When Donald Trump arrived in Florida one year ago to begrudgingly settle into his post-presidential life, he did not have a plan.
Staffers were making regular trips to Staples, trying to create a functional office for themselves and the former commander in chief at his Mar-a-Lago club. Allies were doling out conflicting advice — telling Trump to lie low until his impeachment trial concluded in the Senate or get out and aggressively defend himself. Aides who had been by his side for years suddenly disappeared as they weighed their next moves.
“It was a chaotic period,” recalled a person close to Trump when asked recently to describe the 45th President’s first few weeks of ostensible retirement. “What you see today — in terms of the political machine he is building — is a night and day difference from where we were 12 months ago.”
A lot has changed in the year since Trump left Washington. Though his presidency ended in disgrace, his endorsement remains one of the most coveted prizes in Republican primaries. His political apparatus, after sending cease-and-desist letters to three of the largest GOP fundraising outfits last March, has now amassed more than $100 million in cash and convinced the Republican National Committee — one of the letter recipients — to partially cover some of his personal legal bills. And Trump’s once-dysfunctional operation, which nearly blew up the Ohio US Senate primary with a premature and unvetted endorsement last spring, has become noticeably more organized in its assessment of candidates under the command of GOP campaign veteran Susie Wiles, who has ensured that Trump is briefed on the latest polling and field research before meeting with endorsement-seekers.
“Susie has helped give him a real sense of direction and order. The whole Trump family really respects her,” said Trump-aligned pollster Jim McLaughlin.
This account of Trump’s first year out of office and his plans for the midterm elections and beyond is based on interviews with more than 20 former and current aides, advisers and close friends of the 45th President, many of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about Trump or their interactions with him. With few exceptions, they described a former President who feels increasingly emboldened to remain in politics after watching top Republicans bend to his will despite his role in the January 6 insurrection and because of the myriad challenges President Joe Biden has faced during his first term so far.
One current Trump adviser said the former President was “still pretty dejected up until a few months ago, when his whole demeanor started changing the worse things became for Biden.” Only then, the adviser said, did Trump begin “seriously thinking about 2024 and what he needs to do this year so that he’s in a solid position for another campaign.”
Because of the changes to his post-presidential operation over the last year, many Republicans now view Trump as a crucial component to their midterm strategy — an exceedingly popular figure with the party’s base who can help drive turnout in November and launch certain candidates to front-runner status with his endorsement in crowded primaries. However, there is also a contingent of Republican figures who wish Trump would disappear into retirement, concerned that his outsized influence and meddling in primaries threatens both democracy and the GOP’s midterm chances.