A group of Donald Trump’s former aides is preparing a turnkey administration for his return to the White House, as the embattled former president hints that he’s preparing to make a third run for the nation’s highest office.
America First Policy Institute, a nonprofit led by former Trump cabinet member and World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon, has essentially assembled a shadow government for Trump — or, potentially, any other Republican who takes the White House from Democrats in 2024.
The organization, based a short walk from the White House, is also developing policy proposals for an expected Republican-controlled House in November. The administration-in-waiting includes potential cabinet members, senior White House officials and even political appointees at federal agencies.
Trump is scheduled to headline an America First summit in Washington on July 26, his first return to the capital since he departed for Florida the morning of President Joe Biden’s inauguration. The former president has repeatedly suggested that he’s planning another run for the White House, even as polls show Republican voters are increasingly agitating for a new standard-bearer.
He could announce another White House run at any moment, according to people familiar with discussions among his team. There are two conflicting patterns of thought among those in his orbit.
Some favor an immediate announcement, to put down a marker against potential rivals, including Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. Announcing his candidacy might also draw attention from damaging revelations emerging from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection Trump instigated at the U.S. Capitol.
But others want to hold off on a formal announcement, allowing Trump to continue to raise money largely unfettered by federal regulations, hold rallies and defer staffing decisions necessitated by a full campaign.
Names in the early mix for possible roles should Trump make another successful White House run, according to people familiar with discussions, include: former acting director of national intelligence Ric Grenell or former national security advisor Robert O’Brien for Secretary of State; Kellyanne Conway or Brooke Rollins for chief of staff; John Ratcliffe for attorney general or secretary of Defense; Chad Wolf for Homeland Security secretary; and former National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow for Treasury secretary.
“It appears the only people who want President Trump more than the American people, is the media who find any excuse to run stories based on rumors and gossip. President Trump loves America and remains committed to advancing his America First agenda through 2022 and beyond,” Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said in response to a request for comment on this story.
A possible third bid for the White House is taking shape as hearings into the Capitol insurrection deliver fresh revelations about Trump’s conduct and prompt renewed calls for Republicans to seek an alternative to him.
And in recent weeks, Trump and billionaire Elon Musk, who has suggested he may vote Republican in the future and become more politically active, have engaged in a war of words.
The world’s richest man recently said that he would favor DeSantis in a 2024 presidential race. Musk also said that Trump is too old to be president again, that there was “too much drama” during his administration and called for Democrats to tamp down political attacks against the former president so that he doesn’t run again.
While America First’s work organizing a shadow government appears premature, as Republicans won’t even start voting in presidential primaries for another year and a half, it’s intended to help Trump or another GOP candidate avoid the missteps of his first presidential transition, when the candidate and his team were caught off-guard by his victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
A chaotic, two-month struggle ensued to assemble a White House staff and to fill roles at government agencies. Important vacancies remained across the administration well into Trump’s term as president.
“Our side has historically been woefully unprepared when it is our time to govern and to lead,” Rollins, the group’s president and chief executive officer and former director of the Domestic Policy Council in Trump’s White House, said in an interview.
“One of the key goals of the America First Policy Institute was that that would never happen again,” she said. “So, whether the next president’s name is Donald J. Trump or whether the next president is a different name, we will be there standing by ready to help and we’ve already begun preparations for that time.”
Last month, the organization announced that it had hired Michael Rigas, Trump’s former acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, a role akin to leading human resources for the federal government. His portfolio at America First includes putting together a blueprint the next Republican president can use to determine day-one executive actions and staffing at agencies.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is on the group’s board. Gingrich, known for the Republican “Contract with America” plan that’s credited with helping the party take control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, will have a discussion on stage with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy just before Trump speaks on July 26th.
The policies and issues that the organization is working on include inflation and energy, finishing Trump’s wall on the southern border as well as critical race theory.
America First’s staff is comprised of nine former Trump cabinet officials, 17 former senior White House staffers, 35 former senior-level administration officials and three former governors, including Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
The group is organized as a nonprofit research institute and isn’t required to disclose its donors. Established last year with the help of unidentified donors, it started off with 15 people and now has more than 150 people on its payroll with a current operating budget of $25 million, according to Rollins.
The group has had 28,000 individual donors so far, Rollins said, and aims to have a $30 million operating budget next year.
Save America, Trump’s leadership political action committee, gave America First $1 million in June 2021, among the PAC’s biggest donations. He hosted a fundraiser for the group in November at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
Rollins said that Trump was “all-in” on the group, “has been extremely supportive from day one” and that there’s an open line of communication between the nonprofit’s leadership and Trump’s team.
“But again, it’s so much bigger than just that relationship,” Rollins said. “It really is about the next round of governors and congressmen and senators and the new state legislatures in January of ‘23. And the new school board members that are being elected around the country.”
Yet while Republicans are strongly favored to take the House in November, the party’s prospects to gain a majority in the U.S. Senate are less certain, largely because of Trump’s elevation of candidates who may face challenges winning over voters in statewide races.
And while Biden’s sagging popularity is a drag on Democratic candidates, a July 12 New York Times/Siena College poll showed that he would lead Trump 44% to 41% in a potential 2024 rematch.
Biden this week expressed confidence he would win if they were to face each other again. He has said he plans to run for re-election, wording that leaves open the possibility he won’t.
The Times/Siena College poll found that 64 percent of Democrats would prefer Biden, who is 79, not run for a second term.
“I’m not predicting,” Biden said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 television after he was asked if he expects another race against the former president. “But I would not be disappointed.”
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