With Donald Trump, there is nothing new, only new iterations of old scams. In 2019, the legendary sports journalist Rick Reilly wrote a book about Trump’s apparent epic knack for cheating at golf, noting that a plaque at Trump International Golf Club at West Palm Beach listed Trump as having won the club golf championship three times—including in 1999, seemingly before the club had opened. At his New Jersey golf club, Reilly reported, Trump once declared himself the winner of the senior golf championship after playing the “winning” round at a different course, eighty-seven miles away.
This past Sunday, Trump repeated the feat, announcing that he had been victorious in his West Palm Beach club’s senior championship over the weekend, despite not playing in the first round. Trump had been in North Carolina that day, but apparently decided to give himself a lead in the tournament anyway by using a score he recorded before the tournament started. In revealing the “win” on his Truth Social social-media network, Trump cited it as proof of the exceptional “strength and stamina” he would bring back to “govern.”
This particular bit of absurdist disinformation on a platform that Trump has shorthanded to “TRUTH” struck me as the perfect representation of his so-far shambolic revenge candidacy: puffery combined with fakery and presented to the public with such incredible unseriousness that it’s all too easy to forget that he remains the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination. Maybe that’s why Facebook, like Twitter, announced this week that it has decided to reinstate an unrepentant Trump, two years after suspending him for spreading lies and misinformation about the 2020 election he lost.
But a front-runner he is, as a slew of recent polls confirm. In fact, while Trump prepares to begin campaigning in earnest more than two months after he announced he was running, with appearances scheduled this weekend in New Hampshire and South Carolina, no one is even running against him. On the long list of those said to be considering a Republican campaign are several of the many officials who cycled through Trump’s tumultuous Administration, including Mike Pence, his now estranged Vice-President; John Bolton, the third of his four national-security advisers and also very much estranged; Nikki Haley, his first ambassador to the United Nations, who has taken so many stances on Trump that it’s hard to remember where she has ended up; and Mike Pompeo, the former Secretary of State who was the only senior member of Trump’s national-security team to last all four years.
In surveys, none registers more than single digits when matched up against their former boss. In two polls out over the past week, Pence had six per cent support in one from Emerson College and seven per cent in another—the Harvard-Harris poll—while Haley had three per cent in both. Pompeo had one per cent, and Bolton did not register. The much touted governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, has been polling around thirty per cent this month among Republicans, well behind Trump, who is in the lead, at around fifty per cent. Despite the widespread belief in both parties since the G.O.P.’s underwhelming performance in the midterms that Trump’s star has been fading, not a single reputable national poll has shown him as anything other than ahead in the Republican race. And that’s assuming there is a genuinely competitive race—an increasingly open question, according to Politico, which reported this week that the G.O.P. field is “frozen” as would-be challengers hold off declaring—either because they have little chance of winning or because they fear becoming targets of Trump’s well-practiced ire. “As soon as someone pops their head up, Trump will be whacking on them,” observed Dave Carney, a veteran Republican operative who is advising Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas.
If this sounds familiar, it should: it was this same mix of self-serving rationalization and political impotence that led to Trump’s successful takeover of the Republican Party and fuelled his chaotic four-year tenure in the White House. Bullying, like lying to the public on Facebook and cheating at golf on your own golf course, works if you are allowed to get away with it again and again and again.
Instead, the dance of the enablers continues. Pence & Co. cannot seem to give it up. And so we all watch as these aspiring challengers from the upper ranks of Trump’s dysfunctional Administration contort themselves to avoid the unpleasant realities of their complicity in his excesses—while doing everything possible to remain favorably looked upon by his Republican superfans. It is one of the signal dynamics in G.O.P. politics today, though rarely acknowledged as such.
The former Vice-President is, of course, the best example of this phenomenon. He spent four years steering clear of even the slightest hint of disloyalty to the President, only to reluctantly break with him on January 6, 2021, when Trump demanded that he use his ceremonial role in Congress that day to unilaterally overturn the 2020 election results. For many months after January 6th, Pence hardly mentioned his act of defiance, though he eventually admitted to a breakup with Trump in his otherwise snoozy 2022 memoir, “So Help Me God.” “It didn’t end well,” he writes of their relationship, blaming Trump’s “reckless words” of incitement for nearly getting him killed, an indictment almost lost amid hundreds of pages of slavish praise for the inciter.
Pence’s account also offers, as such books invariably must in order to justify their seven-figure advances, a bit of backstage Trump in action. “You’re too honest,” Pence quotes Trump telling him in the days before January 6th, when Trump was trying to pressure his Vice-President to go ahead and refuse to certify the vote anyway. Too honest, indeed.
Of course, the Trump Administration is hardly the only one to have produced a shelf full of self-serving memoirs by career politicians like Pence. But it has produced a vast quantity of such tomes. My husband and co-author, Peter Baker, reckons that, while working on our recent history of Trump in the White House, “The Divider,” he read a hundred and twenty-five books about Trump and those around him, including nearly every account by those who worked directly in Trump’s orbit during his years in power.
Most, like the former Vice-President, take the route of simply avoiding unpleasant facts from the Trump years that do not fit with the story they want to tell. Which pretty much sums up the state of Republican discourse headed into the 2024 election cycle. At least Pence admits that January 6th happened, and that it was wrong.
In the latest example of the genre, Pompeo’s new memoir, “Never Give an Inch,” published this week, manages more or less to skip the catastrophic ending to the Trump Presidency, aside from offhand references to January 6th as “the mayhem at the Capitol” that “the Left wants to exploit for political advantage.” This is known, in my household, as “pulling a Kayleigh”—a feat of political contortion Peter and I have named in honor of Kayleigh McEnany, the Trump press secretary who managed to publish an entire 2021 memoir, “For Such a Time as This: My Faith Journey Through the White House and Beyond,” that never so much as mentions the insurrection at the Capitol. (In testimony to the House select committee investigating January 6th, the former White House official Sarah Matthews, McEnany’s deputy, said that McEnany was among several White House officials who urged Trump to call his supporters off their violent rampage but that Trump resisted the idea of including any mention of the word “peace.”)
Even more than McEnany, Pompeo was an internal skeptic of Trump’s campaign to overturn the 2020 results and deeply concerned about the former President’s volatile post-election behavior. According to reporting for our book, Pompeo rushed to the home of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley, when Trump fired Pompeo’s former West Point classmate, Mark Esper, as his Secretary of Defense after the election and warned that “the crazies” were in charge in the White House and the Pentagon. They also initiated regular 8 A.M. “land the plane” phone calls with Milley and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, hoping to get the country to a peaceful transition to the Biden Presidency. And he privately made it clear that he was opposed to Trump’s “rigged election” campaign. “He was totally against it,” a senior State Department official told us.