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2024 Election

Trump frustrated with a powerful conservative group after its outreach to Ron DeSantis

People close to the former president say he's been frustrated with Turning Point USA and its founder Charlie Kirk, although the Trump campaign and Kirk say there's no rift.
Charlie Kirk speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference
Charlie Kirk speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md., in 2020.Michael Brochstein / Sipa USA via AP file

Few Republican groups have had as meteoric a rise as Turning Point USA.

Started in 2012 to energize young conservatives, the group has quickly grown to become a sort of quasi-party apparatus in its own right through organizing, holding rallies with prominent conservatives and, perhaps most importantly, tying itself closely to former President Donald Trump and his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.

But, like for many groups on the right, the past few months have been rough following the GOP’s underwhelming midterm performance. Some Republicans now question whether the group and its founder, Charlie Kirk, were overhyped, particularly after top-of-the-ticket losses for candidates it went all in for in Arizona, the state where it bases its operations and which it seeks to use as a testing ground.

A bigger problem for Kirk and Turning Point, however, is that they may be losing the confidence of their most important supporter: Trump. 

With the 2024 primary campaign heating up, multiple people close to Trump told NBC News that he and some around him are frustrated by Kirk’s overtures to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

A close Trump adviser who spoke with the former president just last week about the matter said that Trump has “been watching” Kirk’s relationship with DeSantis since Turning Point hosted rallies across the country last summer for high-profile GOP candidates with the Florida governor as the headliner. 

More recently, Trump noticed Kirk starting to ally himself with DeSantis in his effort to shake up the Republican National Committee, according to the adviser, who was not authorized to speak publicly. Kirk was vocal in wanting to oust the incumbent chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, who was originally handpicked by Trump for the job. 

DeSantis, on the other hand, publicly praised her challenger Harmeet Dhillon — who was boosted heavily by Kirk — in comments that made waves at the RNC’s winter meeting last month. And he made those remarks in an interview with Kirk. 

“Trump feels like he has made Charlie and Charlie’s ungrateful and [Trump’s] not been happy for a while,” the adviser said. “He’s like, ‘You call him and you tell him he’d be nothing without my son.’”

“I see that [Kirk’s] trying to cover all his bases,” the adviser continued. “Trying to triangulate between Trump and DeSantis. And Ron may not care, but Trump notices.”

I love President Trump and support him for 2024. All media drama is noise.

Turning Point USA Founder Charlie Kirk

Trump Jr., a close Kirk ally, pushed back on the notion of any discord.

“Few people in politics have been a stronger or more loyal ally to both my father and our entire family than Charlie,” Trump Jr. said in a statement. “I know my father appreciates Charlie’s early endorsement and all of us value his friendship. No amount of BS quotes from anonymous sources, who have no clue what they’re talking about, will ever change any of that.”

Other Kirk allies, as well as a spokesman for Trump, also disputed suggestions the relationship has frayed. 

“Charlie endorsed President Trump’s candidacy to be the next president of the United States, and he and Turning Point have always been great allies of the president,” Steven Cheung, Trump campaign spokesman, said in a statement.

Kirk, too, said all was well.

“I love President Trump and support him for 2024,” he said in a statement. “All media drama is noise.”

But a second person who remains in Trump’s political orbit and requested anonymity to speak openly on the matter was less rosy: “Trump world is very aware of what’s coming out of Turning Point.”

“Charlie and Turning Point were very close to Trump since the beginning,” this person said. “But the distance has grown since the beginning of 2022. And then you get to the end of 2022, there’s a coordinated effort for TPUSA to build that relationship with Ron. Why? Charlie wants to be next to the new shiny thing on the block.”

“Like so many others,” the person added, "there would be no Charlie Kirk without Donald Trump.”

