal campaign to challenge the vote results in key states, and have privately said they want nothing to do with it. And committees ostensibly tasked with ginning up support for the president have stayed conspicuously on the sidelines.
Increasingly, however, the disagreements are bursting into the open, with operatives, lawmakers, and money men saying they find no utility in what Trump is currently doing.
“The president is entitled to whatever legal defense he wants to have. I don’t think it’s going anywhere. But he’s entitled to it, and I am not going to contribute any funds to that. I will in fact plead with him to concentrate on Georgia’s Senate races and I’ll contribute to that,” businessman Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar, a Trump and GOP mega-donor who leads the Republican Hindu Coalition, said in an interview on Tuesday.
Kumar added, “I’m currently writing messages to Jared Kushner and the White House political apparatus there on this issue.” Though he said he firmly believes that the outgoing president “could come back with a vengeance in 2024” and “could get a landslide in 2024,” he called a recent press conference featuring Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani “a joke.”
“This is all,” Kumar said, “crazy, lunatic stuff.”
Kumar’s concerns are not the type of public utterance one would expect from a political party’s key players during a piqued battle over the presidency. But they reflect the confusion among the more established Trump figures about what the president’s ultimate end game is.
Various senior officials in the administration and 2020 Trump campaign have rolled their eyes at the legal and messaging blitz (while continuing to play along), top allies to the president are largely preparing for the post-Trump era and encouraging the White House to do the same.
While the campaign and the Republican National Committee have been in high-gear since election day, the president’s top independent political groups have largely sat out the fight. America First Action, Trump’s “official” super PAC, hasn’t purchased any television airtime to, say, pressure state officials to back the president’s position on supposedly widespread election fraud. Preserve America, a high-dollar super PAC created late in the campaign to support Trump’s reelection, also appears to be laying low.
“No idea why they’ve gone quiet,” said Foster Friess, a high-dollar Republican donor who chipped in $250,000 to America First this year. “Maybe they’ve run out of money.”
Last week, Stephen Moore, a campaign surrogate and outside economic adviser to the president, said the election was over, and that Trump should focus on making it as hard as possible for President-elect Joe Biden to undo his policies. On Monday, Axios quoted Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman, a prominent Trump confidant, as saying: “the outcome is very certain today, and the country should move on.”
Asked on Friday what the president should do between now and the inauguration, Art Laffer, a conservative economist who has directly advised Trump for years, told The Daily Beast, “I don’t know what he could do. What can he do?” In a statement strikingly unique among Trump’s advisers and allies, Laffer also reserved some high praise for Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and even stated an openness to working with them.
“If we are going to have a Democratic administration, I am glad we have a Biden-Harris one. I have no grudges against Harris or Biden. None. And Biden has handled himself honorably throughout his entire political career to my knowledge, and so has Harris,” he said. “She seems like a very cool person, and a very positive person. And so does Biden. Trump, of course, is my number one choice. He's done a fantastic job. But Harris and Biden are no AOC, [and] if any of Biden's people asked me to come in and talk about economic policy at the White House, I would certainly do it.”
Neither the Trump campaign nor Giuliani responded to requests for comment for this piece. But while their efforts may be bleeding prominent allies, there are those who still insist that there is merit to and support for them.
One Republican official familiar with the recount strategy said it was immaterial that big-name donors were non supportive since there had been massive grassroots money rolling in to fill the void. The source said that in the first few days following the election, The Trump Make America Great Again Committee—the joint fundraising account to which most of the money from these fundraising pitches—was getting “well over ten million dollars a day online.”
“I’m not aware of many folks beyond [campaign lawyer] Jenna [Ellis] and Rudy who think there is any path forward,” the source said. “But the base does.”
A clue for just how successful the money raising is going can be found elsewhere too. Initially, donations to the committee were being split between retiring campaign debt and funding recount efforts. But less than two weeks after election day, the committee changed that formula, redirecting the 60 percent of each donation that had initially gone towards paying down campaign debts to a new group called Save America—leaving the suggestion that the debt had been retired.
Save America is what’s called a leadership PAC, a vehicle that Trump can use to disburse money to political allies—and otherwise keep his political apparatus humming in advance of a potential 2024 comeback run. In a sign that it’s already looking past the 2020 election, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee once again adjusted donation allocations last week, upping the percentage of each contribution going to Save America from 60 percent to 75 percent.
It’s not the only sign of a softening stance on the state of Team Trump’s increasingly desperate efforts to cling to power. The Trump Make America Great Again Committee’s incessant “Election Defense Fund” fundraising emails have started hedging their language when it comes to allegations of widespread voter fraud. Ten such emails since last Tuesday say Trump’s legal team has “reportedly” uncovered mass voter fraud or that voting “reportedly took place after the Election was over.”
Even the true diehards have begun to notice.
“The big question is, do you have enough evidence to change enough votes and can you prove that with evidence so that the court will take up the case,” said former Rep. Jack Kingston, a Trump surrogate who seems, at times, like he’d rather endure invasive dental surgery than utter a bad word about the president. “I think they’re working diligently to get there. But I don’t think they’re there yet.”