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Trump's Mar-a-Lago 'Magapalooza': Boost allies, settle scores

GOP candidates for Congress, many recruited to challenge incumbents who have incurred Trump's wrath, will flock to Palm Beach on Wednesday for a fundraiser and forum.
Former President Donald Trump holds a rally on Jan. 15, 2022, in Florence, Ariz.
Former President Donald Trump holds a rally on Jan. 15 in Florence, Ariz.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

Donald Trump’s super PAC kicks off its first candidates' forum at his Mar-a-Lago club on Wednesday, a fundraising event designed to both celebrate the former president and elevate the congressional hopefuls he's promoting against Republicans he's deemed disloyal.

The event, closed to the press and called the "Take Back Congress Candidate Forum," promises to be different from the traditional format of candidates giving speeches one after another from a lectern, according to sources familiar with the agenda.

Instead, 10 sitting members of Congress and four Trump super PAC members will host panels or conduct one-on-one-interviews with the 13 congressional candidates scheduled to attend.

One of the event’s expected highlights: Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a top Trump ally in the House, is scheduled to interview congressional candidate Harriet Hageman, who was recruited by Trump and his allies to challenge Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.

Cheney earned Trump's enmity for voting to impeach him for inciting the deadly Capitol riot and then continuing to criticize him for lying about voter fraud in his loss to President Joe Biden. She also sits on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.

Another personal recruit of Trump's, former football star Herschel Walker, is scheduled to have what’s billed as a “fireside chat” about his Senate race in Georgia with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

And Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn plans to interview Adam Laxalt, a Trump ally running for Senate in Nevada.

But ultimately, those in Trump’s orbit know that the forum is about one likely candidate more than any other: Donald Trump.

For months, Trump has been laying the groundwork to run for president again in 2024, building staff, recruiting candidates loyal to him, attacking adversaries and raising so much money across three political committees that he began the year with $122 million in the bank. 

One of those committees is the “Make America Great Again, Again!” super PAC that's behind this forum.

The cost of admission ranges from $3,000 per individual for basic access to as much as $250,000 per couple for full VIP treatment and access. All the money is for the super PAC, not the candidates. Because he’s not an announced federal candidate, Trump has more latitude in raising and spending the money.

The forum takes place in Palm Beach just a day before the Conservative Political Action Conference kicks off in Orlando, about a three-hour drive away. Some of the speakers at Trump’s event, including Trump himself, plan to address CPAC and many more are likely to attend.

A spokesperson for the super PAC would not comment on Trump's invitation-only event. One source said it expects to draw at least 100 people.

"Trump is the most-influential post-president we’ve had in modern history. I’m not going to dance around that one. I absolutely think he is,” said Rep. Mike Waltz, adding he expects Trump to run for president again.

Waltz, R-Fla., is moderating a panel at the event that includes Ohio congressional candidate and former Trump aide Max Miller, who had filed to run against Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez in a primary.

Gonzalez, like Cheney, incurred Trump’s wrath for voting to impeach him after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Unlike Cheney, Gonzalez quit his race.

Three more Trump-endorsed candidates running against Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump over Jan. 6 will have a spot on stage: Loren Culp, who is challenging Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington state; former Housing and Urban Development official John Gibbs, who is challenging Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan; and Russell Fry, who is challenging Rep. Tom Rice of South Carolina.

Katie Arrington, who is attempting to primary Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., also has a spot. Mace didn’t vote to impeach Trump, but she voted to certify Biden’s election win.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski's Trump-backed challenger, Kelly Tshibaka, is also scheduled to attend. Murkowski voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trial.

The forum isn’t all about score-settling with Republicans. Some of the candidates scheduled to appear served in Trump’s administration, such as former State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, who is running for Congress in Tennessee, and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is running for a House seat in Montana.

A combat-decorated Green Beret who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, Waltz indicated his panel would focus on “the foreign policy tenets” of the modern Republican Party and help the candidates hone their message in light of Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering troops Monday into two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine after recognizing their independence. 

“It’s no coincidence that both invasions of Ukraine happened under the Obama administration and now under Biden,” he said, referring to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. "That's what I want to be talking about and really discuss that with the candidates as they head into campaign season."

Democrats have already begun pushing back on this line of GOP attack, pointing to Trump's public admiration of Putin and the events at the heart of his first impeachment: the delay of security assistance to Ukraine that House impeachment managers argued was an attempt to leverage the country into launching an investigation into Biden and his family, who at the time was Trump's most likely rival for the White House.

On Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, a fellow veteran and member of the Armed Services Committee, exchanged heated words on Twitter with Ric Grenell, a Trump super PAC board member and former acting director of National Intelligence.

“This guy advocated for reducing our military foot print in Germany and Europe to the benefit of Russia. Now he wants to play tough with Russia,” Gallego said on Twitter.

Grenell countered that the Trump administration wanted Europeans to pay more for their defense, adding that Democrats “let NATO go adrift by not demanding members pay up.”

Grenell is scheduled to speak Wednesday at Trump’s candidate forum along with fellow board member Matthew Whitaker, who served as acting attorney general under Trump.

Also on the agenda: super PAC member Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.; and the super PAC’s chair, former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who represented Trump during his first Senate impeachment trial. She replaced former Trump campaign aide Corey Lewandowski, who resigned his post as chair after a sexual harassment scandal last year.

A source familiar with the event planning who was not authorized to discuss the event publicly said that the forum format was Bondi’s idea and that “Trump loved it.”

“This probably won’t be the last time you see an event like this from Trump,” the source said. “It’s like Magapalooza One.”

The list of candidates scheduled to attend include: Katie Arrington, candidate for South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District; Ted Budd, candidate for U.S. Senate in North Carolina; Loren Culp, candidate for Washington state's 4th Congressional District; Russell Fry, candidate for South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District; John Gibbs, a former Housing and Urban Development official under Trump running to represent Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District; Harriet Hageman, candidate for Wyoming’s only congressional district; Adam Laxalt, candidate for U.S. Senate in Nevada; Max Miller, the former Trump White House aide and candidate for Ohio’s 13th Congressional District; Morgan Ortagus, a former State Department spokeswoman running to represent Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District; Kelly Tshibaka, candidate for U.S. Senate in Alaska; Derrick Van Orden, candidate for Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District; Herschel Walker, candidate for U.S. Senate in Georgia; Ryan Zinke, the former Interior Secretary running in Montana’s only congressional district.

The current Republican members of Congress set to attend include: Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana; Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida, Rep. Mike Carey of Ohio; Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio; Rep. Debbie Lesko of Arizona; Rep. Mary Miller of Illinois; Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida; Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee; Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas; and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

CORRECTION (Feb. 24, 4:00 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the number of House seats in Montana. Montana has two House seats, not one.