Donald Trump’s rivals and would-be contenders in the race for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination are road-testing all sorts of jabs against the former president, who leads in early polls of what is expected to be a crowded and raucous primary.
Something they don’t mention? Trump’s efforts to topple democracy and overturn the 2020 presidential election. The unprecedented attempt by an American president to reverse an election he lost, leading to the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has largely been memory-holed by top Republican Party officials who are trying to turn the page.
Establishment GOP figures are confidently predicting that Trump will fail to secure the nomination this time, but they’re doing little to make that a reality. Likely entrants into the race — and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the only major Republican to announce a run so far — are playing it safe with veiled digs about Trump’s age, while others are avoiding mentioning him at all. Many see a 2016 redo in the making.
The dynamic could change if indictments against Trump and his allies are announced by a grand jury in Georgia and the special counsel leading an investigation by the Justice Department. But for now, most of those opposing Trump are opting to keep their heads down.
“Trump is at his most effective when he has someone to fight. His constant goading of [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis shows how much he is spoiling for that. By not taking the bait, the announced and potential GOP candidates are denying Trump oxygen,” Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee communications director, told HuffPost.
Needlessly poking the bear this early in the primary could be one reason Trump rivals are loath to broach the subject. Another is fear of antagonizing the conspiracy-fueled Tucker Carlson wing of the GOP, which doesn’t believe the Jan. 6 riot was all that bad and is more interested in blaming U.S. Capitol Police officers over the incident.
Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, excoriated her ex-boss after the 2021 attack on Congress, predicting he would be “judged harshly by history” and that he wouldn’t be a viable candidate. The presidential contender is now silent on the matter and won’t identify any area where she disagrees with Trump. Her main argument boils down to the idea that the country deserves a new generation of leaders, in an appeal to some GOP voters who are tired of Trump. But there’s little evidence that Trump’s hold over the party has waned with a significant slice of the GOP electorate.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who appears to be ramping up for a potential presidential campaign, delivered a speech in Iowa this week focused on criticizing President Joe Biden and Democrats for policies he said are hurting the country. He, too, steered clear of Trump and any talk of the 2020 presidential election.
“I understand that President Biden likes to live in the past. I get it. He’s been in Washington for 50 years. But we need new leaders who will lift us up, not tear us down,” Scott said at an event in Des Moines.
Those in the 2024 GOP field have so far been more interested in talking about culture war issues that animate their base, like limiting discussion in schools about gender, criminalizing gender-affirming care for minors, and targeting transgender athletes. They’ve also been preoccupied with a nonexistent ban on gas stoves, spy balloons and/or UFOs, and bashing Biden over the disastrous trail derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
“I would have gone to East Palestine before I’d have gone to Kyiv,” former Vice President Mike Pence, another potential 2024 candidate, said in a Wednesday interview on Fox News after Biden’s surprise trip to Ukraine in support of democracy against Russian aggression.
Pence, who perhaps has the most to say about the Jan. 6 insurrection given that Trump put his life and his family at risk from Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol, has taken to yadda-yadda-yadda-ing the harrowing events whenever he discusses his time in the White House, choosing instead to focus on his administration’s accomplishments. He’s been forced to walk a delicate tightrope, applauding Trump for his politics, including the former president’s recent visit to East Palestine, while not backing down on his own decision to certify the 2020 presidential election.
Mike Pompeo, another possible presidential contender, has also taken veiled hits against Trump without mentioning his name. Pompeo, who served as Trump’s secretary of state and CIA director, seemingly argued that the former president shouldn’t win the GOP nomination not because he was the first president who sought to stay in power after losing an election, but because he won’t be able to serve more than four years in office.
“We all know the nature of the Washington … establishment. It’s going to take determined conservative leadership, certainly more than four years, to solve it,” Pompeo said at an event in New Hampshire last week.
Even moderate Republicans who have been most critical of Trump aren’t putting his attempts to subvert democratic norms front and center as they test the waters for potential 2024 campaigns. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who had harsh words for Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection, are now focused on making an electoral argument against the former president: that Trump’s toxic form of politics has cost their party in two successive elections, and that they can’t afford to lose another one.
“If you repeatedly lose to a really bad team,” Hogan said recently, referring to Democrats, “it’s time for new leadership. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
Sununu argued that Trump may be able to win the GOP nomination in 2024 but that he wouldn’t be able to win in a general election.
“Trump is going to be seen as a very extreme candidate. The country is going to push back against it,” the GOP governor said in an interview with ABC News earlier this month. “It can’t get done. He could get the nomination, but he can’t get [it] done.”
Democrats largely agreed with that sentiment, relishing the Catch-22 the Republican Party finds itself in. Newly revealed emails by Fox News executives and personalities expressing alarm in private about Trump’s lies during the 2020 election, but embracing them on television anyway, reflects the difficulty top GOP brass will have separating itself from the whims of the far-right in the 2024 presidential cycle.
“Trump’s rivals are just reading the room. For key segments of the Republican base that vote in primaries, Trump’s attacks on democracy are a feature ― not a bug,” said Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas. “This is the inevitable result of years of nonstop propaganda from right-wing media outlets and the wink and nods from supposedly more mainstream Republicans. Trump trying to rip up the Constitution would hurt him in a general election, but it helps him in a winner-take-all primary with a crowded field.”