The day after federal agents searched Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump told a group of conservative lawmakers that “being president was hell,” according to three people at the meeting.
But to some he sounded ready to have the job again.
“He was not to be deterred,” said Rep. Randy Weber of Texas, one of a dozen Republican House members who met with Trump on Aug. 9. He described Trump’s state of mind in the immediate aftermath of the search as “pretty miffed, but measured.”
Everything that’s occurred since that Bedminster, New Jersey, meeting — and since federal agents seized a trove of top secret and other highly classified documents from his resort — has put Trump exactly where he and his supporters want him to be, according to people close to him. He’s in a fight, squaring off with Washington institutions and a political establishment he says are out to get him, issues he brought up in the meeting with the lawmakers and in conversations with others.
Taken together, it’s reoriented Trump’s thinking about whether he should announce a presidential campaign before or after the midterm elections, according to those who have spoken with him over the past two weeks. They said Trump feels less pressure to announce early because viable challengers who might otherwise force his hand have faded into the background. But there are other reasons to wait.
Trump is now inclined to launch his candidacy after the November elections, in part to avoid blame should an early announcement undermine the GOP’s effort to win control of Congress, said one person close to him, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely. A post-midterm announcement would suit Republican leaders who’ve been urging Trump to hold off so that he doesn’t overshadow the party’s candidates.Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign and administration official, described Trump’s attitude in recent days after speaking with him, as “business as usual.”
“He’s already moved on. It’s business as usual for him,” he said.
Still, there are many in his orbit who believe Trump is shrugging off the legal issues too quickly, and that he’s front and center for the wrong reasons.
Two days after the Mar-a-Lago search, Trump invoked his right to avoid self-incrimination 440 times in a New York civil case targeting his business practices. On Monday, his longtime friend and onetime attorney Rudy Giuliani officially became a target of an unrelated criminal investigation into alleged attempts to interfere with the 2020 election results in Georgia. On Thursday, the Trump Organization’s former CFO pleaded guilty to tax fraud charges and is expected to testify against the former president’s eponymous business in a New York case. On the same day, federal prosecutors in open court raised the possibility of witness intimidation and obstruction of justice in its investigation into the sensitive documents stored at Mar-a-Lago to argue against unsealing the affidavit used to search his club.
The cascading revelations would typically crush any politician’s presidential hopes. But for Trump they have, at least for now, increased his resolve to run for president, while also giving him a paradoxical aura of calm, according to six people close to him who have spoken recently with him but requested anonymity to speak candidly because of the multiple investigations surrounding him.
They said Trump sounds buoyed by an uptick in fundraising when his political committee last week took in $1 million a day on two separate days, according to a Washington Post report confirmed by NBC News. Trump, sources said, also revels in surveys showing him widening a lead over Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida in a potential Republican primary. Trump has also been encouraged by focus groups that show his popularity surging among Republican voters offended by the FBI search of his home, one of the sources said. Another described him as “over the moon” on Tuesday night when his high-profile nemesis, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, lost her primary by a wide margin.
“Yes, we have problems. He’s aware of that,” a different Trump ally said. “But the fact is that he needs a fight to give him focus. He has that now. He has that sense he’s in the arena.”
Still, even some of Trump’s most ardent allies question how long his streak of fending off grievous threats can last. While Trump insists the investigations are “hoaxes,” polls show voters don’t think so, and some in his orbit are not nearly so sanguine.
One close Trump ally who hopes he’ll run in 2024 said the former president doesn’t seem to be aware of the perilous position he’s in, saying, “He may get closer to the prize but in reality, he’s slipping.”
“It seems like the net is surrounding him more and more, and his ability to dance around these things is going to get more challenging,” this ally said. “It’s a double-edged sword.”
Another person close to Trump voiced concern that the former president wasn’t taking the investigations seriously enough.
“Look, when I spoke to him it was kind of weird. It was like he didn’t really care about all of this going on or didn’t take it seriously,” this person said. “He thinks it’s all bulls---. I do, too. But bulls--- can still cause you problems.”
Those problems aren’t likely to soon go away. At the court hearing over unsealing the affidavit, a Justice Department official said the probe into the Mar-a-Lago records is still in the “early stages.” The investigation could end up shadowing Trump throughout the 2024 campaign, forcing him to fend off a federal inquiry backed by the U.S. government’s virtually unlimited resources.
Of all the potential legal threats Trump faces, though, some people close to him consider the most immediate to be the criminal investigation unfolding in Georgia, where local prosecutors are examining his alleged effort to overturn the state’s 2020 result. Giuliani spent six hours before a grand jury in Atlanta this week after being told he’s a “target” of the probe, something his lawyer confirmed to NBC News. Giuliani and his attorneys did not comment on his testimony, with his attorneys previously saying he would not answer questions that would violate attorney-client privilege. One attorney said the former New York City mayor “showed up” as required.
“Georgia is a much more serious investigation,” said the first person close to Trump who is familiar with his inclination to announce his 2024 plans after the midterms.
“I don’t care who you are,” the source added, “this takes a toll on you.”
For now, though, Trump seems to be consolidating Republican support since the unprecedented search at his home. In retrieving the records, the FBI tapped into deep-seated grievances among many Republicans that government institutions aren’t trustworthy and are persecuting their lone defender, multiple GOP operatives interviewed by NBC News said.
“I don’t think him being behind bars would stop him from winning the Republican nomination,” said Brendan Buck, a Republican consultant.
Sarah Longwell, a GOP strategist who conducts focus groups among swing voters, said for much of the summer they seemed to be drifting away from the former president. A common concern among voters was that he carried too much baggage and was destined to lose a general election, Longwell said, but that changed on Aug. 8 when the FBI arrived at Trump’s doorstep.
“The rally-around-Trump effect is real,” she said, while adding that “whether or not it sticks” is uncertain.
Elizabeth Preate Havey, chair of the Montgomery County Republican Committee in Pennsylvania, said the past two weeks “so far have energized the party” and that “even Republicans who don’t like Trump and don’t want him to be our nominee have taken this news with alarm.”
Trump is pointing to these same trend lines. He has mentioned to allies a Politico/Morning Consult poll that showed him with a 10-point bounce over DeSantis. (The poll was conducted in a single day after the Mar-a-Lago search, Aug. 10.) One source said Trump has also seen other survey data that shows he went from virtually tied against DeSantis in a multi-candidate 2024 field before the FBI search, to leading DeSantis 52% to 20% afterward.
Yet as Trump savors polling that shows his support among Republicans growing, he’s having trouble with independent voters, according to a new national online YouGov poll conducted for The Economist after the Mar-a-Lago search and released Wednesday.
Whenever Trump does announce his 2024 plans, one of his properties could wind up being the backdrop. Some venues that have been under discussion include Mar-a-Lago and the Trump National Doral golf club near Miami, according to people familiar with the matter.
An advantage of both is that they would send DeSantis a message: that Trump is unafraid to challenge the sitting Florida governor on his own turf. Staging the announcement at Mar-a-Lago would be “a direct shot at Ron DeSantis,” the first person close to Trump said.
Caputo, the former Trump administration official and campaign adviser, said he’s not sure if Trump will want Mar-a-Lago as an announcement spot, but he’s positive that Trump is now entirely unconcerned about a serious primary opponent if he runs in 2024.
“I know now he can raise as much money as he damn well pleases,” Caputo said. “There is no challenger.”