A schism between Trump and one of his chief backers could have major implications in the 2024 Republican primary, which has started to heat up with the upcoming entrance of Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Trump’s escalation of his broadsides against DeSantis

Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC
Charlie Kirk sits for an interview during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., last year.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Turning Point figures to be a significant player in the 2024 primaries. The organization has experienced significant growth in recent years as Kirk and its leadership have sought to expand its core mission and become a greater force in the political landscape. As NBC News reported last year, the group enjoyed a financial windfall during the pandemic, according to tax records.

Kirk’s effort to unseat McDaniel culminated with the release of an interview with DeSantis just prior to the committee vote that looked as if it could help Dhillon get over the top. In that on-camera interview, DeSantis said the RNC needed “new blood,” giving Kirk and the pro-Dhillon camp a potential last-minute boost. McDaniel ultimately won by a 111-51 vote. Meanwhile, Kirk’s activism rattled some within the RNC, particularly after he sent out an email in December to members suggesting he would seek to have them replaced if they “so boldly reject listening to the grassroots.”

“If ignored, we will have the most stunted and muted Republican Party in the history of the conservative movement, the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations,” he wrote.

One Turning Point official noted Trump specifically stayed out of the RNC fight by not endorsing either candidate, opening the door to a broader outside effort to take down McDaniel. Kirk wanted to speak with DeSantis about his platform for higher education, but the conversation naturally turned to the RNC race with its prominence in the news cycle.

“Charlie and Trump have a very close relationship,” said this person, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “I don’t think it’s fair for the president to invite people to fight it out, for Charlie to get involved, and then for anybody to have their feelings hurt by that.”

The group largely sees itself as an organization that can bridge wings of the conservative movement that might gravitate more to Trump or DeSantis. Candidates like Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., who was backed by Turning Point’s political arm in a competitive primary and did events with both Trump and DeSantis, are signs of its success. 

But as the party underwhelmed at the ballot box last fall, so too did some prominent candidates Turning Point helped elevate within the party.

Already, the organization is undergoing some changes. As The Washington Post reported Wednesday, Turning Point’s political arm is splitting with the Students for Trump group, a conservative social media powerhouse in its own right. Meanwhile, Kirk and Turning Point officials have emphasized the need to cultivate early voting among GOP voters and mimic Democratic efforts to turn out voters after the large gains Republicans hoped for in the midterms failed to materialize.

“Not only did he very early and publicly come out and endorse Trump’s 2024 campaign, anyone at all familiar with Charlie’s close relationship with the entire Trump family knows that he’s 100% on the team,” one operative close to Trump’s orbit told NBC News. “Now, primaries get nasty. Obviously, Trump vs. DeSantis is going to get nasty in the primary. But no one expects every endorser to get into the mud.”

Turning Point and its network of affiliates have worked extensively to remake the Republican Party in Arizona, its base of operations, backing candidates up and down the ballot to mixed success last cycle, as the Post reported. Chiefly, its aim was to purge center-right conservatives aligned with GOP Sen. John McCain’s brand of politics and replace those officials with Republicans more closely aligned with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement. In the process, it sought to position itself as a political kingmaker in the state. 

“The state party and Turning Point were joined at the hip,” said former Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., who dropped out of last year’s primary for governor. “Everything they seemed to do, they did together.”

Though successful in defeating some candidates, including former state House Speaker Rusty Bowers in a GOP state Senate primary last summer, the group’s aligned candidates suffered defeats at the top of the ticket. The most notable loss was gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, who filled her campaign with former Turning Point employees.

Bowers described Turning Point as “kind of like Trump, very nihilistic,” adding the organization will “want to be able to take credit” in the 2024 GOP presidential primary no matter who wins.

“So they’ll be kissing up with different messages to each campaign,” he said. “And they have enough broadband in the social media context that they can come at it from different sources and say the same to each candidate, so that when whoever wins, they can say ‘our guy won.’”

But with the 2024 cycle gaining steam, Kirk and Turning Point could soon be at a crossroads.

“Trump is going to make them pick,” a Republican operative said. “And that decision will come from them sooner than later.”