News Politics

Trump tests the boundaries of his strongman approach to politics

The news media spent much of this weekend poring over the intentions and influence of a strongman figure who has massed resources just waiting for his order to deploy and possibly reshape the world. Vladimir Putin and Ukraine? No, Donald Trump and the next two elections.

Both situations rely on a Foreign Policy 101 premise: Threat equals hostile intent plus capability. If you’re America, France’s nuclear arsenal isn’t a threat (capability but no intent), while keeping Iran from getting nukes is about preventing intent from acquiring capability. 

Putin has more than 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s doorstep, and he advances a distorted picture of the history between Moscow and Kyiv to justify a potential further invasion. Trump began the year with $122 million in political cash, and constantly repeats his “Big Lie” that he was cheated out of a second term.

The analogy is far from perfect. Trump is no Putin, much as he admires the Russian leader. But you could hear echoes of the intent-plus-capability equation through the weekend news media analysis of Trump’s current and future role in American politics.

On Sunday, my colleagues Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey looked at an aspect of the former president’s capability to grab the 2024 GOP nomination: His hold on the party, over which he wields unquestionably vast influence that is maybe waning.

“[C]lashes between Republican leaders and the candidates Trump has embracedhave been playing out across the country with growing ferocity in recent months, a chaotic sign that Trump’s once unchallenged hold on the party and rank-and-file supporters is waning, even if by degrees,” Mike and Josh wrote.

“The former president’s power within the party and his continued focus on personal grievances is increasingly questioned behind closed doors at Republican gatherings, according to interviews with more than a dozen prominent Republicans in Washington and across the country, including some Trump advisers. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity because there remains significant fear of attracting Trump’s public wrath.”

Now, the idea that lots of people say Trump’s sway over the GOP is weakening, but will only do so if they can stay anonymous to avoid his wrath, doesn’t exactly sound like his influence has collapsed.

The McConnell factor

Over at the New York Times, Jonathan Martin took a look at Trump resistance among some top Republicans, zeroing in on efforts by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and former president George W. Bush to enlist non-Trump-y candidates.

“As Mr. Trump works to retain his hold on the Republican Party, elevating a slate of friendly candidates in midterm elections, Mr. McConnell and his allies are quietly, desperately maneuvering to try to thwart him. The loose alliance, which was once thought of as the G.O.P. establishment, for months has been engaged in a high-stakes candidate recruitment campaign, full of phone calls, meetings, polling memos and promises of millions of dollars. It’s all aimed at recapturing the Senate majority, but the election also represents what could be Republicans’ last chance to reverse the spread of Trumpism before it fully consumes their party,” Jonathan wrote.

“Mr. McConnell for years pushed Mr. Trump’s agenda and only rarely opposed him in public. But the message that he delivers privately now is unsparing, if debatable: Mr. Trump is losing political altitude and need not be feared in a primary.”

As Jonathan noted, sitting senators have spurned Trump’s calls to repudiate McConnell. But enlisting Senate candidates isn’t going according to plan.

History doesn’t bode well for such behind-the-scene efforts to challenge Mr. Trump, and Mr. McConnell’s hard sell is so far yielding mixed results. The former president has rallied behind fewer far-right candidates than initially feared by the party’s old guard. Yet a handful of formidable contenders have spurned Mr. McConnell’s entreaties, declining to subject themselves to Mr. Trump’s wrath all for the chance to head to a bitterly divided Washington.”

Also over at the New York Times, Shane Goldmacher and Eric Lipton noted the definite upside of the will-he-won’t-he for Trump’s personal finances, as he broadens his empire in a way that “has thoroughly blurred the lines between his political ambitions and his business interests.”

Shane and Eric chronicled how Trump promotes his private merchandise at rallies and markets MAGA gear online. They also highlight how Trump’s political entities spend lavishly at his properties — in effect, fattening his wallet with political donations.

“In 2021, Mr. Trump’s political committees spent more than $600,000 on Trump properties for rent, meals, meeting expenses and hotel stays, records show. His PAC continued to make monthly $37,541.67 rent payments to Trump Tower Commercial LLC.”

The roughly $375,000 the PAC paid in Trump Tower rent was more than the total of $350,000 that Mr. Trump’s group donated to the scores of federal and state-level political candidates he endorsed in 2021,” they wrote.


President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin sit on their chairs at the beginning of a one-on-one meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. Now, both are testing the strongman approach to politics. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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